Jun 22 2020

E-Learning Struggles Prepare Districts for What’s Next

District leaders say lessons learned when pivoting to remote instruction will help them fill in implementation gaps in the next round.

Sometimes the best approach to dealing with the biggest problems involves taking a deep breath and diving in headfirst.

That’s the way it was facing the coronavirus pandemic, says Peter Cevenini, CTO at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.

“The situation evolved so fast,” he says, “everything we did kind of happened simultaneously.”

As circumstances quickly changed and schools began implementing remote instruction earlier this year, IT teams and other district leaders had to do triage on their virtual learning programs to address technical issues, internet access disparities and other challenges that popped up. That experience required a level of problem-solving that will inform how K–12 districts implement remote learning in the future.

“It’s the same in almost any district,” Cevenini says, “but we have a lot of students who don’t have access to digital technology at home. I think the difference in our case had mostly to do with our size.”

With its 165,000 students and 14,000 teachers spread across a network of more than 200 schools, MCPS is one of the largest districts in the nation. When the pandemic hit and schools were ordered to close, his department, with help from volunteers, immediately turned its focus to distributing thousands of Chromebooks (the district already had 130,000 on hand) and ensuring students had adequate connectivity. IT staffers set up distribution sites at schools where students could check out loaner devices, and they provided T-Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots to those who lacked internet access.

“We did it in rounds over several weeks, with everyone helping wherever they could,” Cevenini says. “That’s really the only way we were able to get it done."

It took a similar all-hands-on-deck effort to prepare MCPS teachers for the remote learning plunge, Cevenini recalls. For IT, that work focused on ensuring that teachers had the technologies needed to communicate with students remotely, and it involved maintaining some semblance of consistency for users. 

“I’ve heard from teachers in other districts where every day they’re being asked to try something new, as if they didn’t have a hard enough job already,” Cevenini says. But MCPS picked systems and stuck with them, and now IT staffers are focused on helping MCPS teachers use what’s in place “to do everything they need to do.”

For example, Cevenini says, MCPS uses Zoom for videoconferencing not only because it’s relatively easy to use but also because it integrates seamlessly with the district’s learning management system and includes tools such as closed captioning. 

“That was really important for our special education community, and so was the fact that we could really lock it down” with privacy and security controls, Cevenini says. While he can’t predict what the post-COVID-19 world will look like for education, Cevenini feels MCPS is prepared: “What we’ve done here in setting the district up isn’t just to get us through this pandemic; it’s to make sure we have the tools for next time as well.” 

When that day comes, Cevenini says, pivoting to remote learning “should be as simple as flipping a switch.”

Peter Cevenini, CTO, Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools
I’ve heard from teachers in ­other districts where every day they’re being asked to try something new, as if they didn’t have a hard enough job already.”

Peter Cevenini CTO, Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools

Ready for E-Learning Next Time

K–12 administrators say COVID-19 forced them to pivot to implement remote learning in unimagined ways. Some are still struggling to find solutions to challenges such as ensuring network access for all students and staff as well as accommodating students with disabilities. But administrators are also reporting wins along the way. 

“I think we’ve dealt with it all,” says Drew Lane, the executive director of information and communication technologies at Shawnee Mission School District in Kansas. 

“Everything from people just being completely shellshocked in terms of what school closures actually mean to denial, anger and then eventually understanding that we can do this successfully, that we have what we need to continue teaching and learning.

55.1 million

The estimated number of students affected by coronavirus-related school closures

Source: edweek.org, “Map: Coronavirus and School Closures,” May 15, 2020

In Shawnee Mission’s case, Lane says, the district may have been better situated for the transition than some thanks to its early adoption of Cisco Webex. SMSD, a district with 27,500 pre-K–12 students, has used the collaboration platform for about five years, primarily as a communication tool between departments for administrators. When the district implemented its plan for learning continuity after closing its school buildings, Webex “became the core component of that plan — the system we used to coordinate all of our efforts,” Lane says.

Those efforts, he explains, included deploying about 30,000 devices to students as well as offering training and informational sessions designed to help teachers provide digital instruction. Teachers had to get through a learning curve, he notes, but soon they achieved small successes, such as using a Webex translation app to deliver personalized content to students who are English language learners. 

“It really is those pockets of silver lining that make me think we can figure this out,” Lane says. “Don’t get me wrong — technology won’t solve all our problems. But I think we have a suitable alternative for now.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn what drives or slows down remote learning.

The Future Impact of Remote Learning

Shawnee Mission administrators are not alone in warming to the potential for remote learning.

“Our superintendent has said many times that we turned 385 years of public education completely upside down in two weeks,” says Whitney Oakley, chief academic officer at Guilford County Schools in North Carolina. “What we have now is an opportunity to be innovative and to hopefully change the system for the better.”

At GCS, a district with about 73,000 students enrolled across 126 schools, the initial remote learning push focused primarily on student equity, Oakley says. “We have lots of areas of hypersegregated poverty, so we started with the basic needs, such as making sure kids had food.” 

From there, GCS distributed thousands of devices, relying on donations from local philanthropic agencies to cover expenses, and staffers set up hotspots in safe public spaces, including school parking lots. 

“These donated devices are computers that students get to keep,” Oakley says. Providing that connectivity remains the district’s biggest hurdle for remote learning, she says. 


The percentage of eighth grade students who use the internet to do homework every day

Source: pewresearch.org, “As schools close due to the coronavirus, some U.S. students face digital ‘homework gap,’” March 16, 2020

“What does that mean for when this is over? We don’t have all the answers yet, but we can certainly take the skills we’re learning now and use them to develop models that better meet the needs of all students.”

Oakley says she has no illusions that remote learning can take the place of in-class education, and she worries about learning loss among students the longer school building closures continue. But as she’s worked with teachers in areas like physical education who would normally never use an online platform, Oakley says she has been impressed by the possibilities. 

“They’re using video and they’re setting up daily challenges, and they’re having students type into the discussion board about how they felt before, during and after that day’s physical activity,” Oakley says. 

Few physical education teachers would choose this approach given the chance to lead classes in person, but some may come to see it as a valuable adjunct to traditional instruction, she says. 

“Everyone’s being creative and challenging students in new ways. I can imagine that will eventually carry over to what they do when we all return.”

Illustration by Harry Campbell/Theispot

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