Based on more than 5,000 hours of teaching and supporting teachers online, we offer the following advice to administrators as the world moves toward online education during the COVID outbreak.
The technology is not the most important part. Technology for online learning and instruction is advanced, internet connections in most areas are robust, and students and teachers only need very basic computers for this all to work. Institutions will encounter some technical problems, especially with younger students and less educated parents, as they scale up but overall the technological hurdles are not very high.
What will be difficult for administrators, teachers, and parents is re-organizing their daily routines for online instruction. School administrators need to develop organized plans to make this all happen. The most significant difficulties will be creating new organizational structures, managing human relations, and providing minimal instruction for teachers, students, and parents to make this all happen. If administrators focus on the technology issues and questions at the expense of these organizational issues, moving their school online will fail. The technology is the small part of the battle.
You aren’t just planning for the spring of 2020. While we are not epidemiologists, it is worth nothing that this virus is likely to spread well into the summer, perhaps with a lull due to the warm weather, but many people think that the next academic year (fall/winter) will be the country’s greatest challenge, so schools also need to at least have contingency plans for educating students next year as well.
Ease of use. Online platforms must be easy to use and is the primary focus of our platform. We want students and teachers to enter the same classrooms they did every day using technology many are already familiar with (basic Zoom conferencing) or that they can easily be trained on.
Use technology for instructional stability. School closure policies related to CV are evolving, but many current policies require schools to close with a positive CV test and open later after the buildings are clean. While this trend is unlikely to continue give the likelihood of widespread infection, opening and closing of schools on a regular basis is going to create instructional difficulties. In this case, your technology platform will actually become what is consistent. In this sense, it is critical to not separate regular classroom use and online instruction. You should instruct teachers to begin instructional integration so that the transition to e-learning is not as disruptive.
It’s not just the teachers and the students. In any school, humans need to monitor the rooms to make sure all attendees are present at the start of the class and there needs to be some system available (group text perhaps) to instantly communicate with everyone. Our best suggestion is to have one “TA” monitor multiple rooms. This TA doesn’t need any real technical expertise and would only be present to account for anyone and deal with any basic issues (a student not knowing how to us a microphone, for example). If there are any concerns the TA cannot triage, the TA would kick them up to technical support (AKA, our “Building Custodians”) or the tournament or school’s “Attendance Office.” Professor and teachers will not be able to both focus on their teaching and managing attendance and any student technical issues at the same time.
School administrators should think about how existing staff — hall monitors, clerical staff, cafeteria staff — can be repurposed for these support roles.
Home use. Schools need to quickly assess the technology resources that families already have and needs (computers, hot spots) that some families may need. Schools should do everything they can to provide this technology to those in need or the gap between the haves and the have nots will grow substantially during this time, as it is likely that the only route to learning that many students will have is through a computer. Districts cannot “level the playing field” by deciding not to provide it to anyone, as private school students and students in other districts will have access. The most well resourced families will have tutors. All districts need to remain focused on their mission of providing the best possible education for all.
It works. There will be challenges, but administrators should understand this is possible. The transition in China was easier than it will be here for many different reasons, but students in China have been learning online for months.
Waivers. There are many laws and regulations that govern compliance for e-learning. Schools should aim to be in compliance but also seek waivers, as there is really no practical way to deploy such technology in a timely manner while meeting the details of every regulation. Districts must work with counsel to ensure the most appropriate approach to this issue.
Teachers’ unions. Schools are going to need to work with any relevant teachers unions as changing responsibilities are needed. Both sides are going to need to be flexible and to have a positive spirit in this change. Both sides demand are going to need to be limited by the reality that they both have a moral obligation to continuing to provide education to students and a financial interest in making it happen. If teachers unions do not work with administrators in a way to make the school run, there is no way for districts to retain funding to pay teachers.
Develop a plan. No child’s life is going to be impacted by missing 5 days of instruction. Schools should consider shutting down for a week to allow planning and appropriate notification to students, teachers, and parents. They should also accept the reality that the first week of instruction and platform use will be filled with organization bugs, but after that everyone can be off and running pretty well. The rest of the world proves this can work.
Start slow. Don’t try to bring your entire district online at once. Start with high school students, move to middle school students, move to elementary. Older students will be more familiar with technology, younger students less familiar. And elementary teachers will need more time to think about how to teach in less interactive environments involving young students.
Consider splitting courses. Although this may be in tension with state requirements, splitting teachers’ courses so that they teach half of the students for 20 minutes and the other half for 20 minutes will make the classrooms much more manageable for teachers. Classrooms beyond 10-12 students will be very difficult for teachers to manage, especially if they have less academically dedicated students. Previously, our own supported courses have been capped at 8 students.
What are your policies for disruptive students? Teachers can’t allow disruptive students to stay in the class, but if they remove them then it isn’t clear where they go. Our advice is that the TA simply keep track of who is removed and report that to an administrator.