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When schools around the world closed to in-person learning due to the coronavirus pandemic, many teachers struggled to figure out how best to engage their students from behind computer screens. The challenges brought about by the unexpected closures included not just transitioning from in-person to virtual instruction, it also involved auxiliary challenges such as gathering funding for electronic resources such as laptops for students and Wi-Fi hotspots. As parents gear up to send their children back to school this fall, we’ve rounded up a few of the best practices in distance learning from K-12 communities around the globe.

Early adoption is key

At the Fullerton Joint Union High School District in Orange County, CA, early preparation within the district was key to distance-learning success.

The district began providing Chromebooks for home use to every student about five years ago, which meant that teachers were already using online educational tools to supplement in-person learning. While they never anticipated going “fully online with it,” Sylvia Kaufman, assistant superintendent of the education and assessment division in Fullerton Joint Union, says it meant teachers had an easier time planning lessons in a remote environment. The district also held workshops to help teachers transition to a full-time online curriculum as soon as school closures became a possibility.

Another key to Fullerton’s success involved an early assessment of which students required internet hotspots to continue learning from home. Thus, even before Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed “shelter-at-home” rules throughout the state, the district was able to purchase 500 Wi-Fi hotspots for students without internet access at home. Students picked up devices at their schools before distance learning officially started.

These workshops involved instructions on how to share screens, send digital assignments and create instructions for teaching platforms such as Google Classroom, a free tool that allows teachers to create, share and grade digital assignments. Teachers were also given the flexibility to decide the teaching modalities, which meant many were able to create an instructional hybrid of live video sessions, prerecorded lectures, hands-on projects and more.

Accentuate the positives that technology brings to the table

Overseas in Israel, elementary school teacher Nataly Peleg lauded Zoom for helping her save classroom time for what really mattered — learning. Instead of constantly battling rowdy students and trying to speak over them, Peleg says she was able to just “press the mute button.” The software’s mute button allowed quieter children to find their own voice and speak up without fear of being interrupted. The Zoom format also allowed her students to concentrate sans peer pressure; Peleg was able to divide her class into virtual “breakout” groups without much fuss.

Remote learning also meant that students were able to do classwork on their own time. Without cursory time limits, Peleg was able to review her class’s work thoroughly. While it took more time and effort, Peleg said that being available to her students virtually was essential to keeping her students engaged. Zoom also offered a level of intimacy and closeness that a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom never afforded; while on meetings, she was able to show students parts of her life (her own children, or her dog), which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Families and teachers need to stay flexible

Parents and teachers could look to another resource during these challenging times as well: homeschool and charter schools. Washington Connections Academy, a tuition-free, full-time, online school that serves more than 2,000 K-12 students in Washington state, allowed for independent study within a structured, homeschooling curriculum.

Flexibility is a good lesson for school administrators to take into consideration as teachers return to a blended remote- and in-person learning environment. Jenn Francis, the executive director of Washington Connections Academy in Camas, WA says teachers should allow themselves grace. “Be kind to yourself. It’s not easy,” Francis says, adding that it’s important for teachers to remember that all the best practices at brick-and-mortar schools are the same things to bring into virtual classrooms. “Have fun with it,” she says.

Parents also need to take a bigger part in their children’s education. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get help,” Francis says. “There are so many resources out there and so many people who are definitely willing to help.”

Learn from the technology you’re using

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke, the Duarte Unified School District in southern California rallied to make sure students had access to not only devices, but also connectivity to teachers, and an online curriculum. “[It wasn’t] just for academics, but also to support social and emotional learning and ensure connection with each other,” said Eric Ramos, Duarte USD’s Chief Technology Officer.

Duarte students in grades 6-12 already had Chromebook devices through the district’s one-to-one program, and IT could track and manage them remotely using Absolute Control™. To fully support their distance learning program, Ramos and his IT team had to quickly get devices into the hands of K-5 scholars and provide Wi-Fi hot spots to district families who didn’t have connectivity. They also needed to train teachers to use remote learning tools such as Google Classroom effectively. “Everyone stepped up for the benefit of our kids,” Ramos said.

The challenge for Ramos and his team was to figure out which applications would be needed in what priority order, especially with various freemium app offers that were coming in. For insight into overall device usage, such as which applications were used and with what frequency, Duarte USD used Absolute Web Usage. The software allowed the district to measure how students were engaging with the online curriculum, and gave weekly reports with insight on how to improve learning outcomes.

Teaching and learning within a pandemic involves so many unknowns. Apart from applying these learning and teaching practices, the biggest consideration for all learners is to remember that the student’s welfare comes first. With that in mind, how would you rate your distance learning capabilities?

Learn more about how NeweggBusiness can assist with procuring classroom technology for your school district or educational institution.

Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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