Covid-19: Reshaping learning for online classrooms

Above: Where we go to school. Photo by Igor Vetushko/DepositPhotos

BitDepth#1245 for April 16, 2020

Teaching is a challenging exercise at the best of times. Raised in a family of teachers, I began my education in the private preschool of my maternal grandparents. My paternal grandmother was a respected teacher, as was my uncle. My sister, Joanne Rivera, became a master teacher in English in Houston 16 years ago.

To get some perspective on this, I asked Rivera about her experiences over the last decade teaching online in Texas and an old friend, Joseph (name changed by request), about making the change to online teaching over the last three weeks. Both are Trinidadians who migrated more than two decades ago.

You need a Learning Management System (LMS), but you need a system first.

“Courses are delivered through two major platforms, Edgenuity and Schoology,” explained Rivera.

“Both LMS systems are capable of doing full-on course delivery independently, but both have limitations.”

“Edgenuity lacks the ability to conduct discussion board open-ended questions, so that’s where I customize the courses to meet the requirements of the state-mandated curriculum.”

“Zoom worked well, but we are now using Google Meet, and now they are thinking of going to Microsoft Teams.”

“Zoom is no longer a tool we can use and I had to switch to Google Meet,” explained Joseph, “that directive came in on the weekend.”

“Zoom worked well, but we are now using Google Meet, and now they are thinking of going to Microsoft Teams. It’s a security issue, but it’s all very annoying for me.”

Joseph is a  Special Education Teacher, Support Services, in the New York area.

This teaching role usually requires one-on-one coaching for students who are having difficulty understanding classwork and he works with students on a specific area of weakness. Teaching is determined by a student’s Individualised Education Programme, which is custom designed for every special education student.

“What works for me is live instruction, working through problems with the student,” Joseph said. “In the beginning, Zoom was fantastic for me.”

Delivering instruction.

Online learning systems will often mix synchronous or live teaching, and asynchronous systems, which use a combination of recorded video and audio along with supporting materials to deliver modules of instruction.

Schoology

“As a face-to-face teacher, I depended on various forms of feedback from my students to optimize learning,” Rivera said.

“This could range from eye contact and questioning to informal and formal assessments. I could adjust my classroom approach in real-time.”

The solution, she found, was to simplify and clarify.

“It’s in the front-loading, the planning and the ability to be in a process of continual change,” she said.

For Joseph, teaching has become an experience with different synergies.

“With live instruction, you are teaching in front of a parent and some of my colleagues really do not like it. I like it for exactly that reason.”

“In my programme, there is specific training to deliver the instruction. Sometimes you try to explain to parents the problems their child is having, but when they are right there, they can see the challenges.”

The resource challenge exists at both ends of the connection.

“Some parents struggle [with the technology],” Joseph said, “so I try to get an older sibling to get involved. If you have a grandparent who is caring for the child, it can be a problem. It’s not easy for older parents.”

“A lot of parents have multiple kids and only one device in the house. They are having to make a schedule.”

“Students can return to school through online learning,” Rivera said.

“So we have what we call veteran students. Some students have no training with computers. An online class sounds like a wonderful fix to the high school counsellor offering the student a chance to earn their diploma from home, it is, in reality, a nightmare for the online teacher.”

Joanne Rivera

Teaching Texas-style

Joanne Rivera is a teacher in Aldine ISD’s Online Learning Department located in the Professional Development Resource Center in Houston.

I work from this office 3 days a week. Two days a week I spend my time in the field troubleshooting and visiting the online labs throughout the high schools in the district.

During my time in the office, the courses are delivered through two major platforms Edgenuity and Schoology. Both LMS systems are capable of doing full-on course delivery independently, but both have limitations.

Edgenuity lacks the ability to conduct discussion board open-ended questions, so that’s where I customize the courses to meet the requirements of the state-mandated curriculum.

I use GoToMeeting as the medium to conduct synchronous virtual instruction to my students.

Working in a virtual environment is very different from working in a brick and mortar face to face environment. I think I can narrow the major difficulties to two major considerations. As a face to face teacher, I depended on various forms of feedback from my students to optimize learning.

This could range from eye contact and questioning to informal and formal assessments. I can adjust my classroom approach in real-time.

In online learning this adjustment is not as quick and this makes it a bit more challenging. The solution for this was in course design. Material needs to be presented in simple short bites. The reality is that students do not even read long emails.

Things need to be put in bold, presented in bulleted form, resource attachments need to be attached with links to exactly where students need to read it and sometimes in multiple places.

Examples of what the finished assignment needs to look like should be provided. Rubrics for grading and lots of engaging links to videos are all commonplace in the course building process.

In short, it’s in the front-loading, the planning and the ability to be in a process of continual change. For example, the course I use with 9th graders looks completely different from a course for 12th graders and the difference is not in the obvious content requirements, it’s in the course layout.

Students are listed as  dropouts if they do not earn a diploma; however, students can return to school through online learning. So we have what we call veteran students.

Some students have no training with computers. Therefore, while an online class sounds like a wonderful easy fix, to the high school counselor offering the student a chance to earn their diploma from home, it is, in reality, a nightmare for the online teacher.

Again, the solution rests in front-loading, here I add in basic information and assistance with course navigation to help these students. Although I have an introductory video for each course, I include a beginner’s guide to online learning. As with any teaching format, a quick initial assessment of student needs is key to the success of all students.

Some students have no training with computers. Therefore, while an online class sounds like a wonderful easy fix, it is, in reality, a nightmare for the online teacher..

I worked as an adjunct teacher in the online learning department before I actually made the complete move to virtual learning.

When I decided to go into it fully, I knew the new post would involve more than I was doing as an adjunct, so I got certified through the Texas Virtual Network.

That helped with course design and layout, but not the humanising of the virtual learning process. That was the biggest adjustment. How do I deliver the teacher-student contact that was the cornerstone of my success as a face to face teacher?

How do my students know that I care and more importantly, how do I build relationships with them? I have found that students can sense urgency through the tone of emails, and they can definitely read you through virtual conferencing and your voice over the phone.

Honestly, I do think I made any adjustment that I require from my students in my mind, so the motivation and the intense need for them to be successful carries through every email, virtual conference session, text or phone call.

Photo by Andrew Lozovyi/DepositPhotos

A Trini teacher in New York

Joseph (who requested anonymity) is a Trinidadian who migrated to New York three decades ago. He works as in a specialisation role as a Special Education Teacher Support Services in the New York area.

“Some students have individualized 1:1 instruction and some are seen in very small groups. During remote instruction most of my students are seen individually or in groups of 2 or 3 no more.” 

“The programme is governed by a student’s Individualised Education Programme, which is designed for every special education student.”

“I work off the student plan to address the deficits of students. I normally work with them in my office individually.”

“I’m certified to address students with deficits in reading and mathematics, basically anything on the curriculum.”

“My programme is successful because of the one-on-one, which is a minimum of 180 minutes per week, though some students get more than that, depending on how difficult their situation is.”

“Teachers had to learn how to use Google Classroom, and they will usually upload videos for the students.”

“My training does not allow me to send an assignment and let your parents work with you guided by the videos. Giving you a page to complete is not going to work for me.”

“What works for me is live instruction, working through problems with the student. In the beginning, Zoom was fantastic for me.”

“All teachers are instructed to allow their boss into the teaching link and I like that. Some teachers don’t, because it feels like you are teaching with someone looking over your shoulder.”

“With live instruction, you are teaching in front of a parent and some of my colleagues really do not like it. I like it for exactly that reason. For some parents it’s a revelation to see their children struggle with the problems and come to an understanding of the real learning difficulties that they are experiencing. I see the flip side of this. I see the advantages.”

“I like that they are there. In my programme there is specific training to deliver the instruction. Sometimes you try to explain to parents the problems their child is having, but when they are right there, they can see the challenges and they begin to understand.”

“I have multiple classrooms with students from third grade to fifth grade, some have one student, some have two.”

“There were no guidelines given [for the school closures, which were done over 48 hours]. Frankly, I suspect that people who do my job have been forgotten. Speech teachers and speech therapists do teletherapy, which works for them.”

“Zoom is no longer a tool we can use and I had to switch to Google Meet. That directive came in on the weekend.”

“The Department of Education has given guidelines on how long children in elementary school can be on a computer, no more than two hours a day.”

“Zoom worked well, but we are using Google Meet, and now they are thinking of going to Microsoft Teams. It’s a security issue, but it’s all very annoying for me.”

“I tell my parents that it’s an evolving situation and we have to be adaptable. Some parents struggle, so I try to get an older sibling to get involved. If you have a grandparent who is caring for the child, it can be a problem. It’s not easy for older parents.”

“We had to come up with a plan, learn how to use Google Classroom, we had to contact every child’s parents and to get contact information for all of them. In two days. We had to get ready to go live on the Monday.

“It is much easier to go to work and teach than it is to do this.”

“I had to replicate certain things to make sure that I had what I needed at home. So I had to pay for that. If parents needed technology, there was a process for that. As I understand it, all the parents who needed the tech got it.”

“I was teaching six sessions a day, but I realised I had to rethink my schedule.”

“As things continue, I am beginning to realise I have to slow down, because I don’t want to go through all the material I gave the students when they came in to collect it.”

“When we had to get ready to go live it was like being asked to build a plane and fly it at the same time.”

“The Department of Education has given guidelines on how long children in elementary school can be on a computer, no more than two hours a day.”

“I am always on. It’s exhausting. It’s five grades and twelve children and I also have team meetings with my boss.

“Then, I have to input what I did with each student into a system every day.”

“I have a friend who is an art teacher who has 500 kids and she was on from six in the morning until five in the evening.”

“We are finding that we are working too hard. We are having to reduce the amount we are doing.”

“I will not work on the weekend. I will not work after four. After my final session, I have to do the input on what’s been done. We are working for our money.”

“The idea seems to be that keeping the schools going maintains a semblance of normalcy, it keeps the children occupied and they won’t go outside.”

“Many parents have multiple kids and only one device in the house. They are having to make a schedule. We are also asking parents to be teachers too. And they are not, they are not teachers.”

“Most of my friends who I’ve talked to agree that it’s easier to just go to work. The good news is that my kids love this. For them, technology is a piece of cake. They are on the device waiting for me when I connect.”