Remote Learning Was Not a Failure. It’s an Opportunity to Revolutionize Education

Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

It’s too early to give up on remote learning. In recent weeks, news articles and editorials posted online and in print have howled about the failure of remote learning. In addition, many articles have focused on restarting face-to-face instruction, showing models of in-person learning resuming in faraway places, such as Japan, Israel, and schools across Europe. There are some issues with these comparisons: the United States, home to just 3% of the world’s population, now hosts 25% of the novel Coronavirus infections. By contrast, Japan, one of the models touted as a way to return to in-person learning, has 1.62% of the world’s population, and has only .001% of the world’s COVID-19 cases. It is no wonder that Japan felt secure in opening its schools — clearly, it is doing something right to keep infection rates so low. Many politicians and parents across America are complaining vociferously, saying in-person school must resume. On July 7, the President weighed in as well, going so far as to threaten withholding federal funds for states that don’t reopen school. Their reasons? We must get back to normal, quality of instruction online is poor, kids are lonely and require the socialization opportunities that in-person schooling provides, students with disabilities and those who live in poverty are at a severe disadvantage, students are losing ground when it comes to learning and essential skills, and the biggest and loudest complaint: parents find it difficult to either work from home or to return to work if students remain at home. Many of these reasons are valid, and yet — why aren’t we looking for solutions to improve remote learning, a much safer option for students and teachers, rather than tossing remote learning altogether?

How I’m qualified to chime in

I have been a teacher since 2001, starting out my teaching career in a high school classroom in South Florida that was framed in chalkboards, featuring an overhead projector with transparencies and an old tv with a VCR player lassoed to a cart as the latest and greatest technology. Since then, I have taught in nine schools in two states, four districts, both at the high school and middle school level, teaching English/Language Arts for the first several years, and more recently switching to Social Studies. I am a Google-Certified educator currently teaching in a 1–1 device school, and I am the winner of two district-level awards (one for integrity and the other for teamwork), plus a handful of school-based recognitions. In all of my years of teaching, including the dim years of high-stakes accountability, I have received the highest rating for teacher effectiveness: Highly Effective. I spent two years as an instructional coach in a middle school, have been called a “master teacher” by my superiors, and most important of all: my students consistently give me high marks on the anonymous survey I conduct at the end of every year, and for the few students who have criticisms, I drill down into their feedback to figure out what I can do better.

I am also a parent. I have two children: my son will be headed to middle school in the fall for sixth grade, and my daughter will be starting fourth at her elementary school. During the spring’s great forced experiment with remote learning, I not only juggled my own classes, but I also helped them with their schoolwork. Some might argue that I had a steep advantage: I’m a teacher, after all, so why wouldn’t my children be successful? I’m here to say that it wasn’t all a bouquet of roses — in fact, my daughter in particular had some struggles. And I’m no wizard at fifth grade math — I can barely remember what I had for dinner last night, let alone remember how to divide fractions. There were times when I was too busy to help them — I had online staff meetings to attend, planning meetings with my fellow U.S. History teachers, student meetings to host, and pressures to get lessons posted on time. But I can attest to this: we had successes, and we had failures — but we struggled through our failures and learned from them. And isn’t that true learning?

I’m not the only one who experienced success

I work in Jefferson County, Colorado, a district that serves 84,000 students and has 4,700 educators. Friday, March 13 was our last day of traditional school. I was hosting a Socratic seminar in all of my classes on the following question: What should the powers of the President be? We had prepared for this discussion by learning about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, finding out about how executive orders work, and by examining the language in Article I of the Constitution. Students had also read contemporary articles about presidents, present and former, and how they had exercised their powers. Students had to decide: is the Constitution too vague? Do presidents use their powers fairly, or should their powers be more constrained so that abuses don’t occur? We had a robust discussion, despite the looming, silent fears we all shared: how bad was the Coronavirus going to be? We were certain we’d be back together after an extended Spring Break, but we all know that’s not what happened, and on March 18, we found ourselves in a forced online environment for our safety and to ensure that hospitals were not overloaded with patients fighting the virus.

Jefferson County is a county that is often used as a litmus test for how an election will go in Colorado; we are nearly evenly divided when it comes to politics and voting, a nice plum shade of purple during recent years’ elections. Jeffco Schools is a suburban school district, just a few miles outside of Denver, hugging the base of the Front Range. We feature a stunning array of socio-economics, all the way from schools that are 96–97% free-and-reduced lunch, a good indication of high poverty, to communities where students live in multi-million dollar homes and drive to school in cars that cost more than a teacher’s entire yearly salary. At most recent count, according to the Colorado Department of Education, our schools were 67% white, 24% Hispanic, 4% multiple races, 3% Asian, 1% Black, 1% Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 0.5% American Indian or Alaskan Native. By comparison, the U.S. Census shows that the country, as of 2019, was 76% white, 18.5% Hispanic or Latino, 13.4% Black, nearly 6% Asian, and 1.3% American Indian or Alaskan Native. While these figures are not an exact match, I believe they are close enough in some respects to say that Jefferson County, in many ways, is just as or more diverse than the country, at large.

In April, Jeffco Schools decided to administer two separate online surveys. The first was given between April 3–10, and yielded the following results: 72% of students, 71% of families, and 73% of teachers reported that online learning was going well or very well, from their perspective. Only 4% of students who took the survey reported having a hard time and wanted to talk to someone. These students who indicated distress were promptly contacted directly by principals, assistant principals, and counselors at their respective home schools, to offer assistance and dig deeper towards getting those students the help they needed. Combined, over 17,000 stakeholders responded to the online survey, including 11,259 students. Of those students, 97% reported having engaged in online learning that week. Yes, it is true that not all students participated in the survey, and so the rating of well or very well may not be a true indicator, but national polls also do not reach every single American to find out their tastes on certain issues, yet these same polls are often used to determine policy that touches us all. It should also be noted that of the more than 11,000 students who responded, 29% were of an ethnic or racial minority group, 6% were English-language learners, 22% were recipients of free or reduced lunch, and 7% had an Individual Education Plan.

The second survey, administered during the week of April 24-May 3, yielded similar results: 72% of students, 69% of families, and 69% of teachers all reported that online learning was going well or very well. In addition, educators reported an increase in connecting with students on a social-emotional level, at 51% having perceived that impact through some sort of contact online. Video conferencing was also up, with 56% of teachers reporting that they had engaged in some form of video conferencing with students during that week. From the student perspective, the use of paper packets as learning materials was down to 29%, whereas video chats with teachers was up to 70% for that week. Of all responding students (7,529 for this second survey), 81% reported having learned something new.

These surveys show a high level of satisfaction among students, parents, and teachers. Where is this dismal failure that so many recent editorialists speak of? They might point to the remaining 28–31% of respondents, who indicated online learning was either going just “okay” or “not well.” Some might point to these students and say they are getting left behind, and so in-person learning must resume as quickly as possible. But if we think about it, what we have here is an opportunity — what could be done to improve the learning experience for ALL students in an online learning environment, if we were to search for solutions and try out new approaches?

The general public is too often left in the dark when it comes to how school works. Learning is not a static process; we do not all learn the same way, nor do we (or should we) teach as we did in the Eisenhower Era of the 1950s. Technology has infiltrated schools and revolutionized learning, enriching and enhancing the experience of learners, when done well. A favorite phrase of educational leaders this past spring was that we were “building the plane while flying it” — at least they didn’t say it was burning, as well — I heard a principal say that once in an interview I was participating in, and I decided the metaphor was a little too suggestive of all-out catastrophe for me to board that plane. Jefferson County’s Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Jason Glass, in a recent email, had this to say about the situation this past spring: “Given the time and resources we had available, and the inherent limitations of an all-remote learning experience, it should be expected that engagement and the quality of the experience was diminished.” During remote learning, teachers who had minimal experience with educational technology or had been reticent to try were suddenly forced into using online platforms, such as Google Classroom or Schoology to post assignments. Teachers who had been accustomed to more of a stand-and-deliver model of lecturing or going through instructions for the class period suddenly found themselves making video lessons for students or creating Hyperdocs. Some teachers found success more quickly than others, but as the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, teachers adapted and grew.

How can we possibly go backward, into a standard face-to-face model? For anyone who has ever repeated herself for an hour-long lecture on Civil War battles with a Google Slides presentation and a timeline for each student to take notes on five times over, you know how tiring and boring it is. Imagine doing that as students drool at their desks after a solid 20 minutes of taking notes on their timeline from a lecture, with a respite of a quick brain break to get the juices flowing once more, and the occasional stand-and-chat universal question to get them thinking on the resonance of the Civil War. Here’s the elephant in the room: just because students are physically sitting at a desk in a classroom, it doesn’t mean they are engaging. Being a body in a room doesn’t really mean you are “attending.” I speak from experience. Imagine going from a classroom with 15 students on IEPs, another three on ALPs (advanced learning plans) and the remainder somewhere in the middle, having a SEL lesson (social-emotional learning) in the wee hours of the morning with a home room class, and planning periods sucked away by a PLC (professional learning community) meeting during first plan and an IEP meeting during second plan, with a student meeting with parents after school. How much differentiation or meeting of individual students’ needs do you think will take place that day, for those students? It’s an easy equation: virtually none. I know there is another way.

A week’s lesson from my class this spring online, by contrast: first, students engaged in a PearDeck, asynchronously, taking the exact immigration test that was given to immigrants when they first entered Ellis Island. Immediately after the test was a video for them to watch, to give them background and context on immigration in America. Next, for the three days that followed, students were given an online webquest to engage in, using Scholastic’s immigration in America website and interactive timeline, in the form of a BINGO card Hyperdoc, with three mini-lesson videos on core topics with space for students to collect notes and answer questions, plus share new understandings. The following week had students engaging in two EdPuzzles — one on Conservatives’ views on immigration, followed by another on Liberals’ views. Students then spent two days learning about four policies regarding immigration, before choosing and justifying their own viewpoint, answering: What should America’s immigration policy be? The week also featured contemporary articles on immigration, and concluded with a choice activity; students chose one of the four options: a) write a letter to your senator, advocating for what you think should be America’s immigration policy, b) create a poster or digital annotated collage that supports the policy you think would be best for America, c) engage in a synchronous, live discussion with your peers about what America’s policy should be in the morning from 10–11am, or d) engage in a synchronous, live discussion in the afternoon from 1–2pm. Can you see the variety of learning styles at work? Can you sense students’ heightened engagement and excitement? What you may not realize is the amount of time and preparation that my colleague and I sunk into developing these plans. You might wonder: what was I doing, while students were engaged in these asynchronous activities? I was holding small groups, creating three sets of daily mini-lesson videos (one for students who needed modified work, one for regular-level students, and one for my GT students and honors classes). I was meeting individually with students. I was meeting with my co-teacher for our two high-IEP classes to create a list of students and parents to reach out to that week. I was grading. I was answering emails and making phone calls. I was attending meetings with colleagues. And yes, I was helping my own two kids with their online work. And I felt, overall, it was a grand success.

Not every teacher found the shift to be easy, though. Some teachers would have a rougher road, especially if they don’t have an interest or experience with tech for educational use. Dr. Glass wrote, “[w]hat will be more difficult is supporting the significant instructional shifts for practitioners who are assigned to teach remotely. Some will be well-suited to it — some won’t. We’ll need to meet teachers and staff where they are and support them all toward competency.”

Another challenge is that of building relationships: a cornerstone of good teaching and an absolute must as we make our way through these challenging times. “Starting school next year in the all-remote setting, we won’t have [well-established relationships],” Dr. Glass wrote, in answer to my question on challenges of remote learning, “I think this is going to be the hardest element to overcome.” There is no doubt that it was easier to shift into a remote environment, having already established classroom norms and having prior relationships with my students. However, just because a student was present in my class doesn’t mean that we had formed a meaningful connection. Sometimes, despite all efforts, that bridge just can’t be built, even in a face-to-face environment. But with some of my students, remote learning actually helped us to grow together.

I will share one example of my success in reaching a student with you; let’s call him Sam. During our first semester together in class, Sam was an utter disaster. He was constantly distracted during class, never seemed to have a pencil, but even if he was given one he didn’t seem to know what to do with it. He was in a 6th period class with 29 other students, many of them boys with similar inattention problems and low reading skills. Moving his seat became a weekly, sometimes daily event. Successes with Sam were few and far between. Nothing seemed to stick. Sam usually had a little gleam of mischief in his eye, and during quick redirects and private conversations, including parent-teacher conferences, he would look bashful and say he should work harder — and then he wouldn’t. Sam earned an F during the fall semester. The spring semester started a little better, with Sam starting out his day with me in first period. His notebook was better, and he was off-task less than he had been before. But Sam’s achievement was still low. Sam didn’t like being singled out for one-on-one help, and he didn’t like being part of a small group reteach lesson, either. He was quiet and somewhat withdrawn. Enter remote learning. Sam didn’t complete the first few lessons, so I called him and his parents. We talked about what would work for him. I made adjustments to his work and forgave an assignment. I got him to join Remind, a texting app for teachers and students. The next day, I texted him to see how he was doing, and he texted back. A few days later, he had a question, and he texted me. I replied within two minutes. Sam thanked me, and completed his assignment. He watched my video mini-lessons, and I focused on the essentials, differentiating for him and a few others who had been struggling. Sam went on to become an active participant, engaging in every lesson. He showed up to an online discussion. Sam grew as a student. Towards the end of the semester, Sam let me know when a website wasn’t working and asked if I could fix the link. He was the first student to log on that morning, at 7:45. I don’t understand how remote learning could be written off as a failure. Sam, like many other students, experienced success.

Addressing the critics of remote learning

Many critics of remote learning pointed to absenteeism or to assignments that lacked substance. It is true: some students were chronically “absent” from learning. What many may not realize: the stressors brought on by the pandemic of 2020 caused upheaval in the lives of many of our students. Some parents lost their jobs. Families worried about how to pay their rent. Some students had parents or grandparents who became ill. Yes, some students played hooky because they knew they could, but most students were “absent” for legitimate reasons. Also not on the radar screen of the public: schools did heavy lifting when it came to student and family outreach. My co-teacher and I alone made a list of 40 students to call one week. And it wasn’t for nothing: in most cases, our outreach had positive effects. Parents were grateful for the information, and students were glad (and maybe a little embarrassed) to talk to us. Another fact that most of the public was aware of: teachers’ hands were tied.

When remote learning first started in our district, in mid-March, teachers were told: only give students a half hour of work for each class, and grades from this point forward won’t count. While we all aspire for students to be intrinsically motivated, grades are a powerful motivator. And when students are told their grades won’t go down if they don’t attend, some will choose not to. Dr. Sean O’Leary, speaking on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics said, “a lot of us are parents. We experienced our own kids doing online learning. There really wasn’t a lot of learning happening.” While a few of my students from each class dropped off from time to time, the grand majority stayed the distance. As for learning not happening, that statement appears to be based on his own limited perception. From my view, based on our final class survey, my students enjoyed our entirely-online unit of Reconstruction the most, out of everything we had studied the entire year. Granted, I only taught 157 students last year. But I think I have more authority to say what learning has taken place over a parent of two children. Parents should also know: teachers were told to hold off on assigning too much work, for fear of overwhelming students and families during times of high stress. So when parents complained that there wasn’t enough to keep their students busy, it wasn’t teachers’ fault, nor should the school districts be blamed. It was caution out of care, not out of apathy or inability.

We all would agree that in-person offers many great features, including socialization of children, group interactions, as well as one-on-one time with the teacher. Ask any elementary student what part of school is their favorite, and you will invariably hear, “recess.” During the late spring and early summer, a loud chorus of parents have begun singing the tune of returning to school to minimize harm to students’ social-emotional needs. But when challenges, such as COVID-19 arrive, there are other ways to ensure a child is receiving the play time with peers that they need. Many families have “bubbled” with immediate families of their child’s close friends, or arranged for distanced meetings at a park or playground, where it is now thought to be relatively safe to visit with each other in outside spaces with circulating air. Parents have located online camps, formed book groups, or music lessons on Zoom. We must continue to find ways to meet the social-emotional needs of children in extended at-home situations. Given the opportunity, parents can and will find creative solutions beyond Nintendo-as-babysitter to ensure their child is interacting with others in meaningful ways.

A major complaint made by the majority of writers of editorials these days seems to be that if students stay home, parents can’t work. This speaks nothing to the potential quality of learning via remote learning, but instead speaks to parents feeling inconvenienced. Dr. O’Leary, said, “So much of our world relies on kids being in school and parents being able to work. Trying to work from home with the kids home is disproportionately impacting women.” There are two issues at work here, both of them problems deeply rooted in flaws within American society, not with remote learning itself. The United States does not support working families. Public, affordable childcare is grossly inadequate, not to mention parental leave time. Schools are used as babysitters, viewed by parents as ways to have a safe spot to drop kids off so that they can return, uninterrupted, to work. Parents’ issues with brick-and-mortar schools being closed is not about students failing to make progress; it’s about losing all of that free babysitting. If we truly regarded teachers as professionals and experts in the area of learning, rather than as babysitters, our thinking on remote learnings’ positives would be in clearer view. The other issue is that of the American family, and the traditional role of women in families. It is true that even in the 21st century, women are still expected to be the primary caretakers of children; just as the 80s movie Mr. Mom disappointed with Teri Garr’s character deciding to return to home life just after her career begins to take off, today’s mothers are expected to bow out when children are needing to be watched at home. And employers? Look at Florida State University’s poor example of addressing professors with children: after issuing a statement that employees working from home must locate some form of separate childcare, they were rightfully trolled into reversing their Byzantine stance. Society needs to embrace these changes and find workable solutions. Maybe it’s time for America to become less of a workaholic and pay more attention to family life and quality of life for employees, in general.

A problem that must be addressed is that of inequality — students living in poverty were faced with many more challenges, some insurmountable, when learning when entirely online. Poor internet connection, lack of computers or a scarcity of technology shared between siblings, plus parent absenteeism as many parents continued to work face-to-face jobs deemed essential, resulted in many of these students losing out. But let’s be honest: students who live in poverty (estimated to be 21% of all children in America by the National Center for Children in Poverty and 17.5% in 2017 by the Children’s Defense Fund) struggle in traditional school, as well. Yes, schools can readily see problems with students and provide direct services in schools, but what we have here is not a school problem — again, this is a societal problem. Why on earth, in the United States of America, deemed to be one of the 25 richest nations in the world, according to USA Today in 2019, based on synthesized data from the World Bank, “…also [have] the highest level of income inequality”? Clearly, our schools cannot continue to be the bandaid for an endemic, embarrassing, and ironic status.

Great Potential

Remote learning was a forced experiment of grand proportions: never before had all students across the country adopted a similar mode of instruction so quickly. In my own experience, teachers had but a few days to adapt lesson plans, rethink approaches, and learn new tech tools. Some educators floundered or were stressed out by the different expectations now heaped on them, but we adapted, and many of us thrived. Teachers are resilient, chameleons that adapt to address whatever new challenges are hurled at us, year after year. Why would remote learning be any different? There is a popular saying: You can’t scare me; I teach middle school. Teachers are master architects of curriculum; we are relationship-builders, role models, and at times, stand-in parents for our students; we are ninjas of time, able to use every single minute well, in class and out. And now we are also growing as online educators, diving into new tech tools and figuring out best practices in a remote environment. What we’ll need to be successful in this endeavor is parents’ support. Dr. Glass wrote, “We’ll need our parents, students, and teachers to understand that the remote learning option is going to be a three-way partnership and everybody has got to do their part for it to be effective.” The same wisdom is true of the traditional brick-and-mortar schooling we were all so used to; you can’t be missing a leg from a tripod and expect it to stand. Let’s not step backwards; let’s not do a 180-turn and return to our old ways just because they are comfortable or allow us to kick the can of societal problems a little further down the road. Don’t pull the plug on remote learning; instead, let’s reboot it, and see what amazing things we can do with our students next.

Cindy Shapiro is a middle school Early U.S. History teacher at Dunstan Middle School in Lakewood, Colorado. She is a writer, a fervent advocate for her students and fellow teachers, and driven to improve education in America for all students.

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