As educators across the United States grapple with the new reality facing them and their students as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, many are being advised to implement digital learning—some for the first time.
Whether teachers have done this before or not, it’s new territory for everyone. An e-learning day or two during a snowstorm last winter does not amount to what the education field is facing right now: prolonged, indefinite school closures enforced with hardly a moment’s notice.
Even Stacey Schmidt, superintendent of Porter Township School Corporation in Indiana, which has been holding e-learning days every year for over 10 years, said her district is trying to figure out what this will look like over a longer time period.
During a cold stretch last year in Indiana, Schmidt’s district held “extended e-learning,” but even that only amounted to about a week, she explained during a recent webinar hosted by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), a nonprofit member organization that supports the use of technology in teaching and learning.
“This is totally different,” she says of the widespread closures caused by the new coronavirus. “We do not have this addressed.”
Nevertheless, Schmidt is better poised than many to tackle this new challenge, and she used the online event as an opportunity to share her experience and advice with the educators listening in—and there were many. In total, the attendees numbered nearly 1,300, and while most are affiliated with schools in the U.S., others tuned in from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Lebanon, Paraguay and Peru, among other countries.
Schmidt and Candice Dodson, the executive director of SETDA and a longtime educator and digital learning advocate in Indiana, both acknowledged that online learning typically requires ample preparation, training, troubleshooting and community buy-in. But this is not a typical situation. (Some educators have suggested new terms, such as remote delivery of instruction and emergency online instruction, to distinguish it from traditional online learning.)
For educators just getting started, Schmidt acknowledged that the by-the-book preparation and implementation is no longer an option. “Folks are going to have to forego some of those … ideal things for getting started,” she said.
Instead, she stressed that educators be forgiving of themselves and their students. As far as advice, she offered some key priorities for decision-making:
Decide where you will host your content. Is it a class website? Google Classroom (a free option)? The school’s learning management system? Whatever it is, she says, try to pick just one place to house the content, as consistency is critical during a time already filled with confusion.
Consider building in professional development. Teachers may not be properly trained and equipped to use the tools and carry out the tasks that are being asked of them. Is there a way to offer support to them—technical or otherwise—during this transition?
“You don’t need to be perfect.” More important than the content teachers are putting out for their students is the heart and passion that they put into it, Schmidt says. Record a video from your phone—maybe it’s a low-quality iPhone video of you speaking into the camera, but “kids are going to see you and love that.”
Be nimble, and make changes along the way. Again, don’t expect perfection. Try your best, do what you can and be willing to evolve. Ask your students how it’s going for them, and incorporate their feedback. “This is a project that grows and develops over time,” Schmidt explains.
Dodson reiterated Schmidt’s point that “it doesn’t have to be perfect.”
“Read to students over a recording,” she suggested. “Turn that phone on just to reassure your students. That is really helpful.”
Teachers should also lean on each other for support whenever possible. “Remember you’re not in this alone. If you can, even virtually, grab some of your other teachers and make a team,” Dodson said.
Also, she advised schools to create a simple schedule to share with families. That can include office hours where teachers make themselves available at certain times and set boundaries for the rest.
Many high-quality resources are free and easily available, too, Dodson said. Some of the most highly regarded museums in the world offer virtual tours of their exhibits. Other institutions have adapted their offerings to serve children in light of COVID-19, such as the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, which is closed to the public due to the pandemic but is holding lessons at 3 p.m. EDT every day focused on a different zoo animal.
“Don’t feel like you have to do it all,” Dodson said. “And don’t do it alone.”
“You’re going to be building it as you go,” Schmidt added.
Both noted that, at this juncture, what families and students likely need the most is communication and assurance.
“We’ve got to prioritize that relational side of learning right now,” Schmidt said. “As much as you can, touch your kids virtually with social interactions. They need it right now. There’s so much anxiety.”
To that end, they advised educators not to forget to turn to social-emotional learning resources available, and to check in frequently with how their kids are coping with the abrupt and dramatic changes.
“This is a rough time, but it also has the possibility to really change teaching and learning,” Dodson said. “I’m going to concentrate on the good of what’s coming out of all of this: the sense of community.”