Part I in the series Remote Roundup, which examines the most widely reported issues related to remote learning and offers possible solutions. #remotelearning #onlinelearning #distancelearning #technology #theresacapra #teachingtips #Covid19
Here we are, a couple of weeks into remote learning, and already, there is so much to say. Experiences, reactions, struggles, and issues are circulating fast with many voices expressing frustration. Hitting the pause button for reflection early, and frequently, can help improve circumstances going forward, especially if remote learning lingers.
I have spent the last couple of weeks reading the literature that is emerging about remote, online, distance, and hybrid models. I also have personal experiences from the perspectives of an educator, a mentor of teacher candidates, and parent of remote learners in grades five and eight. Here, I offer the first part of a series of articles that will provide brief roundups synthesizing all of the above with some potential thoughts on solutions.
Issue #1: Technology Malfunction & Collapse
This is undoubtedly the most insidious enemy of remote learning at all levels and in all corners of the nation. Accordingly, it’s emerging as the biggest frustration for educators, and chief complaint for students and caregivers alike. Indeed, there are already some rough stories out there. For example, in Hartford, Connecticut a ransomware attack forced a full shut-down on the first day of school. Similarly, North Carolina encountered a regional hiccup when state-wide software failed on the first day. District servers from Seattle to Houston, all the way to Philadelphia have crashed down because of historic usage prompting schools to revisit reopening plans.
On a personal note, my local district in Marlboro, New Jersey just pulled the plug on the middle school hybrid model, which they invested enormous time to develop. Not because of the virus, but because of technology overload--the district server cannot handle the traffic so moving the approximately 1,000+ cohort of hybrid middle schoolers off the server (and at least 200 educators) to full remote frees up space for higher need, and younger students to continue hybrid.
For households, it’s a similar situation. Internet providers sell speeds and bandwidth up to a certain level, but they also throttle customers during peak times--those who pay more can expect better access, while customers like me, can expect lags and outages, especially with multiple classrooms running. Consequently, families are navigating bandwidth, Internet speed and reliability, in addition to adjusting to learning from home.
What can we do?
Unfortunately, institutional infrastructure is out of our hands. A failure to invest in technology or innovative pedagogies has rendered education incapable of adequately rising to the present-day challenge. Putting that aside, there are a few tech tricks to help, or revisit, if you’re maxed out at home.
Close all tabs and browsers down while conducting a synchronous video class. Additional tabs and multiple browsers open overwork the wireless signal.
Create a schedule of the video calls/classes for the household that require a steady connection. Prioritize and limit activity during those times. Internet calendars may just be the new thing for education!
Hard wire for the big classes. If your Wi-Fi hasn’t been cooperating, plug directly into the router for the strongest possible signal.
Issue #2: Wasted Time
Learning curves exacerbated by glitching and lagging, amounts to...wasted time. And so far it's pervasive. Some news outlets are reporting that remote learning is a ‘disaster.’ It might be unfair to paint all experiences with such a broad stroke at this point, but for young children it definitely is not working.
Increased screen time despite limited attention spans and undeveloped skills is translating to wasted time. However, research has demonstrated that enrolling young children in formal education before age seven does not lead to better outcomes, and can even be detrimental on some levels. Some of the most successful school systems in Europe such as Finland, base all education prior to age seven on play.
The picture is much different in the United States. The need to provide childcare for a fast-paced society, and the movement for increased rigor in elementary school, has led to an explosion of full-day early childhood centers with purported academics programs. However, the United States has failed to invest in education, especially early childhood, so quality varies drastically in these so-called academies. Moreover, early childhood development dictates that young children will not mesh with virtual classrooms (and many struggle in traditional ones). Thus, it might be time to revisit our approach to early childhood in the future.
For upper levels, instructors are doubling as tech support for the myriad of students who cannot join the synchronous video class or figure out audio/video. Even when web-conferencing tools are behaving and everyone is on board, time is still wasted because students must unmute to answer or ask a question, and teachers cannot effectively monitor chat rooms while delivering direct instruction. Students are finding new and creative ways to waste class time instead of the perennial nuisances such as talking, getting out of their seats, daydreaming, doodling, or sleeping.
For example, they are logging into platforms such as Zoom with inappropriate names, using their beloved pets as virtual sidekicks, or eating bowls of Cap'n Crunch (leaving said bowls in the basement). Whether it’s college or middle school, as long as classrooms exist, engagement will always be a challenge.
What can we do?
Of course the show must go on; formal course outlines, standardized exams, and grade-level, or discipline-specific content have always put teaching and learning in a pressure cooker, and now more than ever. Consider trying a couple of these on for size.
Extended planning. Build in cushion for such issues by reducing the goals and objectives for a lesson. Gradually shift displaced objectives to independent work, which is traditionally used for reinforcement, as students become more comfortable with autonomous learning.
Identify the students who struggle the most and attempt to mitigate outside of scheduled learning time.
Create synchronous classroom rules and put them on the syllabus. Revisit them if necessary. Consider how long the culture of physical classrooms has taken to evolve. From the early days when corporal punishment was the norm, to modern times when behaviors are quantified--educators have always sought ways to hold students accountable. Digital learning is the next frontier. Identify infractions and consequences for chronic violations (lateness, holding up a guinea pig during a lecture, etc.). Adapt the best practices from the traditional classroom to the virtual world. Time will tell!
Assign independent work during synchronous sessions so that you can work with small groups of students who may need additional support, or if everyone is feeling Zoomed out and could use a different format. At least experiment with various ways to deliver and assess the lessons.
Issue #3: Academic Integrity
Students cheat. Percentages of confessed cheaters vary, but some estimates go as high as 90%. In traditional classrooms and campus testing centers the go-to methods include: hidden notes, answers on body parts, trips to restrooms where answers are stashed, or the classic cheat off your neighbor. Today, wielding technology for nefarious purposes is the new menace (damn you Apple watch).
Just like people, cheaters adapt. Even worse, venture capitalism has led to the expansion of contract cheating companies selling unethical services ranging from taking exams to completing entire courses for students. File sharing is also becoming wide spread, while lock-down browsers and webcam surveillance, which claim to deter cheating, have raised issues related to privacy and student anxiety. As long as there are high-stakes exams and assessments, students will feel pressure to cheat.
What can we do?
Patrolling the dark web and underground rings is definitely not feasible, even though most educators are superheroes in disguise. If remote learning continues, unions may put pressure on policy makers to address this. But in the meantime, here are a couple of easy ideas that won't eliminate the issue all together, but may help mitigate the effects.
Adapt! Culture and tradition dictate that students demonstrate knowledge on multiple-choice exams, but evidence suggests that multiple-choice exams do not increase mental capacity. Experiment with deeper assessments, such as problem-based learning and portfolios, which can be time consuming, but can assess learning on personal levels making contract cheating and file sharing less effective. Consider adding at least one such assessment and giving it enough weight.
Create better exams. I use multiple-choice exams in my education survey course and now I’ve moved them out of the campus testing center into Blackboard. I time them. I prohibit backtracking, and randomize the questions, but the most effective deterrent is the analytical nature of the questions, which do not lend to Google searches. For example, we learn about Horace Mann, so a multiple-choice question may ask: which of the following educational policies would Mann most align with today? A full understanding of Mann’s educational beliefs as well as an understanding of modern policies (discussed in class) are required to identify the successful answer. Too much time would be required to track down the answer if one did not study, never mind all of the reading along the way to identify the correct answer (i.e. studying).
Remote learning is presenting many challenges and unfortunately, they’re all pressing down at once. As frustrating as it can be, the only solution is to keep moving forward and sharing ideas. If you have an issue you would like me to treat in Part II (coming soon), drop me a note!