Low Tech? No Problem. Here are 3 Alternative Ways to Help Distance Learning Happen.

Apr 09, 2020

One big barrier to sustaining education via remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic has been students’ unequal access to advanced technology tools. Laptops and internet connections are not available in every household, and even students who usually have such resources available may now find themselves competing for them with siblings or parents studying or working from home.

But educators who want to make sure they reach every student don’t have to resort to mailing printed worksheets. In between high-tech and no-tech solutions for remote instruction, there’s a lot of middle ground to cover.

Here are three alternative ideas for how to ensure students can learn from home when necessary.

Any Device Will Do

Americans have lots of consumer technology tools to choose from, and they haven’t all made the same selections. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center report, 96 percent of adults own a cell phone and 81 percent own a smartphone. About half own a tablet computer, while three-quarters own desktop or laptop computers.

Using learning material and platforms that are accessible on any device may help more students stay on track with schoolwork while they’re stuck at home. That’s the approach the College Board is taking this spring with its adapted AP exams. The tests will be device-agnostic, meaning students will be able to complete them at home using computers, tablets or mobile phones, or even write their responses by hand and take a photo of them to submit.

The emerging field of “mobile learning” aims to design materials and strategies that allow for effective instruction on an array of devices. Some techniques include communicating using text messaging; making cloud-based storage available to students who might not have much space available on their own devices; and designing materials for display on small screens.

For example, a philosophy professor at University of Notre Dame designed an introductory course that draws on “interactive digital essays” published on mobile-friendly web pages attached to the online syllabus, reports Inside Higher Ed. And some corporations have designed higher education and workforce training micro-courses intended for smartphones.

Of course, these programs may take significant time to develop. One idea for a quicker solution to help students work more effectively with smartphones or tablets may be to hook those devices up to relatively affordable external keyboards, which make typing easier.

Tapping Cell Signal

Remote learning depends not only on tools, but also on signals. And broadband Internet connections aren’t available everywhere, especially in rural parts of the U.S.

But cell service is pretty reliable in most places. That’s why it’s often the connection of choice for American Prison Data Systems, a company that provides correctional facilities with education tools that are free for incarcerated people to use.

“Cell companies have decided they need to make connectivity available everywhere,” says Arti Finn, co-founder of the organization. “We’ve seen a lot of instances on the prison side where folks use cellular because Wi-Fi is too expensive to install or can’t be done as quickly as they need it. There’s pretty great penetration, particularly in urban areas. And in rural areas, you can generally get connectivity.”

To take advantage of the near-ubiquity of cellular service, some school districts have recently distributed mobile hotspots to students. The devices use cell signals to transmit Wi-Fi to laptops.

But there are also tools available that run directly off of cell signals, like the tablets that American Prison Data Systems clients use. Getting this kind of device to students instead of laptops would not require them to have internet access.

“A cellular model works very, very well. It still allows for that interactive piece of it, and can deliver the same services, and you can still get data,” Finn says. “The only other thing I would say for school districts to think about is, it’s more expensive to do cellular. But thanks to government rates, you can do it almost as easily as with the Wi-Fi.”

Turning to Television

Nearly every U.S. home has a television—about 96 percent, according to recent Nielsen’s National Television Household Universe Estimates. That gave the superintendent of Los Angeles schools an idea for how to keep students connected to education in case the COVID-19 pandemic prompted school closures: Enlist the help of PBS.

Public media leaders decided swiftly that a partnership with the school system made sense. It fit with the mission of PBS, says Andrew Russell, president and CEO of PBS SoCal/KCET, and ample research has shown that educational TV helps children learn.

To find fitting educational shows to put on the air, representatives of Southern California stations worked quickly to dig through PBS LearningMedia libraries, which contain resources designed over the past decade for use in the classroom that coordinate with curriculum standards. Because students would be watching the shows at home without guidance from teachers, the stations created learning prompts and questions—similar to those found in textbooks—to run before and after shows.

LA schools did indeed close. And so multiple Southern California PBS stations are now broadcasting curricular programming all day long, some using time blocks for different age groups and others focusing exclusively on older or younger students. For example, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., high schoolers can tune into KCET for shows about language arts (“The Great American Read”), social studies (“African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross”) and science (“Rivers of Life: The Amazon”).

Viewership is up for each of the three stations, to differing degrees: 23 percent, 45 percent and 89 percent, respectively. The model has been adopted all throughout California, Russell says, and more than 80 stations in more than 30 states have requested assistance offering a similar service.

The TV solution isn’t perfect; for example, there isn’t as much programming available in Spanish as would be useful, Russell says. That’s on PBS’s list of needs to address, along with summer learning losses that might be exacerbated this year.

“We designed a good-enough service and are working on improving it,” Russell says.


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