Mar 23 2020

CoSN2020: What Administrators Should Know About Enabling E-Learning

It takes more than devices to successfully implement remote instruction, experts say.

Increased availability of mobile technology is enabling teaching and learning at any time, anywhere.

More than half of U.S. school districts have one-to-one computing programs, says Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. Many districts that lack one-to-one environments are close to it, he says. That trend, along with advancements in other educational technology, can also support instruction even when school buildings close.

A number of districts already operate online learning days when schools temporarily close for inclement weather or other emergencies. IT leaders are quickly realizing that the ability to continue school operations is essential, Krueger says.

Schools across the country have closed or are scheduled to close due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. In many cases, administrators and teachers are quickly shifting to remote learning options.

“Business continuity for schools means that you have to provide online learning in cases of an emergency, and this is a health emergency,” Krueger says. “But we know there are other emergencies that happen, whether they’re fires or tornadoes or things like that. How do we make sure that the learning can continue?”

Access to devices alone won’t fully support remote learning. Teachers and students need to be ready to teach and learn online. E-learning programs involve a number of considerations such as securing devices for students and staff, ensuring cybersecurity and providing technical support. Other considerations for a large-scale transition include systems — learning management systems or student information systems — as well as network access and connectivity, according to recently released guidance from CoSN.

Administrators should also define the role of IT staff “before moving instruction off-site and into an online environment,” CoSN noted. The technology should not drive instruction.

The following are additional needs or concerns administrators should think through when implementing e-learning.

What Challenges Related to Equity and Access Need to Be Addressed?

Many students, particularly those from low-income families, might have an internet connection, but it’s likely on a mobile device, Krueger says.

Students living in rural areas may also lack cellphone reception, let alone reliable, high-speed internet access at home. Some districts have partnered with vendors such as Kajeet or found other creative ways to ensure students have sufficient Wi-Fi access.

Families may also have reasons for not wanting devices in the home, says Eileen Belastock, director of academic technology for Mount Greylock Regional School District in Massachusetts.

“So how do you have an online environment and still provide education to students who are not participating fully online?” she asks.

Other potential disparities include the level of technical skill and support students have at home, Belastock says. The school-issued device may be the only one a family has, which may limit parents’ ability to help their child, she says.

Online learning efforts should also meet the needs of students with disabilities and accommodate students’ individualized education plans (IEPs) — requirements underscored in guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Educators should make sure online content is accessible and that features such as text-to-speech work correctly, says Beth Holland, director of CoSN’s Digital Equity Project.

“When adding images to things on web pages, are there alt tags so that a screen reader could read it? Are the tools being used to build online content responsive so that you can increase and decrease the text? Most platforms allow for all of that to happen,” Holland says.

MORE ON EDTECH: Watch how district leaders are guiding educators and students through e-learning options for when school buildings close.

Another challenge is ensuring handouts are accessible, that teachers understand how to create PDF files using optical character recognition, which makes text selectable, she says. “Not only does this help students who might be struggling readers, it also helps your language learners, and it helps students who might have some type of a language challenge.”

It’s important to think through potential technical needs for remote learning. For example, in Belastock’s district, which uses Canvas and Google learning platforms, IT staff can remotely work on school-issued laptops. They also can address other needs, such as arranging for students to pick up Chromebooks if needed, she says. The devices are “going through our strong filtering system, making sure that when students are online they are safe,” Belastock says.

It’s also important to maintain human connections, experts say.

“Every kid in our district will get an adult connection every day that they are not here,” says Joe Sanfelippo, superintendent of Fall Creek School District in Wisconsin. He says he told his staff they will figure out the best way to ensure that connection, whether by phone or text or through online platforms such as Google Hangouts.

“Whatever it is,” Sanfelippo says, “they get something every day from their teacher, knowing that their teacher misses them, that they care about them, and they want to move forward.”

In light of CoSN2020 hosting their virtual conference in May, we’re doing special coverage on remote learning. Keep this page bookmarked for our ongoing coverage. Follow us on Twitter @EdTech_K12 and join the conversation using #CoSN2020.

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