Ask the Experts: Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Brian Hiro
It may seem hard to believe now, but only three weeks ago, education in the United States was business as usual.
Most students were going to brick-and-mortar buildings for their classes. Most college professors and all K-12 teachers were standing before rooms full of kids and young adults, delivering lectures or otherwise engaging them academically in person.
Almost overnight, that age-old model fundamentally shifted because of the coronavirus outbreak, and in many ways, K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities are still scrambling to adjust to this new reality.
To help instructors in smoothing that process, we reached out to a pair of faculty members from Cal State San Marcos’ School of Education who specialize in virtual teaching. Brooke Soles is an assistant professor of educational administration and leadership, and Anthony Matranga is an assistant professor of mathematics education and educational technologies.
Question: What are the most important pieces of advice you’d give to K-12 teachers who are struggling to make this transition in the middle of a school year?
Brooke Soles: Teacher-student connections matter. Like a physical classroom environment, the teacher is the most important factor in an online classroom. Even if your lesson doesn’t seem to be going well, the students remember how you made them feel. Students have to process feelings like hunger and fear before they can open up to learn intellectually. Yes, I understand that feelings are not a substitute for learning, but by creating a culture of care and working through a cultural proficiency framework, learning will occur. Whether you are sending a video post card through Animoto (a cloud-based video creation service) to your students, simply recording a 60-second Zoom announcement of yourself about the upcoming assignment, or providing a synchronous video chat for informal conversations or structured communication through free protocols from the National School Reform Faculty Harmony Education Center, it remains crucial to stay human and connected while delivering content. As an instructor, consider having students conduct their own brief Zoom meetings, following a set protocol, recording it, and posting it for you to review. Find ways to work smarter, not harder.
Anthony Matranga: The most important piece of advice I’d give to teachers is to try not to recreate what you do in a face-to-face setting in the online setting. Instead, I’d encourage teachers to take advantage of the fact that collaboration in online settings can be asynchronous. In other words, the learning experience does not have to happen during a specifically scheduled time period during the day like folks are used to in face-to-face settings. Asynchronous collaboration has many benefits and slows down the fast pace of teaching and learning and provides learners and instructors time to think deeply about course content and their peers’/students’ ideas.
Q: How does that advice differ for an elementary school teacher vs. a middle school teacher, and for middle school vs. high school?
BS: It is not about time management, but rather attention management. Having worked in elementary, middle and high schools as a K-12 teacher in California and having worked as an assistant principal, principal and county office administrator, I find that no matter what age, people are people, and we get distracted. All classrooms need norms, accountability, connection, collaboration and caring environments to focus our attention to teaching and learning. Our middle school students might be posting to TikTok, but our adults are equally distracted responding to emails while on Zoom. Thus, how can we have not only courageous conversations about race and identity, for example, in our online environments, but also who owns and controls our attention?
AM: This is a hard question. I don’t see an immediate difference between middle school and high school; however, my thought is that things might be different for elementary teachers because students might need more support staying focused on a task and transferring their thinking into an online space.
Q: What have you been doing since the COVID-19 outbreak hit to assist instructors in the move online, either on or off campus?
BS: My main focus has been checking in via email, phone and Zoom with my instructors and students to better understand what support they need and how to co-construct their next steps toward success. Because our Master of Arts in Education program is fully online, our instructors are already 100% online. Yet, some of these instructors are still new to teaching online and are now joining the rest of the teachers across the state who are learning how to teach online because of COVID-19. A unique challenge our program is facing is that our students who are K-12 teachers aspiring to be administrators are working in schools and districts that have closed their physical and sometimes virtual doors to teaching. The challenge right now is not the teaching but how to reduce the anxiety many people are experiencing so learning can occur.
AM: I have been collecting resources for online teaching and learning, particularly in the area of mathematics education. I have been talking with my mathematics teacher candidates on a regular basis to support them in making the shift to online instruction. I’ve also reached out to some K-12 teachers I have worked with to see if they need help with the transition. I have been attending webinars from professional organizations to continue to learn more about teaching and learning online.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges involved in online teaching?
BS: Some of the biggest challenges of online teaching come from our own understanding of what we think online teaching can and cannot do. Once we get past the technical aspect of learning the technical – for example, how to click when and where – online teaching really becomes an experience in and of itself. In fact, there are data that show teachers and students have the same connection and learning experiences online as in person.
In addition, instructors must be vigilant and address the racism, hate and xenophobia that occur online just like the physical classroom. Resources like Teaching Tolerance provide avenues and lessons on how to engage in courageous conversations on this topic. Instructors need to have synchronous opportunities, check blog posts, monitor Zoom chats, and scan the screen for visual signals of behavior that must be addressed. Silence can also mean many things in all settings. Zoom bombing is happening, too. Meeting one-on-one with students or even in smaller groups can benefit all to better understand your online classroom.
AM: One the biggest challenges I see with online teaching is creating a learning experience for students that feels as if it is not mediated by the internet. I use several strategies to overcome this challenge. The first is to stay in regular contact with the students through a variety of communication mechanisms. For example, I send frequent announcements to a class regarding assignment deadlines, grading, etc. I also try to respond to student questions via email as fast as possible; even if I don’t have the answer to a question, I might say something like “I’m working on this, I’ll get back to you with an answer soon.” This strategy also includes reaching out to students if they miss a deadline for an assignment soon after the assignment was due. The idea is to give the class the sense that you are always online and always monitoring their activity in the online space.
The second strategy I use is to support communication between students. This includes using discussion forums to promote dialogue between students about the course they are completing. I monitor these spaces by subscribing to the course’s discussion forum so that every time someone posts to the forum, I get an email. Often times, questions come up and instead of answering the question, I might look for a student who had a similar question or seemed like they would have a good response to the question and tell the student to go to that person’s thread. In this sense, I am just facilitating conversation, just like you might do in a face-to-face setting. Another strategy I use is keeping track of the students I communicate with and when. For example, I’ll create a spreadsheet that has my students’ names and the weeks of the course. Every time I interact with a student via email, course discussion forum, etc., I tally the interaction on my spreadsheet. This allows me to ensure I am regularly interacting with all students in the class.
Q: What pieces of technology or programs do you think would be most beneficial to teachers dealing with this situation?
BS: Start with the one thing that works for you. There are so many options now. I recommend flipping the script by having students bring what they like to you or have seen to the classroom. What are they already using that is engaging? I understand social media use is a tricky area, yet having a conversation about what is appropriate and why is also realistic. Everything is a learning opportunity. You do not have to be the expert; you just have to be curious. Now, how will you connect it to your content?
AM: I think the most important pieces of technology are those that allow for communication between students. Many universities have learning management systems with discussion forums, which I think are great for collaboration, particularly the asynchronous collaboration that I mentioned earlier. However, there are other technologies such as Edmodo and Google Classroom that can serve similar purposes. In addition, platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Slack and so on allow for synchronous, video-based communication. I also think Twitter and other apps geared for mobile communication can be effectively used to support productive collaboration between students. With that said, I think the most effective online instruction uses a variety of these communication technologies in order to appeal to students’ different interests and learning styles.
Q: Most teachers can no longer fill up the whole school day with virtual instruction. What do you think parents can or should be doing to help fill the void?
BS: Work with your colleagues and school leaders to figure out what our collective future looks like. I do not consider this as helping to fill a void. It is most definitely a period of transition, transformation and the unknown. It is a time of free play coupled with lots of reading. And perhaps it is a time to better understand how to engage in play, innovative practices and even video games with our families and communities, as Dr. Sinem Siyahhan, CSUSM School of Education faculty, discusses in her book, “Families at Play.” How are we changing the narrative we are telling ourselves about what is happening and what will happen?
AM: Well, I’m not sure I have the answer for this, but I can tell you what my wife and I have been doing with our 5-year-old and 18-month-old girls. My kids love animals and going to the zoo, so our breakfast routine has included watching a YouTube video from a series the Cincinnati Zoo is doing. Each day they spotlight a particular animal, and the zookeeper talks about the animals and answers questions from the “live” audience. I have also been trying to teach my 5-year-old some basic coding using an app on the iPad. We asked our 5-year-old what she wanted to learn, and she said to “tell time.” So we have been working with her on learning how to tell time. We also read together and do other things like build a boat out of pillows and “paddle to La Jolla,” and we have had several trips to “the beach,” which is the patio area of our apartment. We also watch movies, exercise, and cook together. It has been interesting so far, but I guess my recommendation would be to involve your kids in things you are interested in doing and also get involved in the things your kids are interested in doing.
Q: What do you say about the problem of students who don’t have the same access to the technology and equipment necessary for online education?
BS: This is a serious equity issue. Not all families have access to reliable Wi-Fi. Parents have been laid off due to COVID-19. Families are negotiating space at home for those who have been infected with the coronavirus. Two-parent households are both working from home with kids. Single-parent households are doing the same with more responsibilities. This is everyone; not just our students, but our teachers and faculty, too. Figuring out how to get food into the home without exposing loved ones to the coronavirus is a daunting task, let alone figuring out how to pay for that food with the income-earner falling ill. Thus, it is our responsibility as teachers, school leaders and community members to work together to find solutions for the good of everyone.
AM: This is a hard one. Zoom and other video communication technologies are data-heavy and require up-to-date technology and strong internet connection during a particular time period of the day. Therefore, I think asynchronous collaboration can help with this issue because students can participate via text-based communication (which is less data-heavy than video) during a time when they may have access to a friend or family members’ technology. With that said, I’ve heard that schools are trying to provide some students with technologies as well as set up hotspots to improve access to strong internet connection.
Q: Do you foresee a crisis like this making online education more palatable or appealing to teachers?
BS: We have to change our mindset. It is really not just about going online. It is about how the way of life as we know it has changed because of COVID-19. It seems “going to online instruction” is being conflated with “this is absolutely terrible.” I love teaching. Whether it is online, in person or in blended modalities, teaching and learning are my thing. I challenge myself and others to use a future studies frame to examine what possible, probable and preferable futures we would like to envision. We have to meet the students, technology and ourselves where we are and go from there.
AM: I hope so! While I don’t see teaching moving exclusively online for a long time or if it even makes sense to do that, I think at least hybrid instruction has benefits that can improve student learning in all classrooms. For example, teachers could incorporate online discussions into their class that occur before the face-to-face class session. The teacher could then read the discussion before the class and identify interesting themes in the discussion, misconceptions, etc. that can be used to inform the face-to-face discussion and questions the teacher might ask during the discussion.
However, there may be environmental benefits to moving to exclusively online instruction. For example, as we are seeing, reductions in travel because of the pandemic are resulting in improved air quality in China and potentially in the United States and globally in the weeks to come. Travel for educational purposes is not the sole contributor to CO2 emissions in the world; however, the more we move instruction online, the larger impact education can have on reducing CO2 emissions.