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Teachers say using engaging virtual and digital tools helps hold younger students’ attention in the middle of online learning

Digital tools prove critical for early learners during COVID

Teachers say using engaging virtual and digital tools helps hold younger students’ attention in the middle of online learning

For early learners, nothing beats in-class learning. Having a teacher in close proximity to assess the needs of their students is critical for growth.

2020 threw a wrench in that format, forcing students and teachers to communicate digitally. While the year was disruptive on many levels, educators found ways to persevere. After all, sitting by idly and missing time to shape future generations simply was not an option.

For all the pandemic is and was, it has forced positive growth, flexibility, adaptability, and innovation. Still, it has been tough on teachers and their students.

“One of the biggest challenges is not being able to be right next to my students, observe, help, and better support them. For kindergartners, this is their first experience at school,” says Evelyn McEntee, a kindergarten teacher in Pennsylvania. “They tend to get frustrated at this young age, and it breaks my heart. I can’t just jump through the screen and help them hold a pencil correctly. But I also think it is teaching them to do things for themselves. They are learning these important life skills they wouldn’t normally get.”

Fortunately, technology came to the rescue as part of that growth. Schools are relying on digital tools more than ever before. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was chaos. At certain times throughout the year, it was ugly. Today, it remains a significant adjustment, but teachers and students alike continue to adapt to the new normal.

“When we left in March, I tried to make virtual materials for my little preschoolers, and it was horrible. Kids at this age need the physical engagement,” says Rachel Glassman, a preschool teacher in New Jersey. “It is so much more engaging to see physical things moving around rather than staring at a computer. And the last thing these kids need is to stare at a computer screen more than they already do.”

During the pandemic, teachers and administrators scrambled to find the best ed-tech solutions possible to trudge onward. Thanks to technology and an unwavering pledge to teach, it started coming together. Despite this, there are other variables making it tough for young learners to fully grasp what is being taught.

“So many students do not have the help they need at home because family members are working or other siblings are also trying to complete schoolwork,” says Erin Bangel, a kindergarten teacher in Indiana.

Between reference material available on the web to video conferencing software like Zoom, teachers learned to navigate the waters and figure out ways to get and keep their students’ attention.

“Without all the resources and tools we have digitally, it would have taken a lot of time and energy creating virtual material and trying to figure out how to teach my students,” says Glassman.

These digital and virtual tools make an integral difference in day-to-day activities, allowing students a more hands-on experience. The newest adoptions of education technology include learning management and assessment systems, along with parent communication tools.

Digital tools help keep students engaged and interested in a way that simple video conferencing sometimes cannot with early learners.

The Osmo for Schools projector allows teachers to project hand-written notes and demonstrations onto a virtual blackboard for their students to see in real-time.

“Virtual tools like the Osmo for Schools projector have been a lifesaver. I use it all day, every day,” says McEntee. “Without the projector, I wasn’t really able to do anything, from reading groups to practicing letter formation or handwriting. Now I can model every activity, which is essential in kindergarten. They need to see you and learn how to make the letter A with your help. Everything I would have done in the classroom, I’ve been able to do with the projector.”

Other tools include websites and apps like Epic! and Seesaw. Epic! provides students with a brain break throughout the day. According to its website, this digital library of 40,000-plus books reaches 50 million kids in class and after school. Seesaw is a virtual portfolio to demonstrate students’ learning, giving teachers insights and helping them connect to families to see what their child is working on.

While elementary students have their struggles with remote learning, the experience is also teaching them valuable skills. Students as young as kindergarten are now proficient in operating computers, video conferencing software, and webinars — all skills they’ll use in their future learning environments.

Technology is only going to progress and become a larger aspect of education as these early learners’ advance grades. Now, because of this unprecedented time, these students have a solid understanding to build on.

“At conferences, I have had a lot of parents who want their kids back in the classroom. I tell them to take a step back and look at how much their child has grown, persevered, and the skills they have learned that will be helpful when they are older in this technological era,” says McEntee. “These kids can go in break-out rooms, mute and unmute, and it is so effortless for them. It really blows me away.”

2020 has pushed many teachers and parents to re-think how their kids use the advanced technology available to them. Moving forward, it will likely be more prevalent in schools than ever before. After implementing so many helpful programs while remote, classrooms will continue to rely on digital tools as students return to in-person learning. They may be used differently, but they are here to stay.

This is evident in a recent MDR edtech survey, which found that three-quarters of teachers indicated technology in the classroom was very useful or they could not live without it, which is an increase from 2018.

Technology also will help students stay current with their learning in the future if they are unable to attend in-person school for various reasons, such as religious reasons not included in school calendars or for extended illnesses. And, while research is still underway regarding a COVID-19 vaccine for kids under the age of 16, schools are already preparing for the potential of more distance learning in the fall semester.

“There may be times kids need or elect to stay home, and with technology like video conferencing, they will still be able to be part of the classroom,” says Bangel.

Teachers now have the evidence they need to embrace digital tools because they’ve seen their positive impact on their students. If digital tools help prepare kids for their future, using them in the classroom at an early age results in a win-win situation.

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