When school starts again in the fall, it’s likely that a significant number of students will still be learning remotely. To make classrooms less crowded and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, many states and districts are considering a hybrid approach in which some students attend school and some learn from home, such as by having students alternate between in-person and remote learning.
One of the key lessons learned in the shift to remote learning this spring was the need to make online instruction easily accessible to everyone. K-12 school systems have taken many actions to ensure that students have the technology they need to learn from home, such as distributing mobile devices and wireless hotspots to students who need them and even negotiating deals with internet service providers to extend free or discounted broadband service to low-income families.
These steps are a good start, but they don’t go far enough in overcoming all the barriers teachers face in reaching and engaging all students remotely.
Kindergarten teacher Ben Cogswell has some experience with this issue. He has been teaching for more than 10 years in the Alisal Union School District in Salinas, Calif. It’s a very agricultural community, with many migrant families who don’t speak English at home. When he began his career, he was teaching sixth grade in the sixth most densely populated community in the United States.
As a former technology coach for the district, Cogswell helped get the district up and running with a 1:1 technology program that gave every K-12 student a Chromebook to take home for learning. Two years ago, he decided to return to the classroom as a kindergarten teacher, and he has been successfully blending traditional and digital learning in his classroom ever since — which prepared him well for the shift to remote learning this spring.
Here are some strategies that Cogswell used to make online learning as accessible as possible for his students and their families.
Take advantage of ubiquitous technology tools.
Although his students all had school-issued Chromebooks, Cogswell didn’t assume that all families had home broadband access. In shifting to remote learning, he tried to design simple lessons that could be completed on a smartphone as easily as a Chromebook, recognizing that most families have a smartphone with a data plan even if they don’t have an internet connection.
In his classroom, Cogswell would have students practice writing and then record themselves reading what they had written aloud using the free app Seesaw. Or, he might ask them to do a simple math activity, like “show me eight of something,” and then students would record themselves in Seesaw explaining their work and counting out the eight objects they assembled.
This self-reflection and recording process accomplishes multiple goals, he explains: It reinforces the student’s learning. It allows parents to see what their child is learning in school. It gives Cogswell more insight into each child’s thinking — “making their thinking visible,” as edtech thought leader Alan November would say. And, it allows students to learn from each other.
“Students are able to see other students’ recordings,” Cogswell says. “They can see: Did they make eight the same way as me, or in a different way?”
He continued this practice as students were learning remotely. In fact, having students record themselves demonstrating their learning became his primary way of assessing students’ learning from home — and this process is simple to do with any mobile device, including a smartphone.
Cogswell had also implemented a badging system in his classroom, in which he would use a 3D printer to print out charms to give to students when they reached certain milestones —like knowing all their letter sounds, learning 100 sight words, or counting to 100. He continued this practice remotely, with students practicing their skills from home and then using Seesaw to record themselves reaching a particular milestone. Parents picked up the badges their child had earned at the end of the year.
“I had students who before COVID knew 40 sight words and after COVID knew all 100,” he says. “I was still able to assess my kids and have them grow.”
Post content to multiple channels to reach as many families as possible.
Another way Cogswell tried to engage all families in remote learning was by using multiple platforms to push out content.
The shift to remote learning in Cogswell’s district happened very suddenly, without any advance warning. Teachers were told on a Friday afternoon that students wouldn’t be returning to school the following Monday.
“I have 28 students, and 16 only come in the morning. So half of my class had already gone home for the day,” he says. “I didn’t have a chance to prepare my whole class. I thought, how am I going to reach all my parents?”
The first thing he did was start a Facebook page, because “it’s one of the most commonly used social media platforms for adults,” he explains. He also created a class YouTube channel, and he used these ubiquitous online platforms — as well as Google Sites and Seesaw — to post a daily recording of his morning message and other content for families.
“Facebook became another way to access my classroom for families. I’m trying to think about all of the different platforms and all of the different ways I can reach my students,” he says.
Besides recording a daily morning message, he also live streamed a read-aloud at 7 p.m. every evening via Facebook and YouTube. In these read-alouds, he would read books to his students and talk about their themes. He even invited authors to participate — and Jeff Kubiak read his book One Drop of Kindness to students.
Give students flexible options for when they can log in.
For families that might be sharing a device among multiple students, attending a remote class session at a certain time of day might be challenging. Creating flexible options for students can help families overcome this hurdle.
The daily routine that Cogswell established for his students included three activities that they could complete on their own time, as well as a synchronous class meeting. To make sure as many of his students could participate in this live online meeting as possible, he gave them two options: a morning or an afternoon session.
True anytime, anywhere learning
As Cogswell’s experience shows, remote learning has helped educators realize the promise of true “anytime, anywhere” learning — and teaching can occur the same way, he notes.
Cogswell would use his phone to capture and record different phenomena that he noticed wherever he was, like a butterfly in flight or ants building an anthill, and then turn those into teachable moments for his students. If he was at the beach, he might make a recording and ask students: Is the tide low or high? How can we tell?
“Nearly every teacher has a smartphone, and a lot of teachers have a Google account,” he observes. “If you have a Google account, then you have a YouTube channel. This phone we have in our hand is so powerful. We can capture video very easily, and it’s so accessible.” His final advice for teachers? “Think about creative ways you can use your phone to deliver instruction.”