By Jennifer Jendrzey
Vice President of Strategy and Evaluation at Raise Your Hand Texas
Districts, legislators, and community members have inquired about lessons learned and guidance to be gleaned from Raising Blended Learners, an initiative we developed to help schools improve student achievement using blended learning. While the lessons from Raising Blended Learners reveal what is most important during this crisis, they also reveal why blended learning is not possible in this environment.
While blended learning certainly provides teachers and students with meaningful opportunities to use technology for teaching and learning, the key is that this occurs within the classroom with the help of technology. Unfortunately, this is not possible under the current circumstances. What our educational system is currently facing is not blended learning. It is not even online learning. It is emergency remote teaching and learning. Our blended learning blogs, as part of the Rising to the Challenge series, seek to address these challenges and offer resources to school leaders, educators, and learners.
As Texas teachers and students shift to remote learning, we want to recognize that we are all in the COVID-19 world together. Whether teachers have been implementing blended learning for three years, or if this is the first time students will be logging on remotely, this environment is new for all of us.
In this time of uncertainty, it is encouraging to see our Texas public schools work to ensure students continue to receive the supports, services, and high-quality education needed in a crisis — what matters most for kids right now. In a matter of days, the exceptionally talented teams within Texas districts have launched informative websites outlining creative solutions to support the remote learning now happening across our state.
Texas Districts Are Meeting Student Needs
- San Antonio ISD’s Digital Homeroom hosts lessons by grade-level and content area and provides families a resource on helping children cope during COVID-19.
- Dallas ISD’s At-Home Learning page offers support through public TV broadcasting programs or curated resources.
- Garland ISD’s At-Home Learning page provides student lessons and resources for parents.
- Austin ISD’s Learning At-Home site helps caretakers, students, and teachers to access ideas for learning and enrichment opportunities.
- Houston ISD @ H.O.M.E site includes online e-texts, digital libraries, handouts, virtual field trips, parent-guided lessons, and independent work for students.
Lessons from Blended Learning
What districts are doing is both inspiring and important. But we need to be clear, what districts have set up in record speed is a remote response to an emergency situation. It is not blended or online learning. It is an attempt to provide an innovative solution, reflecting the challenges of COVID-19 and drawing on tactical elements from blended and online learning. The strongest approaches find remote ways to build on the existing foundation of strong educational and social-emotional best practices districts traditionally deliver in person.
Because blended learning relies in-part on technology, it is easy to mistakenly assume blended learning is a viable solution to the challenge schools are currently facing. But without the face-to-face component of blended learning classrooms, true blended learning cannot take place. What Raise Your Hand Texas has learned from Raising Blended Learners is what the research supports: the magic of blended learning is not found in technology, but in the new ways technology helps teachers work more meaningfully with students.
Current Challenges for Online Learning
Because blended learning uses online technology for part of the learning experience, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that districts can meet student needs right now by shifting to a fully online learning environment. However, the lack of equitable technology access across our system means districts face the challenge of first connecting with students and second creating both online and offline resources to support remote learning.
We know first and foremost, districts will continue to confront the issue of equitable access to computers, internet networks, and other devices to remotely support online learning. These challenges can’t be overstated, and they will have an enormous impact on learning. More than 2 million Texas households are without access to high-speed internet, in particular rural areas of our state are most impacted, with approximately 31 percent of rural Texans lacking access to basic broadband service.
A recent report by the Center for Reinventing Public Education analyzed 82 U.S. districts and their early responses to COVID-19. Researchers found remote learning is still in its early stages. Over half of the school districts in their review are only sharing links to optional assignments or learning activities on publicly available websites, and none of the districts reviewed say they are attempting “synchronous” learning, in which students engage in live discussions with teachers and classmates.
Districts must design remote learning solutions for every single student in their diverse districts and that means many resources may not be all online. They must include solutions that are provided through analog modalities like worksheets, packets, televisions, and phones to ensure equity.
Districts are Rising to the Challenge
The emergency nature of COVID-19 prevented Texas districts from implementing an ideal, research-based form of blended or even online learning. What it has not done, however, is prevent our districts from facing this unprecedented challenge, innovating with the resources they have, and taking inspiration from wherever they can to create an emergency remote learning solution.
As districts continue to address the issues of technology use for remote learning, it is important to also think about the tools, resources, and strategies for focusing on the relationships and interpersonal connections that are essential at a time like this. Please read our companion blog for more on this.
Engagement Over Evaluation
This situation necessitates innovation, and as we look to what our communities most need — a stable, caring environment — we must innovate with our students, families, teachers, support staff, and administrators in mind. Perhaps what we need most right now is engagement over evaluation — a recognition that keeping our students and communities connected and feeling secure is the essential first step. Only after that can we shift to academic rigor in instruction and ensuring all aspects of the school experience are met while prioritizing the emotional and physical well-being of the entire district community. This is a huge undertaking, but we are confident our Texas educators and school leaders are up for the challenge. They will rise for all Texas students, as they always do.
We'd love to hear from you!
We’re looking for stories from students, teachers, and school leaders about your experiences, challenges, and strategies you think might benefit others. Please share your perspectives and let us know how you’re approaching and responding to the current situation. And know that you are not alone in these struggles. We thank you, we honor you, and we want you to know we are cheering you on.