With remote schooling comes a steep learning curve

School’s in, and for more than a week the children in the Bray household have been hunched over laptops, dialed into their digital classrooms. While it is too early to say whether they’re learning anything, it’s been quite an education for me.

a person sitting at a desk in front of a computer: Chloe Pickering, 7, of New Bedford, is in a remote learning class as she sits in the living room, tucked at a desk in the corner.

© John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Chloe Pickering, 7, of New Bedford, is in a remote learning class as she sits in the living room, tucked at a desk in the corner.

I’ve learned that our teachers and school administrators in Brockton are a lot better prepared for online learning than they were back in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic drove our children out of their classrooms. I’ve also learned that for all of their efforts, they’re not quite ready for the challenges of remote schooling. And neither am I.

I’m still sorting through the glitches and limitations of remote-schooling software. Flaky video conferencing, for instance, or the need to master four or five separate programs just to make sure my children are doing their homework.

But I’m finally figuring it out. Perhaps you can learn from my experience.

Of course, local school districts can run whatever ed-tech programs they choose, and there are plenty to choose from: Google Classroom, Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard, to mention a few. So there’s a good chance your children are using different software than mine. But all these programs are designed to do the same things, and often in very similar ways. So the lessons I’ve learned are bound to come in handy.

Get started by logging in. Boston, Brockton and many other public schools use a service called Clever, which offers “single sign-on.” Enter a password just once, and you or your child have quick access to all the other software in the digital classroom. One nice feature lets your child log in by waving a printed barcode in front of the computer’s camera. Now your younger children, and you, won’t have to memorize a password.

Long before the COVID shutdown, Brockton schools used a system called Infinite Campus. It’s where parents go to find essential information: grades, class schedules, attendance records. But with classes moved online, the schools needed something a lot more sophisticated, where teachers can post study materials like text files and photos, create quizzes, and send and receive messages to individual students.

Infinite Campus offers such a program. But Brockton’s teachers preferred a competing product called Schoology. So Brockton uses both programs, making my life a little more complicated. Worse yet, Brockton High School couldn’t deploy Schoology in time for opening day. So while my fourth-grader uses Schoology, my two high schoolers mostly rely on yet another program, Microsoft Teams.

I almost forgot Zoom, the popular video conferencing software. It’s less popular in Brockton these days, after a raft of technical problems during the opening days of the term. For instance, my fourth-grader’s school-issued laptop just wouldn’t connect, though one of our own aging laptops worked just fine. I finally got it sorted out, with help from the school’s tech support hot line.

But the first time I dialed in, I got a busy signal, proof that many other parents were as confused as I was. Brockton is calling in reinforcements by setting up a “super user” group run by tech-savvy parents. I might even volunteer myself. Ask your school district if it’s planning something similar.

Remote learning programs usually offer a way for parents to set up accounts of their own, and get instant access to information about all their children. The Brockton schools just launched such a “parent portal” for logging into Infinite Campus and will soon add it to the other programs. Parents can then keep tabs on all their children, without having to log on to each account separately. Perhaps your school already offers this feature; be sure to ask..

The individual apps are fairly easy to use, but why so many? For instance, while my high schoolers use Microsoft Teams’ video=conferencing feature most of the time, my daughter’s science teacher insists on Zoom. And while her other class materials are stored in Teams, my daughter’s Spanish teacher has already migrated the class to Schoology.

Boston Public Schools gets it. Chief information officer Mark Racine said city schools last year used “an alphabet soup of applications.” But this school year, it’s Seesaw for younger children and Google Classroom for the upper grades.

“That was really intentional, to make sure that our students or parents did not get confused.”

Teresa Pregizer, the parent of a Boston school child, told me about a Seesaw feature I’d love to have. This program automatically notifies her whenever her sixth-grade son completes an assignment. “I get an e-mail whenever he turns something in,” said Pregizer, who can check his arithmetic or admire his latest work of art on her iPhone.

It turns out Schoology has a similar feature; I’m hoping it’ll become available once the Brockton schools have completed the rollout. But you might not have to wait; ask your school if it already offers something like this.

Another reader, Cheryl Pickering of New Bedford, clued me into ClassDojo, an app that that makes it easy for schools to send vital information to parents. The Brockton school system doesn’t use ClassDojo, which is too bad. It might make a good substitute for those 5 o’clock robocalls they blast out several times a week. However, ClassDojo is available through many school systems, including Boston’s.

None of this is new technology, by the way. These tools were built years ago, for a future in which lots more learning would happen online. But the goal was to supplement the traditional classroom, not replace it.

One of Pickering’s daughters is autistic; the other has a learning disorder. Both are used to receiving individualized classroom assistance. That’s gone now. Her school system plans to switch to a hybrid model in October, with the children returning to the classroom just two days a week. But Pickering fears that the constant shifting between two different ways of learning will only make it harder for her children and herself.

“It hasn’t been an easy experience,” Pickering said, “not knowing what to do, feeling like my kids aren’t getting an adequate education this way.”

My own children have so far been diligent and dedicated. After some early hardware and software fumbles, there are no more cries for help. Everything works so well that I can almost convince myself they’re getting an education.


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