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Teaching and Learning from a Distance

The rapid shoehorning of education into the digital space

The Preface

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we at Unicon have reached out to our network of instructors, students, parents, and learning institutions to better understand the changing landscape of education. Being deeply entrenched in all things teaching and learning, we’ve garnered data via surveys, and had many conversations, both formal and casual, with those involved in education at all levels, in any capacity. With the data we’ve gathered and the conversations we’ve had, this article encompasses what we’ve learned about the general essence of the education world over the first half of this year, as the landscape—prepared or not—attempts to move completely online.

The Shutdown

In February 2020, the coronavirus had already begun making its way around the United States. By the end of the month, many corporate and educational events had been postponed or cancelled outright. March rolled around, and many states began issuing “Stay at Home” orders, and with them, what most teachers and parents feared came to be: schools were shutting down, and the rest of the semester would be taught online exclusively.

Households in the United States now had the majority of the family home at all times, with all members trying to decipher what would come of all this.

Learning institutions across the country attempted to define what an “exclusively online” learning environment should look like, and what tools should and could be provided.

The Response

Learning institutions nationwide were left scrambling to implement some form of coherent online experience for their students and instructors. Most public schools had to interpret their state’s mandates, attempting to decipher and adhere to them as closely as possible. In most cases, these implementations were half-baked, as there simply was not enough time to effectively plan. Something -- anything -- in place was better than nothing in their efforts to finish out the end of the semester.

Across the board, the abrupt switch to distance learning was implemented with varying degrees of success. Many Higher Education schools already had many courses available online, and had the software and tools established with which to deliver them. However, in the K - 12 space, in many cases curriculum transitions struggled. Classes that are historically taught only in-person were often under-prepared, failing to deliver a suitable online alternative.

What constitutes “attendance” and the ability to track it was a major issue. Some institutions required learners to join live lectures conducted over web conferencing platforms like Zoom and MS Teams, while others only made it optional. Some schools only required that weekly assignments be submitted to count toward student attendance.

A large majority of schools offered little or no instruction to instructors as to how to migrate their curriculums online, leaving it entirely up to them to define and implement. This of course left instructors scrambling to figure out the necessary tools required to orchestrate their teaching. This was especially concerning when it came to Special Needs students, where institutions struggled to find any suitable substitutes for a teaching environment that requires in-person attention.

The Effects

Many districts implemented mandates that their students could not fail the class unless they were already failing pre-lockdown. This gave students free reign to ride out the rest of the semester knowing that they wouldn’t receive a failing grade. A school district in California implemented such an order, which also included optional attendance to lectures delivered through Microsoft Teams. With a class size of 40 students, a high school math teacher within the district reported that about 10 students would show up to those optional lectures. Furthermore, of those 10 students, about half of them would be sharing their video while still in their bed.

Instructors in the K - 5 grade levels had it especially rough. Students in this age group require a solid amount of in-person attention to help maintain their focus and engagement. With the switch to distance learning, any semblance of control that a K - 5 teacher may have had pre-COVID was essentially non-existent. The teachers, needing to work with parents more closely in an attempt to keep their children engaged, found teaching remotely overwhelmingly challenging on a technical level, but even more so emotionally.

Then there’s the drastic increase in support calls to schools who’d taken advantage of curriculum available for use online. Many educators were trying to figure out new tools, their configurations and combinations in order to facilitate their instruction efficiently. Some were very patient, and had the time to allow for support staff to walk them through various settings in their learning platforms. Others seemingly did not have the time or patience and spent the time on calls with support specialists to express their discontent or frustrations.

The Needs

Support specialists often received many calls for help outside the tools they were supporting. From turning on the computer, joining lectures on various collaboration platforms, teaching, viewing, and digesting curriculum, to completing assessments at the end of assignments; most support staff generally are only trained and required to support their own software. However, the more experienced and helpful support specialists are worth their weight. Post-COVID, support staff that are the most helpful are those knowledgeable in the series of tools and software that work alongside their own. Institutions have begun training their support staff on the surrounding tools that complement their products, and supporting mantras like “Support them the best you can, even if it’s not your product.”

Device availability and Internet access was an issue as well. Although the majority of our collected data and conversations indicate that having a suitable device and the ability to get online with it hasn’t been a major hurdle, enough fringe cases surfaced that suggest the need for improvement. In many cases, where the learning institutions haven’t provided devices to learners, the pandemic has placed the responsibility of providing devices and Internet access on the parents and students. As we begin to see more and more schools migrate curriculum online, students should be provided with the necessary devices in order to facilitate their learning. In regards to Internet access, the burden of availability is now on Internet service providers to beef up their infrastructures, making access more widely available.

We’re learning a lot from the ad-hoc, cobbled together experiences resulting from the immediate shift to distance learning. The learner's journey needs a good bit of re-thinking to better understand the tools and processes that make up the entire experience of their schooling. From turning on their device, to turning in assignments, all parts of the process need thoughtful consideration, and implemented in a way that makes it easy for students, parents, and teachers alike.

The Path Forward

Exploration of the learner’s journey and how to improve and streamline their experience is essential. Institutions are beginning to form strong partnerships with technology companies (like Unicon) that aim their focus on optimizing the entire experience for students and teachers alike.

When teachers and students have a solid understanding of the tools provided for effective online learning, parents rest a little easier when they aren’t required to figure out every little detail of how to navigate through a series of disparate tools and applications.

Instructors, having solid knowledge and support of these tools, spend less time trying to figure out how things work, and more time using the tools to help their students better understand the topic at hand.

One of the biggest drawbacks to distance learning is that lack of personal engagement. However, as software and educational tools improve, so too will the ability for instructors, students, and parents to engage with one another more closely.

Imagine a world where teachers have a well-supported teaching platform, where it’s clear from the start how to use their suite of tools and content to convey their topic. In this world, parents aren’t worried about getting their children set up for their classes, because instructions are clear-cut, and support centers quickly answer any and all questions. Students have devices provided without cost to the parents, and Internet access is readily available. Imagine, that in this world, teachers, students, and parents are no longer worried about the quality of the education being delivered.

To get to this world, the path forward contains many hurdles. We’re all continuing to learn how to get there, and it’s certainly challenging. However, the education space is brimming with passion and desire to rise to the occasion. With such a strong determination across the board to bring forth better education, the future is bright. Our goal is to make that world a reality.

Phillip Ball

Phillip Ball

Senior UX Developer
Phillip Ball is a Learning Experience Design Solutions Architect who has been with Unicon for over 10 years. Mr. Ball has worked on many projects for many clients, executing and enhancing his skills in User Experience Design and Software Development. Throughout the course of his career at Unicon, Mr. Ball has worked closely with shot callers in the edtech space, ensuring they have the details they need in order to make informed decisions. He particularly enjoys the implementation of design, taking pride in knowing his work has an impact on the learning experience. Mr. Ball holds a Bachelor of Arts degree, with a focus on Visual Communication. He enjoys researching new trends in technology, and how they might benefit Unicon’s work in education.