By Julia Beck, Project WET VP of Networks
It’s been four months since schools closed around the world. What have we learned about distance learning?
In March of 2020, COVID-19 forced businesses and schools to close, corralling families inside their houses to work and learn together. It forced teachers to learn a whole way of teaching via distance education, many of them working parents themselves, working overtime while sharing the same stresses of all working parents.
Teachers’ relationships with their students suffered, the digital divide intensified the challenges of the disadvantaged and parents were suddenly forced into the role of untrained educators.
Now we look to the fall of 2020. Will we reopen schools? At what cost? Who will succeed and who will be left behind? Most importantly, what lessons did we learn from the spring that we can use to improve education in the fall?
Project WET surveyed 626 educators on their forced distance learning experience due to COVID-19 and their future needs if distance learning were to continue in the fall. We now know that distance learning will continue at some level, if not entirely.
This is what we learned: The majority of educators (72%) we surveyed were formal PreK-12 classroom teachers, followed by non-formal educators (20%) who work in nature centers, after school programs, museums and other non-formal learning environments. Most educators received no training, and certainly no effective training, on how to distance teach.
Without training, 86% of teachers were tasked with creating at least part, if not all, of their own distance learning curriculum three-quarters of the way through the school year.
Those teachers who were provided resources found them only somewhat helpful, if at all.
“The only resources I was given were my continued access to Google Classroom and access to Zoom,” commented one of our survey respondents. “Everything else I created or found on my own.” Others found a lack of interactive, hands-on activities to engage students. “As a science teacher, nothing online could recreate inquiry labs that would have been done in class,” noted another respondent.
With no training provided and little to no adequate resources, the majority of teachers relied on digital assets which ultimately increased screen time for students with computer and internet access and left out those students without it.
According to UNESCO, half of students worldwide learning at home due to COVID-19 do not have computers and 43% do not have internet access. In California, a state that has the fifth largest economy in the world, 20% of students did not have high-speed internet or a computer to access distance learning.
The digital divide is most pronounced in Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities. Only 53% of Native Americans have access to high-speed internet. Research conducted in Los Angeles for K-12 households found that one in four households (25%) in L.A. County lacks internet or computer resources. In the L.A. Unified School District, the second-largest in the US, this number climbs to one in three households (33%). Furthermore, students of color are less likely to have the technology resources for distance learning regardless of family income. These statistics cannot be ignored. In some places, school was canceled altogether due to this lack of technological access.
Project WET has provided all its distance learning lessons in both digital and non-digital (downloadable, printable PDF) format since March. Our educators were able to print activity instructions and distribute them to students with limited internet access, closing the gap. Still, not all teachers received training on how to administer, grade, oversee or manage distance learning through any platform.
With all these challenges, what did teachers say was the hardest aspect of distance education? Respondents said that 1) motivating their students to do the work and 2) missing the relationships and in-person time with their students caused the most difficulty. We may not be able to resolve all these issues through distance learning curriculum, but we can do better.
We can start by listening to our educators. What do teachers want this fall?
- Hands-on lessons that decrease screen time and allow for student exploration
- Lessons that all students can do regardless of technological access
And that is where we excel! Project WET is hands-on, exploratory, and employs learning through discovery. Project WET provides ready-to-use distance education for teachers to help them through this pandemic and beyond. For over 35 years we have provided award-winning lessons for educators of all types. We will continue to provide hands-on learning for distance education now and into the future.
We can’t solve every aspect of distance education (virtual hug!) but we can make it easier for teachers to teach.
Find our resources at projectwet.org/distancelearning.