Remote Learning, Connectivity & Professional Development
Pam Sornson, JD
The swift transition from in-class to fully remote schooling was a struggle for some people more than others. For many students, such a shift wasn’t even an option because there was no ‘remote’ connectivity opportunity in their home. In other cases, teachers struggled to bring their resources and curricula online, having relied on traditional classroom teaching methods throughout their careers.
Both situations reveal that America’s emerging digital learning and educational resources are not equitably distributed or uniformly understood. As the COVID-19 Pandemic recedes and without some dedicated attention, those gaps will become wider as online education and remote schooling become more mainstream.
How Connectivity Impacts Learning Opportunities
Access to information has become a vital element in many of today’s systems. Many schools already use online portals and social media ‘nudging’ campaigns to connect with and encourage their students.
However, in some communities, access to the Internet isn’t a given or even an option. Even before the Pandemic, many of the country’s rural regions didn’t have Internet access, according to research done in 2019 by Johannes Bauer, director of the James H. and Mary B. Quello Center at Michigan State University’s Media and Information Policy Institute. Dr. Bauer and his colleagues studied access to digital resources in 25 Michigan school districts and found significant differences in the level of resources available throughout the region:
Overall, more than half (56%) had broadband access in their homes, while 23% waited through slower service. Another 14% relied solely on their cell phones to connect, and 7% had no access at all.
There was a rural-versus-urban divide, too. While a little over half of students (54%) living in small towns or the countryside had broadband access, over 70% of city and suburban learners could access the Internet easily from a home-based resource.
The divide became more significant when discussing homework, too.
Of the un-connected students, 64% reported simply not finishing their homework because they didn’t have an available resource outside the school building.
Almost half (49%) of those using cell phones and 39% of those with slow internet service admitted to skipping their homework.
Less than one in five (17%) of the broadband students acknowledged avoiding school work after school hours.
The research revealed how Internet connectivity or the lack thereof related to learning and academic achievement:
After balancing data to reflect socio-economic and other factors, those students who did not have broadband access scored an average of half a letter grade below their well-connected friends.
They also scored less well on digital skills tests, averaging three points less than their Internet friends.
SAT scores also suffered when learners had little or no access to digital resources outside their schoolroom.
The data suggests that those who have only limited access to Internet resources may also be limited in job and career opportunities because of their reduced skill base.
Corporate Response to the Digital Education Crisis
Around the country, hundreds of Internet service providers (ISPs) and wireless carriers have stepped up to assist local students and families become or remain connected to the Internet while forced to school at home. For those families with access but no longer have work, many of these companies have increased access speeds at no charge, waived late payment fees, or suspended usage caps for customers hardest hit by the shut-downs.
For example, Verizon facilitated unlimited connectivity for up to a quarter-million underserved students in California to assist them in staying connected to their school and their studies. The telecommunications organization also provided digital ‘hot spots’ – Internet access points – in communities that didn’t have that resource previously. (Full disclosure: Verizon was the sponsoring organization for Pasadena City College’s Future of Work Conference, held virtually on November 12, 2020.)
When the COVID-19 Pandemic is under control and society settles into its ‘new’ normal, these challenges facing America’s students will need more significant and comprehensive attention.
How Connectivity Impacts Teaching Opportunities
Another population hugely affected by the remote learning phenomena is America’s teaching corps. Almost overnight, hundreds of thousands of classroom teachers became remote instructors and began delivering their standard curricula via a digital device. However, for many teachers, the switch to digital also required a steep learning curve on digital technologies, a subject they may not have been familiar with, nor were they prepared to adopt.
In many instances, classroom materials didn’t translate well to a digital format; they required additional preparation and handling to become operative in the new ‘space.’ At the same time, the ‘remote teaching’ adventure added to the teacher’s day a myriad of new obligations that were necessary to maintain contacts with and tabs on their students:
Virtual classes required logging into certain websites designed to manage large meetings. Connections with students weren’t always stable or available.
Assigning and collecting assignments became a digital affair, too. Email attachments and ‘Dropbox’ folders became the new way to ‘turn things in,’ and teachers had to track which method was used by which student when accepting digital homework or assignments,
In some cases, teaching was best facilitated through a newly launched website, often designed and posted directly by the instructor. Some educators are familiar with website design and function, but many (arguably most) leave such technical details to the technology professionals.
On top of these new activities, teachers were also expected to maintain all-digital contact with their school administrators and their students’ parents and families.
Data collected before and after the onset of the Pandemic reveals how teachers recognized the need to become adept at these newly require digital skills.
In the first six months of 2019, data collected by Frontline Research and Learning Institute, an online professional development services provider, indicates that instructors completed well under a thousand courses per week of their professional development activities related to remote learning, including studies on Zoom, Google Classroom, and distance learning.
By contrast, in the comparable timeframe in 2020, teacher access to those professional development activities spiked into the thousands:
Almost 12,000 teachers accessed Frontline’s ‘Virtual’ teaching professional development activities in mid-April 2020, and
Almost 16,000 instructors accessed the ‘Distance’ learning portals in early April.
The data indicates that it’s not just students who need improved digital skills to succeed in their online education. Teachers, too, need access to training to enhance their capacity to deliver their standard curricula and materials in the new, all-digital formats.
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