Apr 20, 2020

Doing school online: plenty of tech tools, and a learning curve

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COVID-19 crashed into this semester, testing every school trying to keep learning on track.

A lot of America’s kids have now been learning exclusively online for more than a month, some with far more access to equipment, online teaching and internet access than others. On top of that, no school district, or even school, is doing things the same way. 

I spoke with Holli Plummer, who teaches English and history to ninth graders at a private school in Los Angeles. She said she’s in a luckiest-case scenario where the families have the resources to enable online learning. Now, she just has to translate her in-person classroom to an online classroom. Plummer told me that a lot of teachers are teaching each other how to teach. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Holli Plummer: I’ve really found for my students and for my class, what’s been most challenging is helping it feel as authentic and natural as it usually does. Ensuring that things like discussions and group work and those pieces in which students are asked to engage can feel natural, can feel like they are following a natural train of conversation. One of the big advantages, of course of video teaching, is I can mute all of my students, and that’s really helpful with ninth graders. It also means that people have to take time to come in at specific points. It’s a little harder for me to steer discussions and steer conversations and ensure that everybody is getting their voice heard and that the connections are being built, because there’s this built-in pause and gap between the start of the statement and then muting themselves, and then the next student unmuting themselves and muting themselves. Some of the magic of teaching where you’re pulling from lots of different kids’ ideas and helping them craft a larger idea, say on a whiteboard, is a little harder to do when you don’t have the opportunity to move around the room and have them engage with each other in that one-on-one way or in small groups. It’s just a little harder to get that authentic feel to synthesizing course information and synthesizing the material in a really advanced way. I don’t feel like we’re getting quite as deep into the larger thematic ideas, which is unfortunate.

Molly Wood: Are there parts that are working? You mentioned muting, which does seem very useful.

Plummer: Yes, it’s very useful. Those talkative kids, I can actually still see them talking. I just can’t hear them. It’s pretty funny. I would also say there are big advantages in that it’s helping the students listen more closely to one another than they might in a class. One person talking at a time allows them to listen more deeply to one another and allows them to take more time building on each other’s ideas. I do think in some ways that’s helping us push some of our content a little bit further. I’ve got a couple of students that, prior to this, were on my list of “How am I going to get student A to speak more? How am I getting student B to speak more and engage more,” who suddenly on a platform like this are super talkative, which is really unusual, and I’m not sure if it’s just for some reason for those students a bit more comfortable. That’s a benefit and a bonus, too. It’s been interesting that some of my overtalkers have stepped back some and some of my undertalkers have stepped up some. That’s a plus, I’d say.

Wood: Even in the luckiest-case scenario, it sounds like you’re saying the students will lose some learning. How does that start to play out broadly across the children of America this school year?

Plummer: I think next year our students are not going to start in the same place that they would normally. I think every classroom next year is going to have to reconceive their first unit, their first couple of units, as opportunities to find their way back or figure out what the gaps are, assess those and reintroduce ideas, or build ideas or build skill sets or concepts that the students had simply missed, because there’s only so much that can be done in makeup time or that can be done in a summer school setting. I do think the start of next year is going to be dramatically different than it would traditionally be because it’s going to take some time to figure out where everybody’s at.

Wood: What tools are you using? It sounds like you’re using Zoom, but have you incorporated any other new tech into your teaching?

Plummer: I’ve incorporated a little bit of new tech. We do a lot using tech as it is. I use Google Classroom and Google Drive. We do a gallery exhibition on World War II battles, usually in this unit, and I’m trying to find some online way to do it. We use predominantly NoodleTools and Screencastify, which is an excellent program that allows you to videotape yourself presenting. There’s a little corner, picture of you while presenting over slides or other pieces. We’re lucky that this is happening in this day and age where all of that’s available. I don’t know how it would have been 20 to 30 years ago.

Wood: That is pretty cool, though. What’s the resource sharing looking like? Are teachers all in the same Facebook group posting ideas?

Plummer: We are for sure resource sharing everywhere you turn. Teachers are pretty good at that just as a general rule. I’m part of a couple of different Facebook invitation-only groups that are about remote teaching and that are specific to everything from strategizing for new tools to strategizing when things have gone wrong. I’m seeing teachers from all over the world, and my own connections from all over the world, engaging with those sorts of questions, whether they’re art teachers or piano teachers or physics teachers, everybody’s asking the same questions.

Wood: Do you think there’s any possibility that in the future there will be a hybrid where some students are in class and some are at home?

Plummer: I think that’s complicated, because the research is 100% clear that online learning does not work as well. That said, we’ve never been tested like this. We’ve never been asked to really step into this space. We’ve never really been asked to challenge ourselves. Who knows if it could be so much better with a lot more practice. I don’t think we’re looking at going back next year and everything just runs like a school year. I think there’s going to possibly be some back and forth and in and out and different periods of isolation. Kids who’ve been exposed, or kids who have compromised immune systems, I think it’s going to have to be somewhat of a hybrid in my classroom next year. It seems really very possible.

As the stay-at-home rules remain in place, a lot of parents are balancing working from home and having their kids attend classes via online tools. (Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

A Northwest Evaluation Association study estimates students would retain maybe 70% of the reading gains they’d made in a normal school year and, at best, 50% of the gains in math — in some grades as much as a year behind in that subject. 

A New York Times editorial cited that study and research from Michigan State University that found that no state was even remotely prepared for a situation that involved teachers being unable to teach face to face, so coming up with solutions has been left to individual cities, school districts and, in some cases, at the classroom level. The thing is ed tech is a thing, but schools are very slow-turning ships without a lot of money. 

A TechCrunch article noted last week that of the $1.6 trillion spent on education every year in the United States, less than 5% is spent on education technology. It notes that investors think this is an area for startups to make a difference after the pandemic, although, as I mentioned, entrenchment runs deep in education. 

As a lot of states face budget shortfalls because of the economic impact of the quarantine, K-12 education will always be the first and easiest place to cut, which means that schools already hobbled by underfunding might end up with even fewer resources to spend on anything, let alone education tech. They’ll just be trying to catch up.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer