In 2020, the American education system was forced to change. As the country socially distanced to keep people healthy, schools went remote.
While remote learning did not work well for many students and thwarted student- or teacher-led activities, it forced a reevaluation of old habits. It was a chance to ask, “What are the best ways to help students learn?”
While giving lessons remotely, educators learned their own lessons. These four takeaways show how remote learning may improve teaching going forward.
1: Increased Technology Use
Like their counterparts around the nation, students in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District in Kotzebue, Alaska, lacked reliable internet. To teach offline, the district moved to one-to-one, meaning each student was given a device such as a tablet or laptop.
“A lot of teachers had an enormous amount of educational technology training last year,” says Amy Eakin, the district’s director of technology.
Forced to learn how to use a new tool, teachers created short videos that could be downloaded onto devices at school and taken home—and it worked.
“They realized the effectiveness of some of the programs,” Amy says.
Kelly Kirvin, a sixth grade science teacher at Deane Bozeman Middle School in Bay County, Florida, created videos for students while they learned remotely, recording her lessons and sharing videos and PowerPoint presentations.
“I’m kind of old school,” Kelly says. “I’m not the most technological person in the world, but I managed to figure it out.”
The chat function during video lessons allowed students to exchange ideas and help each other learn. It became a digital question box.
2: Communication With Parents
Teachers built better relationships with families than they had ever had before, says Helena Chirinan, principal at Kalmiopsis Elementary in Brookings Harbor, Oregon.
“When you are physically in somebody’s home every day—even if it is remotely—you get a whole different feel for the family and the kiddos,” she says.
Finding effective means of communication so parents could help their children with remote learning took time.
“Everything is coming to my kindergartner’s email address,” says Kristin Douglas, vice president of marketing and communications at Gulf Coast Electric Cooperative in Florida and mother of two. “Of course, he doesn’t know how to check his email. Or read his email. Or read.”
Kelly says parents would hear virtual lessons and realize all the work that goes into teaching.
Videoconferencing gave Kelly a simple way to communicate with parents.
“I never thought that I’d be FaceTiming a parent,” Kelly says. “But basically, that’s what we were doing. And it worked.”
Northwest Arctic Borough schools kept communication with parents at the forefront throughout the year. Teachers created lesson guides for parents so they could help their children. Through surveys, the district gauged when families were getting overloaded and tailored upcoming lessons to be more manageable.
“The biggest aha is that you can never realize how valuable communication is,” Amy says. “The more communication you have, in multiple mediums, the better everybody was.”
3: Nurturing Student Wellness
Helena says school is about so much more than math and English.
“It’s about learning about how to get along in the world and learning how to be a human,” she says. “You don’t get that if you’re at home as much.”
At Bozeman—where students faced not only the pandemic but recent hurricanes—Kelly says she could tell students were struggling.
“You would see them get depressed or just get frustrated and feel like they couldn’t catch up,” she says.
Kelly has always chatted with students as they enter her classroom. On top of continuing to check in with her students, the school had counselors available for deeper discussions or for children to vent.
At Kalmiopsis, one strategy for helping students with emotional learning and coping with isolation was virtual recess. Teachers let students talk amongst themselves during breaks in lessons on video chat.
Helena says videoconferencing also helped the school connect students with speech pathologists.
“Before you can really make progress with academics, kids do need to feel connected and safe in their environment, which is harder to do when they’re physically away from you,” Helena says.
4: Internet Access
Remote learning was more difficult without internet access. Northwest Arctic created a reload, refresh system, where teachers would download lessons onto students’ devices at school and parents would take the devices home. A few weeks later, parents would bring the devices back in for schoolwork to be uploaded and a new set of work to be downloaded.
Most districts required connectivity. A field service technician at Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative—which serves Kalmiopsis Elementary and the southwest Oregon Coast—drove 45 minutes each way every school day to get service so their children could do their homework.
“Our board and Coos-Curry just really feels that internet is the electricity of our century,” says Jacob Knudsen, marketing and member services manager at Coos-Curry Electric. “It’s the service that if individuals and businesses don’t receive, they will fall behind people that do.”
Area churches and libraries turned on their Wi-Fi in the afternoons as families parked outside, completing homework.
The Federal Communications Commission says nearly one-fourth of rural Americans lack broadband access at threshold speeds.
“The need for broadband access was already there,” says Paul Recanzone, general manager of Beacon Broadband, a company started by Coos-Curry Electric. “The pandemic just highlighted how necessary it is.”