With school plans for the fall focused less on reopening and more on resuming remote learning, the mixed experience with online instruction from the spring offers many lessons for how district leaders can better prepare for this next go around.
For Ryan Baker, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center of Learning Analytics, there is one thing in particular he’d like school leaders to keep in mind: providing better tech support for students and families.
“I was definitely the IT coordinator for my house,” says the father of three children ages 1, 9 and 11. “I definitely didn’t count on much tech support from my school district.”
Though fixing the Wi-Fi and troubleshooting other problems can certainly be an inconvenience, Baker considers his situation fortunate. Not all parents have the luxury of working from home, and many households lack sufficient technology to support their children’s online learning.
Baker’s experience was reflected in the results of a survey sent by BrightBytes, an education data company, from April to June 15. (ISTE, EdSurge’s parent organization, helped design the survey questions.) Nearly 50,000 students responded, along with 11,889 teachers, 33,182 parents and 580 school principals. The data was then sent to Baker’s team at UPenn for analysis. (Here is the full report.)
Designed to give school leaders a pulse check on their communities, the survey highlights opportunities, challenges and differences in perception when it comes to communications, connectivity, tech support and other components of the remote learning experience. Here are some of the highlights.
Uneven access to devices makes getting assignments a challenge.
About 1 in 5 students said it is “sometimes” or “never” easy to access assignments and classwork remotely. Not surprisingly, those who rely on cell phones to do so report having the hardest time.
Students in districts with high Title I funding, which largely serves low-income communities, also say they are less likely to have a school-provided device, and more likely to use their own computers or mobile phones.
Source (for all charts in article): BrightBytes survey
Such findings are not surprising to Baker, who notes that they reaffirm the existence of the “digital divide,” or unequal access to technology across different communities and socioeconomic backgrounds. In a separate survey from Upbeat, another education data company, teachers report that Black and Hispanic students from low-income communities were more likely to lack resources to support online learning, and thus less engaged with remote instruction.
Compounding the issue this spring was that demand for devices outpaced supply, delaying purchase orders and how quickly districts could send laptops to students. (The pandemic also impacted manufacturers and supply chains as well.)
Parents overestimate how often their students have a quiet place to work.
Having the technology necessary to access online learning opportunities isn’t enough. Different home environments also impact the remote educational experience. Space constraints, limited devices and bandwidth, and how many people are doing simultaneous video calls can make it difficult to connect or focus.
The survey found that students report being less likely than teachers to have a consistently quiet place to work. Furthermore, parents are much more likely to say that their children have a quiet environment than the students themselves.
“I think parents are often busy themselves with their own work, and not necessarily always attuned to their child’s learning environment,” says Baker.
Where possible, school leaders and teachers should consider scheduling modifications so that siblings in a home are not required to attend video calls at the same time. “Coordination between schools and parents can help to minimize simultaneous meetings,” suggest Bakers. But he acknowledges that “it can also be difficult to accommodate” each household’s schedule.
There’s tech support for teachers. For students, not so much.
Nearly 1 in 3 students report that they “sometimes” or “never” have access to tech support from their schools to resolve issues with their devices. Nearly 90 percent of teachers, and a similar number of parents, on the other hand, say they “usually” or “always” get help.
From Baker’s observations and own personal experience, providing tech troubleshooting for students at home has usually fallen on parents. That’s not surprising, especially when dealing with young children who may well need adult support. The sudden transition to remote learning likely stretched school resources thin, he notes. “School districts’ IT were never prepared for this to happen,” he says.
Some parents say they didn’t receive schedules and learning goals.
Nearly 25 percent of parents say their child’s school “sometimes” or “never” provided a schedule for students to follow for remote instruction. And nearly 30 percent responded similarly when asked whether they received clear expectations for how to support their child’s remote learning.
The lack of schedules and objectives was likely more a reflection of unpreparedness than anything intentional, says Baker. Realistically, more schools and districts improvised and tweaked instructional plans on the fly. With time to prepare over the summer, “there’s got to be more work done to improve communications with parents,” he hopes.
Teachers report overwhelmingly using their LMS—but few other educational technology programs.
More than 70 percent of teachers say they “always” use the learning management systems provided by their schools to teach, far surpassing other instructional delivery methods.
Most teachers are generally familiar with using learning management systems to communicate with their students, says Baker. And with the rapid shift to remote instruction, such tools are simple enough to use for tasks like sharing materials. “A lot of what we’ve seen are teachers posting assignments, and students submitting them via the LMS,” he says. More often, “they’re a place where teachers upload resources for students to read.”
What accounts for the low reported usage of other edtech software? “My sense is that a lot of teachers aren’t familiar with what’s available in their district,” Baker opines. “And these tools generally require some training and preparation to be used effectively.”
“It’s a shame,” he adds, “because some of these adaptive learning tools are powerful and can be useful in this new learning environment.”
But, Baker notes, without resolving issues that hinder access to the devices needed, many of these apps may not be used to their potential—if at all.