Like every other educator this spring, I found myself in the position of trying to figure out how to effectively do my job in a distance learning model. As a library media specialist in my 1200 student middle school, I help staff and students leverage educational technology as well as help to create a love for reading and inquiry. It soon became apparent to me that there was a role to be played in these areas during distance learning.
The first few weeks of elearning saw the ed tech companies like Pear Deck, SeeSaw, Quizlet, and EdPuzzle, to name just a few, offer their premium products for free! Indeed, teachers in my building felt overwhelmed by all the resources that were quickly becoming available and shared through email and social media. At my school, we decided the best way to organize these resources would be to create a Google Classroom where teachers could post resources. However, even that became a bit daunting to navigate. I quickly came to realize that, at least in the early, chaotic first few weeks of e-learning, that if a teacher wasn’t already familiar with a tech tool, that perhaps now is not the best time to push for its use.
What was gratifying, however, was to see teachers comfortably use tools that had been introduced and promoted over time prior to the pandemic; for example, tools like FlipGrid, Screencastify, Padlet, and Google Sites.
Videoconferencing also quickly became a hot topic. Some teachers were ready to be on camera with their students right away, while others were hesitant to take that step. I found that a good intermediary step for those reluctant teachers was to demonstrate how they can create videos of themselves to post for their students. Many staff members had used Screencastify prior to the e-learning, but for those who hadn’t, it was a great tool for getting acclimated to being on camera as opposed to normal face-to-face instruction.
For the teachers who were video conferencing with students using Zoom or Google Meet (I won’t go into the merits and differences of each, but it is definitely a discussion to have), I was amazed at how well the kids adapted to that dynamic. In fact, I can recall one class that I was on a call with, and I was amazed at how well they understood the parameters of a video classroom. They were respectful, used the platform’s tools correctly, and took their cues from the teacher. I think this behavior probably spoke to the students’ social-emotional needs at that time: they needed to see familiar faces. That quickly pointed out to me that if no other content instruction happened, the social-emotional learning (SEL) that was taking place was invaluable.
The landscape changed drastically when Governor Pritzker made the announcement that schools would remain closed for the duration of the year. Now, there was a sense, as an educator, that your digital toolbox needed to be ratcheted up. And they did. Under normal circumstances, a teacher in my building really only has their planning period to meet with me for help in using an edtech tool. Now, my colleagues had unfettered access! I was glad to have that as a purposeful role during our e-learning. I was able to virtually assist individuals as well as offer some group professional development via Zoom. I offered sessions over Pear Deck and SeeSaw that were well attended (as an aside, these are both excellent resources for remote learning).
One important takeaway from the edtech perspective: both students and educators will need to spend instructional time in the fall to give some definition and guidelines for e-learning. It was amazing to watch how teachers quickly adapted and learned under the duress of the pandemic. However, armed with the knowledge that we will likely be in the same situation, in some form or another, we will have the opportunity to better prepare teachers, students, and parents for what e-learning will look like moving forward.
As I mentioned, I am also charged with helping to promote a book culture and a life-long love of reading. We have a print collection of nearly 15,000 books that I like to think speak to the varied interests and backgrounds of our students. I’m very proud of our print collection, but that quickly became a moot point. Besides, how would books compete with the binge watching Netflix crowd, both kids and adults?
I am pleased to report that books were being read and that they were a source of enjoyment during e-learning! But, what books and how did kids access them? We have used OverDrive as our ebook platform for the past seven years. I will admit that there were times when I wondered if the dollars spent on the platform were justified. Overwhelmingly, readers of all ages prefer print books to ebooks when given a choice. As a reader myself, that too is my preference. But like so many other things that changed, so did our ebook circulation. An average three month ebook circulation would be about 200 checkouts. During e-learning, that number rose to about 1200! We were able to offer book clubs, group novels, and even whole class novel instruction through the use of the OverDrive platform and the Sora app. We are even thinking about expanding our ebook usage as a result of the success we enjoyed using ebooks.
As a school we also use Actively Learn and Newsela for reading instruction, which also served us extremely well during e-learning. From a librarian’s perspective, I too like both of these platforms for the independent reading choices that it gives to students. Both of these platforms also allow for asynchronous discussion around text–a key feature during the e-learning process. Students and teachers could leave comments and have a discussion around a piece of text without having to be in a synchronous environment.
COVID-19 will have lasting effects in education. Even when things are back to “normal,” I feel that the lessons learned during e-learning will have an impact on future instruction. How will video conferencing be leveraged moving forward? Will the flipped classroom model become fully realized? How will high speed internet access be addressed in terms of equity? What training will staff and students need in the area of distance learning? While the answers to these questions are not easy, I know that the profession, as it always does, adapts and seeks to continually improve the teaching and learning process.