6 lessons Kansas teachers learned when the pandemic pushed classes online
photo by: James Ehlers/Contributed Photo
WICHITA — Educators say there was a silver lining when Kansas schools and campuses had to shut down because of the coronavirus: It was a chance to learn how to do remote learning right.
Now with college finals submitted and most K-12 schools in summer vacation mode, educators are reflecting on those two months of online teaching, especially knowing that some universities will have to do it again come fall. (Wichita State plans online-only instruction after Thanksgiving.)
Here are six things that Kansas professors and teachers say they’ve learned outside of the physical classroom:
1. Educators need new ways to show students they care — or students won’t.
Even though he teaches classes with 100-plus students, Ronald Brockhoff memorized all of their names.
“It makes it harder for them to hide from you,” said Brockhoff, a mechanical and nuclear engineering assistant professor at Kansas State University.
It also showed his students that he cared about their education, making it more likely they would, too. To translate this to online learning, Brockhoff created kits for each of his students in his mechanical engineering lab, including load cells, a thermocouple and the necessary circuitry.
In return, all 97 students stayed engaged. It was a big feat, considering some Kansas educators say they were lucky to have half their students still show up for online lessons.
“We were engaged and we cared about their experience and therefore it made them more likely to rise up to the occasion,” Brockhoff said.
But Brockhoff didn’t have the same luck in a lecture-based class, which he admits to putting less effort into. He said he thinks students could tell, and some stopped doing the work.
2. Online learning makes school a little less serious, and a little more vulnerable.
Remote learning may sound distant, but it’s often littered with distractingly human moments. Live video lessons often come with screaming toddlers offscreen or family pets fighting in the background.
It’s those moments that educators at Olathe Public Schools believe are a good thing.
“When I was teaching math in high school, that was the most important thing a kid did,” said Rich Wilson, the district’s director of curriculum and assessment. “One of the things that this has done is it’s kind of knocked all that pretense down.”
Shelly Todd, a seventh grade English teacher in the district, said she’s found it easier to show emotions online.
“I was in a Zoom meeting last week and one of my students had written a song and was playing her ukulele, and I started crying,” Todd said. “It’s important that they see that we’re all human.”
3. It’s much easier to bring in star power.
Julie Pentz is a professor of dance at Kansas State. While most of her classes are in-person, over the years she’d recorded more than 100 videos of how to do different movements.
But one thing she hadn’t tapped into with online instruction was bringing in guests. That changed during the coronavirus.
She interviewed Dena Rizzo, one of the leaders in hip-hop dance. Pentz also shared a conversation with a Rockette, which spanned the challenges of finding and keeping a high-caliber dance job.
“My students love to hear that struggle,” Pentz said of the conversations that wouldn’t normally come up in class. “They tended to get lost in these interviews even for just a short time.”
While guests were always an option before the pandemic, a prerecorded voice chat was significantly cheaper than purchasing a flight for the guests to teach in person. Now Pentz plans on continuing the interviews for her students even when they’re all back on campus.
4. Hands-on learning without fancy equipment can be more practical.
Students who study engraving at Emporia State University normally have the benefit of workbenches equipped with about $15,000 worth of tools, including microscopes and power-assisted engravers.
But once instruction went online, the school had to loan out inexpensive tools. Emporia State professor James Ehlers said that created an opportunity to teach students how to do their work with the basic tools they’ll have access to post-graduation.
Ehlers taught students how to maintain their blades without the sharpening tools on campus. It’s a skill only a few students normally learned from him because they were curious and asked.
“It gives them a sense of what exactly do I need to remain a practicing artist whenever this semester is over,” Ehlers said.
5. Professors must intentionally create unintended learning.
Andrea Follmer Greenhoot, director for the University of Kansas’ Center For Teaching Excellence, said some of the best learning moments happen outside of structured class time.
That’s when students learn from each other — asking questions before class starts or chatting with the professor after the lecture ends. Those unplanned moments are less likely to happen online unless educators specifically make space for them.
“When you’re teaching online, everything has to be intentional,” Greenhoot said.
Online discussion boards are useful, Greenhoot said, but spontaneous moments have to happen outside of the classwork. KU teachers found that groups on Facebook and LinkedIn helped create that space for students to naturally ask questions without prompting and their peers to provide the answer.
“Those things don’t happen unless you set them up,” Greenhoot said. “This is the kind of thing that’s going to be a big focus of the work that faculty do to prepare for the fall.”
6. Some students do better online.
Online learning is full of distractions; it can be hard to pay attention to a lesson with YouTube just a few keystrokes away.
The school building can be even more distracting for some students, like those who struggle with loud classrooms and crowded hallways. Plus, students with physical disabilities may be more concerned about hazards to their health than their algebra midterm.
Because of the success that some students are having with remote learning, Topeka Public Schools decided to start offering virtual summer school this year.
Kaylee Erickson, a fourth grade teacher at Topeka Public Schools, said about a third of her students are doing better with remote learning, including the students she described as more hyperactive, because they were able to do the work on their own time.
“My students continued to mention how amazing it was for them to be able to do it when it was working for them,” Erickson said.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.