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  • KLIK Team

Distance Learning? We're Doing it Wrong. And Yes, There is a Better Way.



Preface

With the prolonged circulation of the COVID-19 pandemic, and remote learning becoming standard operating procedure for K-12 and Higher-Ed, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in interest in the KLIK Boks HUB, because of its live-streaming capabilities. At the same time, we’re fielding questions from educational institutions and AV integrators alike, on how to best execute distance learning, and which technologies are best for this purpose. This article will cover some of the options, and best practices.


Goals & Objectives

Teachers, Institutions, and Parents alike have one overarching concern as they contemplate how children and young adults are going to receive an education during the lingering pandemic: “How do we keep everyone safe?” The evidence supporting distancing is irrefutable, but it is also abundantly clear that the educational infrastructure was built without consideration to maintenance of a 6-foot radius around each student, teacher and staff member. While schools contemplate re-opening, parents become increasingly wary that the math just doesn’t add up.

Before social distancing, a typical K-8 classroom could accommodate up to 32 students, as shown in this layout with eight pods of 4 desks each.
The classroom that used to house up to 32 students.

At this writing, Seattle-area school districts, along with the University of Washington, have declared that the fall semester will be (for the most part), online-only. Increasingly, this is becoming the norm across the country, and indeed the world, as the virus surges in many localities where distancing rules have been diminished in favor of commerce and social activities. Aside from the moral implications of spreading the virus, educators are also contemplating the liability costs of infection flare-ups should schools reopen prematurely.


In the end, there are two predominant reasons for getting students back to a “normal” educational experience. First, face-to-face teaching is more immersive and more interactive. Both teacher and student can read visual cues from one another that may indicate understanding, confusion, boredom or other feelings that can help inform the presentation of lessons. Second, psychologists consistently tell us that socialization and human interaction with peers is critically important for students’ intellectual and social development. The lack of same can inflict long-term damage.


Current Thinking & Tools

To say that most schools were not ready for the shift to distance learning would be putting the subject mildly. District IT departments scrambled to deploy solutions that were fast to roll out at scale, required minimal hardware beyond what was already in educators’ hands, and required minimal training for either teachers or students. The result was jumping into the deep end of the pool with platforms such as Zoom, Meet, Teams, Skype, Webex, etc. In other words, the natural inclination was to turn to the videoconferencing apps many of us use every day for business and social meetings.

While it is possible to squeeze 49 participants into one video call, the variables make it nearly impossible to have an orderly class session on a laptop with so many students in attendance.
While many schools adopted videoconferencing apps as their solution, they quickly found several limitations.

The thinking with these solutions is that every teacher, and student, as a device that will support the use of the platform. That device requires a camera, a microphone, speakers, and an Internet connection. At the same time, all parties must have access to a safe and quiet well-lit space will serve as their virtual classroom during the class session. And everyone must be available at the same time, even though many household schedules have been impacted by the pandemic.


Teachers were forced to adapt to teaching in front of a laptop, with the camera capturing their face and not much more. Content curation went from images, text and other materials shown on a display in the classroom, to clutter on the laptop, which was screen-shared in place of the teachers’ video. For most users, there was no meaningful whiteboard functionality (certainly not while other content was being shared) and all the while the laptop was doing double-duty as the communications device (videoconferencing) and the content device (screen-sharing). Educators went from teaching in a live environment, with access to physical teaching tools and resources, to talking heads that struggled to deliver their curriculum.


The Problem with Current Solutions

As a parent of a college student caught up in the early days of the pandemic, I witnessed firsthand the vagaries of teaching through Zoom. Open mics, background noise, embarrassing mishaps, and disjointed classes. After the first week, all of the classes went from live Zoom disasters to recorded sessions available for offline viewing. It’s true that some schools and individual teachers have mastered the art of teaching through videoconference, but even those who have are not delivering an experience that matches what went on in the classroom.

Laptops are made for computing, not as a substitute for in-class learning. To more effectively teach remote students we need to detach the communication device from the content management and delivery device.
Try sharing content and communication on a tiny laptop screen. Not fun.

Videoconferencing platforms are designed for smaller meetings, with a handful of people discussing business, projects, or planning a wedding. Sure, most platforms support upwards of 50 people, but is it reasonable to expect a video call with 20, 30, or even 50 students to succeed? Even the simple things, such as ensuring microphones are muted, and that the camera is always capturing something appropriate, place an undue burden on teachers and students alike. A video call with more than a handful of students doesn’t stand a chance of consistent success.


Then there is the issue of content management and sharing. Let’s talk first about digital content already on the teacher’s laptop. That’s pretty easy to deal with because teachers can share their screen with students to reveal the content. However, if they’re working on a laptop with a single screen, screen-sharing may also reveal their Email inbox, or other content not intended for mass consumption.


And what about other content, like physical objects, books, models and hardware? How do you share those items through a laptop? Twist it around to face the objects in question and hope for the best? You could of course purchase a secondary camera and connect it to the laptop through a video capture card, allowing the teacher to share a live view of physical content. While that is a viable solution, the added complexity would likely prove unwelcome, and add to the inconsistent results.


Hybrid Teaching

Reopening is in a state of flux, with districts in a rush to deploy distance learning solutions for the Fall quarter or semester. we have been in touch with educators, concerned and tech-savvy parents, numerous channel partners, integrators and IT managers, as they try to navigate the raft of “solutions” headed their way. The thinking falls into three categories:


1. Reopen and see what happens.

2. Close and rely on videoconferencing.

3. There must be a better way.