Oct 07 2020

How Do Teachers Make Hands-On Classes Work Online? With Tech and Innovation

With tech and creativity, K–12 educators are adapting classes such as auto mechanics and science labs to virtual learning environments.

It’s a shared challenge facing instructors whose classes typically involve labs or career and technical education: In the age of physical distancing and remote learning, how do educators re-create hands-on lessons online?

“How can I help someone learn to weld if they can’t come in and use the equipment?” asks Lori Romano, director of career, technical and adult education at Pasco County Schools in Florida. “How do you teach cosmetology when your students can’t touch any hair?”

The instructors within her department have found answers, Romano says, mainly because they had no other choice. When the district schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, it was sink or swim — they had to do something.

“Fortunately, CTE teachers are extremely creative and adaptable, and they truly love what they do,” she says. “The pandemic forced them to think outside the box, but most of them were already good at that anyway.”

Before the pandemic, there was greater interest and investment in CTE courses because of their value as pathways to viable careers. Now, though, many schools and most of the nation’s largest districts have started the new school year with full-time e-learning. Classes traditionally built around hands-on, in-person instruction — science labs, externships and classes in automotive repair or culinary arts, to name a few — are more difficult to offer in exclusively virtual environments. But those classes also are in demand: Roughly 77 percent of high school students earn at least one credit in a CTE course, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In Pasco County Schools, more than 24,000 students — almost a third of the district’s total enrollment — take a CTE course every year, Romano says. All told, her department offers more than 250 courses in close to 40 unique CTE subjects. Older students often pursue certification programs that will help them land jobs after graduation, while those in middle or elementary school take exploratory classes designed to introduce them to different careers. The district’s offerings in a typical semester include programs in aerospace technology, automotive maintenance, building construction and culinary arts.

CTE Teachers Adapt to the Times

Romano says her instructors have found workarounds, many of them technology-driven, for teaching such courses in a virtual environment. For their certified nursing assistant program, for example, instructors are helping students learn new skills by observing and coaching via videoconference.

“Instead of practicing tourniquets on a mannequin in the lab, you’re doing it on your brother in your living room while talking with your teacher on FaceTime, Teams or Zoom,” she says.

For programs such as welding that require in-person supervision, the ­district developed new schedules that allow students to take turns with equipment in very small groups. And cosmetology students now receive kits with everything they need to work from home, Romano says.

“It’s the same way with the culinary students,” she says.

The students have the tools and supplies they need, and they record videos of themselves performing techniques their instructor previously taught them over a ­videoconferencing platform.

At the start of the pandemic, Pasco County’s CTE teachers met weekly for a crash course leveraging the district’s learning management system. As the current school year began, they were taught to use the district’s newest instructional tool: a Swivl robot.

“You put it on a tripod with a tablet computer, and it follows you around the room and records you automatically,” Romano explains. Teachers can livestream the video to students.

“If there’s a skills lab where teachers need to demonstrate something with their hands, they don’t have to worry whether students can see,” Romano says. “The robot handles that part for them so they can simply focus on teaching.”

lori romano, director of career, technical and adult education, pasco county schools


How to Teach Hands-On Skills Remotely

Even before the pandemic, “plenty of institutions were already exploring how they might provide CTE remotely,” says Alisha Hyslop, director of public policy with the Association for Career and Technical Education. Educators, particularly those in rural areas, have used technologies such as videoconferencing, simulation software and virtual reality to expand the reach of CTE programs. Such tools don’t eliminate the need for in-person learning, Hyslop says, “but they can be a good way for instructors to engage with students when they can’t be in labs working on hands-on skills.”

READ MORE: Discover how immersive tech can expand CTE options for students with disabilities.

Arlie Huffman, director of career and technical education at the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, agrees. In normal times, BVSD offers about 50 CTE classes in everything from early childhood education to forensics investigation and criminology. High school students typically receive practical training at the district’s dedicated technical education center.

Educators had to quickly adjust in the spring. “It all happened at the flip of a switch; nobody was 100 percent prepared,” Huffman says. Before long, his team found ways to improvise.

“Most of the teachers took everything they could and put it in our online learning management system. But the experiential piece was extremely challenging and really required them to be creative.”

An automotive collision repair instructor made videos from his home garage and posted them on YouTube for students to watch. Another teacher sent students in the construction program home with donated lumber and had them help their families with small repair projects. And the instructor for a criminal justice class, who normally would have had access to the program’s crime scene laboratory, made do with a little mayhem in her own backyard.

“She had a tent and fake dead bodies, and she staged an entire murder scene. Then she took video and photos and posted everything online,” Huffman says.

Working remotely, students used additional clues from the instructor to solve the fake crime and produce a report. “It’s not the same as hands-on, but it’s something,” he says.

Moving forward, BVSD teachers will continue “making do with what they have” to deliver CTE remotely, Huffman says. The district may also purchase trade-specific technologies that promise to make distance learning easier.

“The welding simulators are fantastic now,” he says. “And simulators of any kind will always be useful for kids who just want to see if something’s worth pursuing.”

Having to adjust to remote learning also pushed educators to recognize things don’t always have to be done the same way. “That will help everybody in the future,” Huffman says, “even when we’re back face to face.”

Donna Grethen/Ikon Images (illustration); Magnilion/Getty Images (VR goggles); Arkadivna/Getty Images (wrench);

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