Special Report
Classroom Technology

It Was a Bumpy Ride, But Virtual Schooling During the Coronavirus Boosted Teachers’ Tech Skills

COVID-19 forced educators to master new technologies faster than ever
By Sarah Schwartz — June 02, 2020 9 min read
Amanda Legge, a 4th grade teacher at Ooltewah Elementary School in Tennessee, held daily video chats with students from her home during the coronavirus school building closures.
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For Jana Binns, the transition to remote learning started off rocky.

The 4th grade teacher at Ooltewah Elementary School in Tennessee wouldn’t have described herself as tech-savvy before the pandemic hit, so getting up to speed on the platforms she had to use to communicate with her students since mid-March was daunting.

“There’s been a lot of calls, there’s been some tears, there’s been some frustration,” said Binns.

But with the help of co-teacher and tech innovator Amanda Legge, Binns has worked her way through. On a video call with Legge and Education Week, Binns described how she now films herself doing math problems, uploads them to YouTube, and posts them to Google Classroom.

“I’m so proud of you!” Legge told her, smiling.

For Binns, the growth feels significant. “This has made me have to spread my wings and be willing to make a mistake, and be willing to push the button and know that the computer is not going to explode,” she said. “It’s helped me a lot to be more confident.”

Jana Binns, a 4th grade math and science teacher at Ooltewah Elementary, stands on her front porch in Ooltewah.

When schools closed this spring in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many teachers were in a similar position as Binns, scrambling to develop online teaching skills in just days or weeks. As the school year ends, a picture, though still a bit blurry, is emerging about what effect this nationwide experiment in ad hoc professional learning will likely have on K-12 education next school year and beyond.

Will teachers be more likely to turn to tech in the classroom when students are back in school buildings? Or is this only a moment for temporary solutions to emergency problems, to be discarded as soon as teachers can return to more typical face-to-face teaching in physical classrooms?

The past few months have been stressful and traumatic for educators and students alike, said Dan Weisberg, the chief executive officer of TNTP, an organization that focuses on teacher quality. “That’s going to lead to the understandable tendency to say, ‘Oh my gosh, let’s just put down the past as quickly as we can.’ … The problem is we can’t forget about it, and we probably shouldn’t forget about it,” he said.

Given the possibility of future outbreaks and rolling shutdowns, teachers may need to use these skills again as early as the fall, he said. Several states—including Colorado, Kentucky, and Maryland—have already said that schools should plan for the possibility that they will start the 2020-21 school year with distance learning or via a blended approach in which students are in the school buildings some days and working remotely on others.

But long-term change to how teachers instruct, post-pandemic, may be less likely, predicts Michael Hines, an assistant professor of education at Stanford University.

“Despite the most confident predictions of generations of reformers and policymakers, we’ve seen new tools—like radio, and then film, and then television, and then computers—have each been incorporated in traditional ways of teaching and learning, instead of fundamentally altering them,” he said.

Range of Tech Skills Is ‘Unbelievable’

Even within the same school or district, teachers started the shutdowns with different technology comfort levels.

“The range is unbelievable,” said Laura Haddad, a high school English teacher and technology coach in Glastonbury, Conn. “From people who are as good at technology as I am—or better—to people who I think are just frightened to open their computer every day.”

And Haddad is realizing that many teachers are less tech savvy than she and her district leaders had previously thought. Before the pandemic hit, administrators had suggested that teachers at the high school start uploading course material to Google Classroom. “A lot of the administrators assumed people were using it, but then it turns out—oh no, they’re not,” she said. In her role as a tech coach, she’s offered training on the platform, and other tools, during the building shutdowns.

This makes sense to Paul Sampson, a middle school Spanish teacher in Scotts Valley, Calif. “All PD is going to work better when I see the need and I can employ it and I’m motivated to learn it,” said Sampson, who has been teaching for 34 years. He has often made mental notes about the tools presented in big-group professional learning seminars but rarely tried them in his classroom.

This spring, though, he’s been seeking out tutorials from colleagues. “Right now is as good a time for PD as ever,” he said.

Some districts are already offering additional professional development, planning for the possibility that schools may close again next school year.

The Los Angeles Unified school district is offering teachers and other staff a stipend to get the Future Ready Certification, a microcredential for developing lessons in a virtual or blended learning environment. This is on top of the initial training that the district offered at the beginning of the shutdowns to get teachers up to speed on Los Angeles’ learning-management system, video-conferencing tools, and content resources, said Alison Yoshimoto-Towery, the chief academic officer.

About 14,000 employees are participating in the district’s training program.

And the Fresno Unified school district is building out a digital library of on-demand webinars and has tapped into a districtwide network of 500 educators with experience in personalized learning.

The central California district can’t take a “Band-Aid approach,” said Carlos Castillo, the instructional superintendent of the district’s curriculum, instruction, and professional learning department. “I really wish, from the bottom of my heart, that we start the fall in August with 35 students and a teacher in a classroom. But that might not be the case,” he said.

Elsewhere, teachers are taking matters into their own hands. Erin Gorman, a 1st grade teacher in Meadville, Pa., said her union met recently to discuss what training teachers would need “if something like this comes up again.” This academic year, her school’s only directive was to make paper packets. “Almost everybody felt like that wasn’t quite enough, and we wanted to do more,” she said.

Why Physical, Hands-On Learning Matters

Many teachers have turned to each other for support and plan to continue relying on these networks. Legge, the 4th grade teacher in Tennessee, has used the Global Educator Collective, a 130,000-member Facebook group created for sharing online teaching tips during the pandemic.

But what happens when the pandemic ends, and teachers no longer need coronavirus-specific PD and professional learning networks?

Districts’ technology-adoption timelines could accelerate, said Betty Chandy, the director for online learning at Catalyst @ Penn GSE, a center for educational innovation at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “We have seen the effort by districts to move to one-to-one technology, and before COVID-19, I think there was some resistance or fear not just from educators but from parents and communities,” she said. From now on, devices and tech platforms may be more normalized, she said.

Teachers do say they’ve picked up skills using new tech tools during this period, which they can see integrating into their brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Brittany Tinkler, a 3rd grade mentor teacher at Southport Elementary School in Indianapolis, has been experimenting with new ways to measure student progress, now that she can’t give tests in the same way she used to. Students can still send her written work, but she’s also accepted Flipgrid videos and digital art. She wants to incorporate alternative-assessment methods into her regular routine once she is back in the school building.

And Brandi Argentar, a high school science teacher and tech coach at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., has started using digital labs. They’ll be a useful catch-up tool for kids who are sick or absent on a lab day, she said.

Still, teachers say there’s an enduring value to a physical classroom and to hands-on, paper and pencil work.

“I would not want to ever replace my wet labs for digital,” Argentar said. “There’s something about just tactile learning at all levels, pre-K through 12 and even university. There’s a place for that.”

“The word ‘technology’ gets put out there as if computers and technology are synonymous,” said Sampson, the Spanish teacher in California. “Whereas, a different technology in my classroom might be handing out whiteboards and giving students erasable pens. That’s a tremendous technology, because it engages them. I see the results. I can check for understanding. And, in part, the students can see each other responding. That’s the big piece missing from distance learning.”

“I’ve heard it said that we’re using a system that’s 100 years old, putting a bunch of students in a classroom,” Sampson added. “And yes, of course that’s true. But once it’s taken away, we realize what an advantage that was.”

A New Mindset to Tinker, Problem-Solve

Throughout U.S. history, schools have changed the way they operate in response to emergencies—and then reverted back to business as usual when those emergencies ended, said Hines, the education historian from Stanford.

In 1937, Chicago faced a polio epidemic that shut down school buildings for the first few weeks of the school year. Instead of heading to classrooms, students participated in a 1930s version of distance learning: lessons over the radio.

But the temporary shift didn’t have a lasting effect, Hines said. He pointed to a letter one parent wrote to the Chicago Daily Tribune after school was back in session, complaining that the teachers hadn’t collected any of the assignments students had completed through radio lessons.

“Instead of collecting, and analyzing, and building off the work that students had done while they were at home, many teachers simply picked up where they left off before the crisis,” said Hines. “I think that’s something we may see now, as many teachers and schools are using online learning as a stopgap.”

Jackie Wagner, an elementary special education teacher in Broken Bow, Neb., is one of those teachers who’s looking forward to going back to regular classroom instruction. She’s struggled to reach students with disabilities through Zoom meetings. “It feels so inadequate compared to what they need,” she said.

But even so, she’s seen some positives in distance learning. Occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and teachers have collaborated more. The group does weekly check-ins with parents now—much more engagement than the usual once-a-year meeting to discuss students’ individualized education programs. “I do hope we find some way to continue to keep up that level of communication among the team,” Wagner said.

Other teachers, too, say they’ve cultivated new skills that have nothing to do with technology. Haddad, the English teacher in Connecticut, has started breaking work down into smaller steps, with more explicit directions. It’s helpful for students who are now working independently at home. But it could lead to more success in the classroom, too, she said.

“Virtual teaching skills are more than just being able to hold your kids’ attention for an hour,” said Penn’s Chandy. Online teachers have to figure out how to help develop their students’ agency as an independent learner, without a teacher constantly available.

It matters less which specific tech skills teachers have picked up during this time and more that they’ve shown a willingness to try new things, tinker with new tools, and problem-solve, Chandy said.

That mindset, she said, “that’s definitely something that’s not going to disappear.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as It Was a Bumpy Ride, But Teachers’ Tech Skills Are Rising


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