Technology initiative called a ‘game changer’ for teachers and students dealing with remote learning

photo by: Contributed photo

The desk of Free State High School teacher Kristi Bubna shows her computer screen set-up, which includes the 13-inch laptop provided by the Lawrence school district, left, and a 23-inch monitor provided by the Two Screens for Teachers initiative, right. Bubna said the second, larger monitor has made it easier for her to connect with her students during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

When it comes to technology, small changes can make a big difference. And that’s the case a Lawrence resident is making as he tries to bring a school technology initiative to town.

Steve Lerner, a clinical psychologist in Lawrence, is working on an initiative that his son Matt started in the Seattle area that supplies K-12 teachers with an additional computer monitor to make teaching to students remotely more effective.

While adding a second monitor to an educator’s set-up may seem like a minor change, the addition helps teachers better connect with their students by giving them more virtual space and eye contact.

Two Lawrence teachers who have already received a second monitor through the initiative said they have experienced a major positive change in their teaching, particularly their ability to see and react to their students’ body language.

“It really improved my ability to communicate with them,” said Danielle Lotton-Barker, a teacher in the gifted program at Lawrence’s Southwest Middle School. “It’s a really simple addition that makes a world of difference.”

The initiative

When the pandemic caused schools to adopt remote learning, teachers and students were forced to rely on technology. While the Lawrence school district had provided them with laptops and iPads prior to the pandemic, the devices did not specifically accommodate all the information needed during remote learning.

In some cases, the laptops teachers are using have only 13-inch monitors, which is not ideal for Lotton-Barker or Free State High School teacher Kristi Bubna, who also teaches in a gifted program, both of whom need to file additional paperwork and conduct meetings with parents because their classes are part of the district’s special program.

Meanwhile, most teachers have been meeting with their students who are learning remotely through online video conference tools, such as Zoom and Webex. These tools allow teachers to “share” what is on their screens with their students at home so they can see the educational content the teachers are lecturing on.

However, that tool often makes it harder for the teachers to see their students’ faces, because the shared content takes up most of the screen. That makes it harder for teachers to see how their students are reacting to the content, especially when the computer screen is only 13 inches.

“In the classroom, you are managing all of these things simultaneously, but you have the benefit to see your kids, read their reactions and read the room,” Lotton-Barker said. “It’s really hard to do that when you also have to have all these other things up (on the computer screen) that you are trying to do.”

This issue is not exclusive to Lawrence teachers. Matt Lerner, Steve’s son who is a graduate of Topeka High School and now lives in Seattle, told the Journal-World he noticed it was an issue when his neighbor mentioned that his mother was a teacher and was experiencing the most difficult year of her career because of the pandemic. The neighbor said he was buying his mother a second monitor to help her deal with the amount of information that is required during remote learning.

Matt said that inspired him to start the Two Screens for Teachers initiative, which helps provide teachers across the country with a second, larger monitor. While the initiative began with Seattle teachers, Matt said it has now provided 25,000 monitors nationwide.

“Teachers are writing to us with tears in their eyes saying the second monitor is a total game changer,” Matt said in an email, noting the initiative has become his full-time job.

With the success Matt has seen elsewhere, Steve said he wanted to try to help teachers in his community as well. Through his day job as a psychologist, Steve said he has seen how remote learning has taken a toll on both teachers and students, and he hopes the initiative can help.

“It’s not just for teachers,” Steve said. “Clinically, in my psychology practice, I hear about depressed kids who can’t drag themselves out of bed to hook up on their computer to their classes because it’s so boring and depressing.

“The teachers are struggling and losing sleep because it’s so hard to do this teaching,” he added. “Here’s a simple tool that could make it easier.”

Teacher benefit

While Steve wants to help all Lawrence teachers deal with remote learning, some have already been given second monitors through the initiative.

Bubna and Lotton-Barker were identified as teachers who would benefit from the second monitor and have been using them for most of the fall semester. The Lawrence district began its school year in September with six weeks of fully remote learning, and is currently transitioning to a hybrid learning model.

Bubna said the second monitor has been useful because her classes require her to have multiple programs open on her computer screens while speaking to her students. While classes are moving away from fully remote learning, Bubna said the second monitor would still be useful when students are split between in-person and remote learning.

Bubna said she also often met with her students’ parents through online video conferencing, which requires her to speak to them while sharing important documents about their children. She said the second screen has made those meetings easier to conduct, as well.

“I may never go back to being just on a laptop,” Bubna said.

Lotton-Barker said her experience has been similar. She said remote learning was outside her comfort zone as a teacher, but the second monitor has helped recreate a more traditional classroom by giving her a better view of her students during their lessons.

She said that was important because education is primarily a matter of communication between teacher and student, and being able to see how students are reacting to lessons is paramount in helping them understand the material.

“It’s not easy through a computer at all,” Lotton-Barker said. “Anyone who has ever been a teacher, you realize you are part actor. You have to put on a show and read your audience and react to your audience. If you can’t see your audience, that is really hard to do.”

She said she hoped the initiative would help students better connect with people during this difficult time.

“Kids are feeling so isolated, and frankly adults are too,” she said. “Anything we can do to improve the communication, I’m hoping will help alleviate some of that isolation.”

Fundraising

So far, Steve has been able to bring the initiative to Kansas through Garden City and Topeka, two communities he has close ties to. To bring it to Lawrence, he hopes to work with local fundraising organizations.

He’s been in contact with the Lawrence school district, the Lawrence Schools Foundation and the Douglas County Community Foundation to coordinate such an effort, but he has not solidified fundraising plans yet.

Although the school district is not directly involved, spokesperson Julie Boyle said in an email to the Journal-World that the district was fortunate that the Lawrence community “champions educators.”

“We sincerely appreciate the community support of teachers, especially as they overcome challenges and adapt to changes related to the pandemic,” Boyle said in the email. “Everything about this school year is new and nothing has been easy. Our teachers continue to show remarkable commitment and dedication to serving and supporting students safely.”

In the meantime, Matt said those who are interested in helping teachers throughout the country may donate to the initiative through its website, twoscreensforteachers.org. Generally, a second screen costs about $115, according to the website.

“If someone can spare $115, it’s an amazing way to help a teacher,” Matt said.


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