Answering Your Questions On Online Learning

KCBS Radio is answering your questions about all things coronavirus every weekday at 9:20 am

As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic. Every morning at 9:20 a.m. Monday-Friday we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment with a focus on a different aspect of this situation each day.

Today we're turning our focus to online education and the upcoming school year with Leanna Archambault, Associate Professor at Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

I can only imagine how much thinking has suddenly been thrown into high gear in your line of work over the last four or five months.

Yes, it's been not so much, I'm sure, as epidemiologists, but definitely in the sphere of education we've been called to help share our expertise. So I'm glad to do that.

Let me talk a little bit with you before we get to our listener questions about the state of the art, as it were, in the training of teachers. I mean, you have a cohort of teachers who range in age from their mid twenties, maybe to their mid sixties, with vastly different experience with technology and with teaching techniques. How do you look at that these days?

Yeah, I mean, I think that there's kind of this misconception that the younger teachers are these digital natives that have grown up with technology and then therefore know how to use those tools to teach, and that's not necessarily the case. While they might be using them to access information or for their own personal uses, using them to convey knowledge to students is quite a different matter. So even those that are younger, we might think that they're more facile with technology, and that's not necessarily true. So those of us in teacher education have a long way to go in kind of revolutionizing the way that we prepare our teacher candidates.

As people are going through and getting a credential these days, what are they learning about these tools? About the efficacy, proper use, and so on.

Well, I think one of the things is that they are just that: they're tools. The principles of communication, how we form relationships, how we care for students, all of those are still relevant and it's just how do we employ technology to make that a little bit easier? Just as we use tools in our everyday lives for productivity, it's the same with teaching. The principles are still the same, but the message can be updated with the technology tools. 

Kind of curious for your take on how this works. Obviously at the university level, students may have one set of abilities to absorb information at a distance. But my granddaughter, for example, a kindergartener in Texas, found herself learning from home this spring. And while things may be different this fall, obviously, you know she doesn't have her own log on to Mom's iPad.

Yeah, I think this has been a crash course in, how do we use technology as a learning platform? It takes practice. I think adults are trying to get up to speed and to help their students as well. Even I went through the same exact thing with my 13-year-old who is in seventh grade and even being an expert in this, it was a challenge for us.

Okay, well, let's get to questions then, which have been sent in to Let's start with this one here: what are steps teachers can take to help offset the inequitable learning environment students may have at home?

Yeah, I think teachers need to be asking their schools what the plan is to address the digital divide. So just as teachers have always done in making sure that they meet the needs of their students and to mobilize resources and to find those resources, if states want schools to return - as we all do - they're really gonna have to commit funding to be able to address these issues and to include it as part of the plan about how we come back. So not if we come back, but how are we going to come back? 

One of those central components is going to be: how do we provide families with the learning resources that they need, including technology and including internet access? It's just as important as figuring out the number of students that can come on any given day, how we're gonna space them out, whether they're gonna wear masks, all of that. I think if we're truly dedicated to providing quality education then we have to commit to providing families and students with the educational resources that they need.

From where you sit, are you hearing that many schools are planning some sort of blended approach where students will be there some of the time and home some of the time? And if so, how will that work for families?

Yes, I think that is the current understanding. As schools are planning, it's going to be some sort of blended learning model, where it's a combination. They'll have some classes that come on certain days and other classes that come on other days and then on those off days, they'll be remote learning or online learning from home. And that's just to be able to decrease the numbers and the interaction with the number of students that we're educating in schools.

I'm an elementary school teacher - third grade in the San Jose Unified District. Our district plans to have teachers and students in classrooms, but with a live feed of every class so some students will be in the room with me but others might be watching from home. I'm pretty overwhelmed by this. I feel I can either teach kids who were in front of me or I can try to do something online, but both at the same time? Any advice?

Yeah, ASU is going to be trying this as well, so we've even deemed it "ASU Sync," so that's our term for it. It's a question that many teachers and faculty are worried about, so you're definitely not alone there. I think it's gonna help to have a small group in front of you while you're teaching, but educators are gonna have to work on their delivery, even their acting skills. If we're honest, I think all teachers have a bit of a performer in them. And so I think it's going to be important not to be afraid to play that up so that it translates for the camera and hopefully for those students watching at home. But this is definitely going to be an experiment that we're all gonna be trying.

Are there any best practices or a good checklist for equipment? Several weeks ago, we had someone on during one of our segments, a professor of communications at San Francisco State who said, "let me give people some tips about Zoom." How to light and all that. So are school districts aware that this is a crucial part of the picture?

I don't know about districts. I mean, I would hope so. I know that we here at ASU have spent a tremendous amount. They are retrofitting classrooms with cameras so that it's going to make it easier for faculty, with microphones and to be able to pick up sound so that the classrooms are actually equipped to be able to do this. I think that it's going to be important for schools to consider how they might implement the same type of set up.

What is the difference between online learning and virtual learning? What will most colleges be trying to use this fall?

Well, often those terms are used synonymously. But virtual learning as language evolves, it's a little bit of an older term. We've gone away from virtual cause it kind of suggests "not real" in some way. So the real difference is that online learning suggests planning. So kind of an instructional design process that's been carefully implemented often by a team of instructional design professionals. The distinction is really emergency remote learning, which is what happened last March when we had to do the best we could to keep classes going and teachers were in the same boat. So with the benefit of summer, there's going to be the advantage of planning, hopefully. 

So it's likely that colleges are gonna be implementing a hybrid model as we've mentioned: some in person, some online, to be able to better maintain social distancing. But I think universities are all over the place. I think some, like the California State system, are gonna be remaining online. At ASU we're planning to do this hybrid model, others are going in person and if they're smaller universities, they might be able to do it fully in person. So I think it varies widely.

Let me ask you because of ASU's long experience - not only the size of the system - but this long experience in online or distance learning. That was always kind of focused on grownups, wasn't it? Rather than college freshman level. What have you learned there that might be applicable to lots of other people going forward?

I think one of the important things that ASU has learned is that we need to provide services just like we do for in-person students. So all the support services, counselors, learning coaches - that wraparound support is essential to keeping folks on track. Especially for a freshman coming in, learning how to set a schedule, be self-regulated. There's a lot of distractions out there, and currently we're all trying to survive this pandemic. And so it's going to be important to provide not only the curricular support, but also the mental health aspect. And so it's gonna entail a lot more people reaching out to students to see what they need and see how we can provide that support for them.

I'm a parent of a special needs child who has an IEP due to speech and language and learning challenges. Normally, my son would receive 45 minutes a day of specialized instruction. During this last phase of distance learning, he got very little support. Most of his assignments were above his grade level. Do you have any recommendations about what I can do as a parent to keep him from falling more behind? He had some difficulty working on a computer screen to complete assignments.

Yeah, I think a lot of parents, and I being one, with kids with special needs have found themselves in this dilemma. I think it's very important to be letting the school know, "I'm having these challenges. What do you suggest?" It's that communication piece so that they know that you're there. Even though they're dealing with a lot of different things, I think being that squeaky wheel is very important, being that advocate as special needs moms are, typically. It's going to be essential to helping students with special needs. And just making sure that you know the rights under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, that you have legal protections there and that as a worst case scenario if you need to call on those legal recourses, that you are willing to do that because it's essential to get those services for your students.

My understanding is that teachers are to be regularly tested for COVID-19. Given that Major League Baseball is having difficulties with all their money and how few players there as compared to all the teachers, have you heard how the teacher population will regularly get tested for COVID-19?

Yeah, I think this is something that we're still working on. ASU is going to be testing employees, and I know they developed a saliva-based test and they're doing drive through testing. So we're starting to ramp up and I hope that schools are gonna be able to extend that into the community. That's one of the important aspects, is being socially indebted and helping our surrounding communities. So I hope that schools are thinking about how they are going to - especially in areas like Arizona that are having huge outbreaks - figuring out the testing, especially for teachers, is going to be important.

Is it possible that students who live a large portion of their lives online and don't feel comfortable in classroom settings that favor outgoing, self assertive students will actually do better when all classes are online? Any data around that?

I think that the data suggests that learning outcomes can be - that there's no significant difference. So it does depend on the student, and certainly the online environment is better for some than for others. But we know that it could be just as good, if not better, in some cases. And I think especially when schools are using asynchronous communication tools like Flipgrid, for example, where students can record videos, they can actually take time, they can reflect, craft their response. They can edit it. They can redo it if they want to. Whereas in the in-person environment, you know those students that like to hang back or are more introverted, don't necessarily speak up. But if we use some of these asynchronous tools, it kind of allows for a more equitable voice among students, and some actually prefer it and thrive in that particular setting.

Okay, this next question kind of gets into the technology barriers. The question says, I know some families can't afford the $40-80 a month for internet. Are there companies that offer free Internet? But going even beyond that, having the technology or the acumen to work with the technology is a big piece of it.

Yes, and getting up to speed with using the technology, I think it's an important part as we move into the 21st century. Technology is not going away. It's going to be part of any type of job that our students might take. And so it's gonna be essential for parents. There might be a little bit of a learning curve. I know for me, anytime I need to learn how to do something, I'm going on to YouTube and looking for a video on how to fix my sink, for example. So there's a lot of resources out there. And so even with technology, chances are there's a YouTube video that you can look up to show you how to do these tools. I know design teams are working to make the use of these tools easy for students and families. But it may take a little bit of time to invest in really getting up to speed on how to use them, especially for the purposes of learning.

And, of course, the deeper question. I'm with you; YouTube gives me the answer to everything, but I know how to use it. I can afford internet and a nice fancy iPhone to look at it on.

Yes, and I think that's the important part of schools and companies being able to come together and realize that this is an essential component that everyone should have access to.

Ok let's get into this Pac-12 rivalry question. USC just announced they were raising tuition and that all classes are online. This is unethical to me, but then expected from USC. Let me form that into a question that doesn't beat up so much on one school, but there is a sense of value for costs right now among a lot of college students.

I think this is a huge question, but it's a misconception that online learning is less expensive, somehow, to create. Especially if it's a good experience and you have a team of not just content area experts but instructional designers, graphic designers, videographers, coordinators, project directors to keep things on track. There's a lot of human capital that goes into creating a quality online course or program. Not everybody sees that investment, but it's there. I think that's kind of how I look at it, just like anything in life you're going to get what you pay for.

Okay, that kind of leads into the next question. Is there some kind of standard for how to deliver curriculum from a distance? How much on camera time versus reading material graphical material, et cetera.

I don't think that there's necessarily one size fits all. I think schools have always been kind of a local community, and I think even down to the subject area, what works in English language arts might not work in the physical, hands on labs science. We have to get real creative on how to do that in an online setting. So I think this notion of blended learning is going to be important. And that's how we strategically combine online and face to face. It might be that teachers create videos for students to watch when they're at home. And then when they have that in person time, that's more about building relationships, mentoring, feedback. There's not one way to do that, there's a number of strategies and for teachers who might be interested, I'll just say colleagues and I have developed a free open source book called "K-12 Blended Teaching" and it's available at And it covers a wide array of approaches that might be helpful.

I have two high school students at home. What I saw at the end of the school year was not encouraging. Lots of wasted time, I could tell the kids had tuned out. It didn't seem like the teachers have the resources or training to do distance learning. Am I right?

Yes. In an answer, yes. Teachers were put in a terrible position last spring, and were not well prepared, either as part of their teacher preparation program or as their continuing professional development. So, based on research I worked on, only about 4% of teacher education programs offered any type of student teaching or field experience in an online setting. So I think the field now is seeing the need, not just in a pandemic, but for blended approaches that do combine the best of face to face instruction and online instruction. That's the future of education and we need to work with teacher candidates so that they are better prepared to teach in this era.

This one says, this may sound like a silly question, but I find it really hard to understand people when doing these Zoom meetings. So my question is, how are students gonna learn if they can't hear or see what's going on?

Yeah, I'm kind of suffering from Zoom fatigue myself, having a lot of meetings via Zoom. It isn't perfect, but certainly if there's audio or video problems, it can really leave you wondering like, what is the benefit here? I think one of the things is that Zooming all day can be quite exhausting. It goes back to being strategic about the time that we're asking kids to spend synchronously with tools like Zoom or Skype and how is that time best spent? And are there asynchronous approaches, like the video discussion that I have mentioned with tools like Flipgrid or VoiceThread that might allow for more voices in the classroom to be heard and so that students can take their time in crafting those. I think it's important to remember that not all instruction has to happen in real time.