SciLine interviewed: Dr. Natalie B. Milman, a professor of educational technology and the director of the Educational Technology Leadership Program at The George Washington University. Her research interests include the use of technology at all academic levels, as well as issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity.
What can K12 educators do to support students’ remote learning success?
NATALIE MILMAN: First and foremost, walking them through what to expect – some kind of an orientation or welcome back to school. And I think with that, teachers can then share what students might expect as well as how the school year is very different and recognizing how it’s different. One very big difference between this new academic year and last spring, when pretty much the entire world – definitely the United States – had to move to emergency remote teaching and learning, was that teachers already knew their students. In this case, teachers may or may not know their students already. So that connection is really, really important. The other is to establish routines and a schedule that they can follow and understand. It’s important for students to be able to access the materials and for them to intuitively know where to access materials, how to get information about assignments, how to submit assignments.
One of the complaints and one of the things that we learned from emergency remote teaching in the spring was that there were so many ways that teachers were sharing materials and sharing content that a lot of times students didn’t know what they had to do. They didn’t know how to submit an assignment or let alone where the assignment was – so on. So having a space, having a way to communicate that. The other is having some time for students to build some community. That’s really, really important with remote learning, is that students feel like they’re part of a classroom and a classroom community. So providing opportunities for students not only to get to know the teacher but also to get to know one another is another very important thing.
Another thing that teachers can do to support remote learning – this is something that, really, I think applies to all teachers – is to be flexible and also to be listening to their students. There are adjustments that they probably will have to make throughout the academic year or the semester. I mean, many instance – in many locations, schools are starting out teaching remotely. Teachers in schools are starting out teaching remotely. And in many cases that might shift to in-person, or it might shift to a blended kind of option. So flexibility is going to be really important this academic year and, I think, making it clear to students that that’s also important.
Another thing that teachers can do with regard to remote learning is recognizing and putting up front the fact that while they might have had time to plan and that the shift to remote learning may not have been as abrupt as it was in spring, it’s still a learning process for everyone and for the students as well. We recognize – I think teachers recognize at all levels this is hard for everybody. And it’s important for teachers to make clear as much as possible in their communications to students that they are there to support them and they recognize this is hard; this is not ideal. Living during a pandemic is really challenging, but we’re all learning in this together. And I think that’s an important thing for teachers also to share with their own students.
How can parents and caregivers help children learn effectively via remote platforms?
NATALIE MILMAN: As a parent, helping one’s child or children establish routines and schedules. In many families, you know, there’s multiple schedules and multiple demands going on, but it’s really important to try to provide children structure. Structure is helpful not only with their learning, but also, it helps them develop skills that will promote their own learning. Another is having some kind of a space where a child can say, this is my study space. Like, this is where I’m going to be learning. Now, I’m not saying that learning in other spaces is not something you should ever do. I mean, again, this idea of being flexible is really important. And if there’s anything that I learned as an educator over the years, it’s that flexibility is really important. And actually, as a parent as well, being flexible is really important.
But it is also important for them to have, you know, this designated space where they can work. And, you know, maybe it’s a bean bag in the corner of a room. Maybe it’s a desk, more – you know, maybe it’s a makeshift desk. Whatever it is – having a space and ensuring that that space is protected. And sometimes it’s shared space. Maybe it’s the kitchen table. But whatever it is, you know, making sure that they have that support. Other things that they – that parents can do is listening to their children, as well as talking with their children about how things are going and what their needs are. And even if they’re complaining – like, rather than saying, oh, you know, I know your teacher is trying hard and – or not exactly believing a teenager who might be complaining a lot about not liking remote learning, you know, try to ask deeper questions. What’s going on? And why are you feeling that way? And – you know, because there are a lot of reasons for asking that.
Not only does it provide the child an opportunity to process and share how they’re doing and what they’re doing and what they’re going through, but it also helps the parent understand their own child and be able to advocate for their child if they need to or to help the child learn how to advocate for themselves. And of course, this will depend on the age, developmental age level, developmental level of the child and where they are. But even kindergarten kids and preschool kids can learn to advocate for themselves in a developmentally appropriate way.
What can schools do to support students who lack the hardware and Internet access that is needed for remote learning?
NATALIE MILMAN: This is a very challenging aspect of what we learned about during emergency remote teaching and learning last spring is that there are a lot of students who don’t – and not only students, but also faculty and staff – who don’t have the appropriate or any hardware and software and Internet connectivity in order to learn remotely or work remotely, for that matter. So it’s really important for schools to reach out proactively to their students and find out who is it that needs the hardware and the software.
They also need to figure out ways to provide it for them. There’s been legislation with the COVID Cares Act that did provide a lot of funding. So hopefully a lot of that funding is going towards supporting that need. The other is providing technical support. And that is an area that, you know, I’ve been seeing cuts across a lot of different places, and it’s one area that is – there’s a great need. If there’s a technical issue, not only a hardware or a software issue, but, you know, how to – just some basic understanding of how to connect or, if there’s a synchronous session going on, that there’s some way for the student, as well as the teachers to be able – or the faculty, if it’s higher ed – to be able to connect with a human being, to be able to guide them and help them through figuring out what the problem is. More often than not, problems that happen are localized in that – like, if our connection was interrupted, it’s usually a Wi-Fi connection. It could be – if it’s a hard-wired connection, it might have been, you know, kicked out of the wall if it was hard-wired. There’s all kinds of reasons.
But having someone that one can go to for help and also educating students, as well as teachers and faculty, about what to do when a problem arises and then having – this is important for teachers – is having some kind of a backup plan. What do you do if the technology fails? Or what do you do if the Internet connection isn’t robust enough? How are students going to let the teachers know that they’re unable to connect? And the same thing with college-age students.
What’s one way that educators, teaching at any academic level, can get this school year off to a good start?
NATALIE MILMAN: I think at all levels, there are many similarities – for example, a welcome video. There are ways that we can engage with them, and video is a very effective tool. Technologically, how that’s done – it really can be done through many, many different avenues. There are a lot of different technology tools. I mean, I can show you right here. Here is one way that I connect with my own students. And after we get off, since I look – you know, I have my jacket and makeup on for a change, I’m going to video and make my own welcome video for my own students.
And I did – you know, I do have a tripod so I can hold it up, and it works nicely. So again, developmentally, what are appropriate ways? But there’s a lot of similarities but that need to connect, that need to engage – not only very important for the instructor with the students, but also the students with one another. So figuring out ways – how to welcome students is really critical and going to be even more important the start of the academic year.