Our initial question was how can we make online learning better for all parties: teachers, students, and parents? We know that right now times are difficult and stressful. We want to come up with a platform that makes online learning easier for everyone. Our solution before the feedback was to create an app. This app would include aspects of the platforms that we use now, but standardize them into one. There would be the camera aspect of zoom, an interactive part like PollEv or ABC Mouse for younger kids, an agenda portion that tells students and parents exactly when assignments are due, and anything else that would be helpful.
We reached out to three separate experts to help us in our field. Simone reached out to her former elementary school teacher, Mrs. Short, who gave us a first hand account of what it is like to teach during a pandemic. Secondly, we also reached out to Dr. Grossman, the Dean of Penn’s Graduate School of Education. Finally, we also reached out to Jane Holahan, the Executive Director of Penn’s Weingarten Learning Center.
Mrs. Short said that her adjustment to online teaching was hard when the pandemic first hit. She was used to having all her students in front of her. Although it has slightly improved during the 2020-2021 school year, there are tools that she thinks would be helpful to our moon shot. Simone asked her what the most difficult subject to teach online was. The answer was clear-- grammar and writing. Before we were all online, Mrs. Short said that she taught writing in a specific format: I do, we do, you do. This means that Mrs. Short would teach her students a specific grammar rule or style of writing, then they would practice it together, and finally the students would do it on their own. When everyone moved online, the “we do” portion of this motto was eliminated. It was difficult to do writing activities all together as a class. If she wanted to use an interactive platform to see all of their writing, she could not directly speak to them or see their faces since they would have to leave Google Hangout. During the spring quarter, her class was not able to meet live. She would have to record the lesson, have the students watch, and they would have to do it on their own. For her, she said that if there was a way for our app to make it directly interactive, while also keeping the camera aspect of zoom, it would be extremely helpful. This is why we decided to make a feature of the app that allows the teacher to give an audio message to the students directly, while also keeping all of the students in front of her on camera. This allows the student and teacher to talk directly to one another, keep the activity, and not have to go into a separate breakout room. She can help an individual, while also making sure the rest of her students are ok. The audio message system is much more engaging than the private messaging system. Especially for younger students, they might not know how to clearly articulate their thoughts and concerns over a private text message. This will make the “we do” aspect of her learning style possible during online school. It will give her a better understanding of where her students are at, as well as students to become more engaged.
Dr. Grossman currently teaches graduate school students, but has experience in training teachers as well. She is excited by the conversation regarding how to improve online learning, but recognizes the challenges involved. One of her main concerns is that Zoom is a flat platform: it is hard to engage students through a two dimensional device. It is also difficult for teachers to understand if students are processing the material because it is harder for teachers to pick up on visual cues in a virtual setting. We want to take this suggestion and create a more engaging platform. We need to brainstorm ways to make a platform like Zoom more interactive and also easier for teachers and students to relate to one another. There might be a way to change the camera settings, or even allow teachers to see their students when they are sharing their screen. She did mention that chat was a great feature because it simulates the experience of passing notes in school. It is therefore important to keep this feature. Dr. Grossman also suggested that we target a specific age group in our moonshot. She mentioned specific challenges that each age group faces: preliterate students have a hard time navigating Zoom, while it is difficult to keep both adolescents and college students engaged. Given this advice, we want to focus our moonshot on elementary school students. In addition, Dr. Grossman recommended that we use just a few platforms and use them more uniformly. Having templates for canvas sites, lecture sites and course sites helps with organization. It is also important to minimize and connect the platforms as much as possible because there is not necessarily a one size fits all approach. Given Dr. Grossman’s suggestions, we know that we can create a more engaging platform for elementary students.
Dr. Holahan mentioned that one of the biggest issues with online learning is that it was missing the personal touch of in person class. With online learning, it is hard for teachers to gauge the reactions and feelings of their students. It is harder for students to interact and learn from one another. Holahan specifically mentioned how with Zoom, the teacher cannot see the students when screen sharing. This is crucial because the teacher cannot gauge how the students are receiving the material and they may miss key facial or physical cues from the class. In order to take this into account, we want to make sure that our platform has the capacity for personal and meaningful interaction. We want our platform to be able to support dual screen sharing where the screen sharer can still see the participants fully. We also want to have an online whiteboard-like tool that allows students to make private notes and allows the teacher to comment. Both of these things help the teacher give more personal attention and feedback to their students and make learning less passive.