Not everything went smoothly when The Harbour School in Hong Kong turned to virtual learning in November after protests shut down the private school for a few days. Some kids spammed the class chats on Google Hangouts, and the virtual classrooms were noisy because students weren’t putting themselves on mute.
After the experience, teachers and administrators shored up their online learning program — just in time for the coronavirus pandemic that shut schools in Hong Kong down in late January. Now, with schools closed completely in 45 U.S. states in order to prevent further complications from COVID-19, the official name for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, millions of children of all ages are transitioning to distance learning.
“We sometimes assume that kids are digital natives, and they are really going to know how to behave, but, actually, a lot of those behaviors don’t transfer when you’re trying to adjust to a class environment,” said J. Christine Greenberg, ’s pre-K through eighth grade principal.
Today’s school kids were probably toddlers when they started pulling up games on their parent’s iPhones. But younger kids may never have sent an email (just check about showing third graders how to send one) or used a mouse. Older kids may have no idea how to properly participate in a group chat.
“Being digital natives mean students understand how to use mobile devices and tablets seamlessly when sharing videos, messaging friends, taking photos,” shared Cindy Wong, a public elementary school technology teacher in New York City and a equity fellow, in an email. “However, that doesn’t mean they understand how to be a responsible digital citizen or navigate files on a computer.”
If your child is launching into e-learning, here’s how you can help them be successful.
1. Transition to new devices
More schools are providing each student with their own device in class. But not every school has the technology or will be able to dole it out while schools are closed. That means kids, who normally work on an iPad at school, could be trying to learn on their mom’s old laptop (assuming they have one).
“The biggest challenge is what device they’ll be working on at home,” said John Thomas, a first and second grade teacher in New Hampshire, adjunct faculty member at Antioch University New England and a community facilitator for . “It may or may not be the same type of device that they’re used to working on. Older kids will be more comfortable shifting devices, but younger ones will have more of a challenge with that.”
Parents may need to help their kids simply log in, use a mouse or trackpad and learn shortcuts on the keyboard. And if kids are used to working on tablets at school, they may be confused why nothing happens when they touch the screen on the desktop computer at home, said Laura Thomas, director of the Experienced Educators Program at Antioch, who also works for Edutopia and as a librarian for kindergartners to sixth graders. (John Thomas and Laura Thomas are married.)
2. Practice new software programs
Schools are using a variety of platforms and learning management systems in their virtual learning programs — from Google Hangouts and Zoom to Seesaw, Canvas and other edtech.
Middle school and high school students may already be well-versed in these platforms and quickly pick up any new skills required to participate with their teacher virtually or take a test. Younger kids may need some hand holding.
A best practice for educators is to offer some training before class officially begins. “There has to be some built-in training to get them acclimated to the appropriate learning management system,” said Darren Reed, a senior vice president for regional school services for , an edtech company that provides online school in more than 30 states.
“For better or worse, we’re going to be in this mode for a while, so let’s figure it out.”
Parents also can help kids practice their skills. Set up a video chat with all their cousins before the classroom chats begin and encourage them to email friends, so they can feel more comfortable communicating online.
3. Teach computer organization skills
But parents also will need to offer ongoing guidance as kids try to upload a file or turn in an assignment. If a child complains something isn’t working, parents should be mindful that slower internet connections as more of us work from home could present some challenges too, John Thomas said.
Kids doing significant work online for the first time will need to create a system to keep track of it. They may have to organize files, name documents clearly, and have a way to know that their assignments are done. The good news is that these are skills that will still be valuable when they return to school and move on to college and the workplace.
4. Mind your digital manners
Kids used to sharing memes in group texts or talking trash in gaming chat rooms may not be ready for the formality of a virtual class experience. They’ll need some lessons in “netiquette.”
After the experience with group chat spamming and other issues in the fall and before its second round with online learning this year, The Harbour School sent out a document to students and parents that listed expectations and held an orientation with games and quizzes to reinforce the rules.
Tips for students include entering a chat room with their microphone on mute and the best way to let a teacher know they have a question. To help other schools around the world wade into e-learning, the school just launched the , which includes a netiquette guide.
With students better prepared for e-learning and expectations, the rollout the second time this winter, said Greenberg, “kind of went seamless.”
5. Go over media literacy
Parents may already have been hammering home the importance of vetting online sources before kids use them for schoolwork or to understand the world around them. But now that their learning is almost entirely virtual, it’s time to emphasize those lessons again. , part of the International Society for Technology in Education, has a curated list of resources to help students understand how to be an alert, inclusive and informed digital citizen.
“When it comes to finding good information, thinking critically about it, synthesizing it into information and knowledge that they can use, [children] are no better at it than anybody else,” said Jeff Greene, a professor of educational psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Those are skills that have to be learned and practiced at home.”
And at home will be where most of us are for the foreseeable future. That’s why Richard Culatta, CEO of the and a father of four, also recommends we all take a breath as we get started. With a global pandemic upending our lives in every way, nothing is going to happen without at least a few hiccups, including online learning.
“It’s OK if this doesn’t work perfectly on the first day or two,” Culatta said. “For better or worse, we’re going to be in this mode for a while, so let’s figure it out.”