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Ask Educators: The Challenges of the Abrupt Shift to Online Learning

“There was a learning curve in terms of finding what tools I needed to achieve class objectives, but once I did find them, these tools really lent themselves to multi-tiered group work.”

David Davies, Professor of Anthropology at Hamline University

Nearly 1.1 billion learners across the globe have been affected by school closures as of June 2020, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These statistics include learners in pre-primary, primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education, demonstrating the widespread impact of closures across the education industry. As a result, educators have been forced to seek online solutions in lieu of their usual in-person classes.

Remote learning is a great way for students of all ages to access educational opportunities around the world. With the novel coronavirus pandemic and the resulting country shutdowns to mitigate the spread of the virus, the demand for remote learning tools has exploded—popular platforms for distance learning include Google Classroom, Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle and Zoom, in addition to massive online open course (MOOC) platforms and other subject-specific online educational websites.

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, education technology was already seeing high growth and adoption, with global edtech investments reaching $18.66 billion in 2019 and the overall market for online education projected to reach $350 billion by 2025. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, online tools like video conferencing, language apps, virtual tutoring and online learning software have seen a significant boom in usage, according to the World Economic Forum.

We talked to educators teaching online classes in the fallout of the pandemic to find out about the learning curve for brick-and-mortar institutions shifting to the remote learning model, as well as challenges students and families face in pursuing education from home.

How Have Brick-and-Mortar Classes Moved Online?

Online education tools have become a critical resource as education providers turn to the edtech industry to connect and communicate with students in the wake of school closures and stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19.

As of April 2020, 98 percent of U.S. higher education institutions have moved the majority of their in-person courses online to support the 22.3 million students impacted by nationwide stay-at-home orders. Primary and secondary schools followed suit, with school districts creating and implementing plans to support students with distance learning through the pandemic.

Many educational institutions, such as the University of Washington, Hamline University, and the University of California system connect with students online using learning management platform Canvas. Some higher education institutions, such as the University of Southern California and the University of Central Florida, leverage Blackboard, while others, like Montana State University and Vassar College instead use the open-source learning platform, Moodle. Canvas, Blackboard and Moodle also offer K-12-specific learning platforms, though many primary and secondary school districts have opted to use Google Classroom.

Mary Peek, a first grade teacher at a small, private Catholic school in Missouri, explains that while her school had already begun using Google Classroom for some technology classes and assignments over the past four to five years, it moved all classes completely online from mid-March through to the end of the school year due to state stay-at-home orders.

“We were told two days before our weeklong spring break to send students home with any textbooks or worksheets they would possibly need in the two weeks following vacation in case we did not bring them back to the classroom,” Peek said. “So while my students had some exposure to Google Classroom, they now began to learn how to log in and see class assignments themselves or with the help of parents. That’s where I would put links to websites for reading and math series, like SUPERKIDS and Seesaw BrainPOP.”

Educators at all Levels: The Challenges of the Shift to Online Schooling

While first grade students did not have to turn in full assignments online, older students did, Peek described. This required teachers of higher grade levels to digitize assignments, which could be quite demanding.

Technical difficulties also posed a problem for some students and families, which could be difficult to navigate as many school districts have limited technical support. Peek commented that her school only had one tech professional to help across all grades, for a school of around 300 students. She did note that parents of students in many classes created community groups online to discuss issues and help one another through these problems.

College and university educators also had to adjust their teaching practices. Although higher education institutions may be officially based on a specific communications platform, professors often had to determine what digital tools and resources would serve their specific course needs.

“There was a learning curve in terms of finding what tools I needed to achieve class objectives, but once I did find them, these tools really lent themselves to multi-tiered group work,” said David Davies, a professor of anthropology at Hamline University. “This is because they enabled a group of students doing group work for the class to connect in multiple ways, and we used these tools in my classes consistently.”

Some of Davies’ favorite online tools include Google Drive, Zoom, and Milanote. Davies explained that he set up all his students up in the Milanote workspace and would then use Zoom to break into work groups, which allowed students to share their computer screens. This way they could see each others’ virtual workspace in real time while discussing and outlining what they were going to do for the next class.

Meanwhile, Google Drive was a useful platform for students to share documents with each other and Davies. Davies created a shared drive space on the platform for students to post their projects and return assignments. These digital tools worked really well to connect the students to the class and each other, he commented.

Educators across primary, secondary, and tertiary levels agreed that while the transition online required significant leg work by school administration and teachers, the challenges for “at home” learners and their families was largely unforeseen.

Students at All Levels: The Challenges of the Shift to Online Schooling

Students and families faced several challenges in becoming and supporting at home learning. While online courses provide flexibility and accessibility for students and communicators to connect virtually, the importance of students being able to commit time, space, and resources to support a routine for learning became quickly apparent in the early pandemic period.

Many of the students forced to move online by the virus are children or college students, meaning they do not necessarily have the same flexibility, resources or autonomy to control and support their schedules afforded to adult distance learners. Therefore, these students often have to juggle space and resources for study with their roommates, siblings and families.

“There are some families that have two and three children in our school, but they only had one laptop,” Peek explained. “So parents would say a student would not be able to use the computer or iPad until after their sibling used it. So we sometimes had limited resources in that respect.”

Other families are not used to their children having so much screen time, while others may be moving between divorced parents. The move to remote learning can also be hard for working parents who often have to sit with their children to facilitate the learning, which is not always possible. So, it is important to take these family dynamics into account if a student is not able to log in while still encouraging consistency in learning, Peek shared.

“While it was hard it gave the parents a different view of how their child learns,” Peek said. “And I think they got to see their child’s behavior or learning style first hand which they did not have before.”

Older age and college students meanwhile, often need to focus on creating routines and work spaces to support learning.

Unlike adult learners who choose to learn online and have the ability to structure their world for themselves, many undergraduate students need faculty to coach and mentor them, Davies explained. So it is important to get in touch with them and motivate them to do this while also being sensitive to the uniqueness of living in a pandemic.

“In-person classes can often help undergraduates be accountable to the classroom, the professor and their classmates,” Davies said. “But a lot of that falls away when you go virtual. So when moving classes online, it helps to change assignments so that students are accountable to other students and that the work that those students collectively do is accountable to the class. This way you give the students connection to the class across different layers.”

Davies also said many students reported problems staying engaged because their workspace was gone. So he recommends students dedicate a work space for study and learning to the best of their ability, while also keeping to a normal daily and sleep routine.

“Studying on a couch while your roommate is playing video games just won’t do,” Davies said. “And going through the rituals of getting ready for the day can help mentally prepare you for learning and work.”

With the end of the general American school year, many teachers and schools now have some reprieve to digest the information learned from rapidly moving online as they prepare for autumn.

Additional Distance Learning Resources for Educators and Students

UNESCO has published a resource list of educational applications, platforms and resources to help parents, schools and school administrators facilitate student learning and provide social care and interaction during periods of school closure.

Many of the resources in the list are free and available in multiple languages. The list is categorized based on distance learning needs, including digital management systems, psychosocial support resources, mobile phone usability, self-directed learning content, strong offline capabilities, MOOC platforms and video communication platforms among others.

Moving Forward: Online Learning for the Indefinite Future?

Although individual states and countries begin to slowly lift stay-at-home orders and return to work, the question as to whether students will return to brick-and-mortar schools remains.

Peek says that her school is preparing for students to return. Instructors and students in her state will be required to wear masks at school. The school will also prepare individual resources for students, like pencils, art tools, books and worksheets, as they will not be allowed to share items. There will also be the option for students to learn online, though Peek does not expect this to be chosen by parents unless the pandemic is severe, as families pay tuition for their students.

“I hope we are able to go back in because the plus side of moving online during the fourth quarter was that I already had developed a relationship with the kids,” Peek said. “If schools do distance learning at the beginning of the school year, teachers have yet to develop a relationship, which may be harder online. But we make it work.”

Colleges and universities are also still determining their plans for the upcoming school year. Currently they aim for students to return to campus, with the potential to move online again.

Teachers say they expect to hear more definitive details on plans for the upcoming school year in late summer, as schools will finalize their calendars when more information related to a potential continuation of the pandemic is available.

Even amid the uncertainty in this pandemic period, the brick-and-mortar schools’ jump to remote learning will be memorable for years to come.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.