Educators are finding powerful ways to connect with students in the sudden shift to remote learning

When the COVID-19 virus reached pandemic levels, shuttering schools the world over, it left educators facing a massive challenge: How to keep students learning and engaged without the face-to-face closeness and comfortable daily routine of a classroom.

Some schools and districts were already using technology that could serve as a foundation; others needed to devise a remote learning system quickly and from scratch. For many educators, sharing ideas with each other and building community has been as helpful as finding the right technology to face this new world.

Now, as teachers use technology to communicate with their classes and conduct online lessons, some are learning about unexpected ways these tools can help strengthen their connections with students when they can’t talk in person — and even build kids’ enthusiasm for doing classwork.

And these efforts are critical right now, says Anthony Salcito, vice president of Education at Microsoft.

“In a time when we are relying on technology to support learning more and more, the heroism of the educators using it has never been clearer or more needed,” Salcito says.

As teachers around the globe find creative approaches to online learning, 183,000 institutions — including individual schools, universities, districts, states and regions — in 175 countries are now using Microsoft Teams. And while most everyone looks forward to the return of normal life, this trying period of history is already changing how some teachers are thinking about technology as a way to augment learning plans and navigate unexpected hurdles — like snow days, for instance — in the future.

“It’s really just a time to connect with students and their families.”

— Karey Killian, K-5 library teacher in Pennsylvania, U.S.

As the threat of COVID-19 grew into a reality, many school administrators braced for the worst.

But a strong sense of community seems to be emerging — an unexpected result when social distancing guidelines restrict gatherings and confine families to isolation.

A woman works on a laptop computer inside her wood-paneled home

Photo courtesy of Karey Killian

Karey Killian, a K-5 library teacher in Pennsylvania’s Milton Area School District, has found that Microsoft education tools like Teams, Flipgrid, Stream and Minecraft: Education Edition have brought students and teachers together in new ways. Seeing the harmful potential of the coronavirus before it hit the United States, Killian installed Teams on the tablets of the third, fourth and fifth graders in her district. Teams allows educators to build collaborative classrooms where students and teachers can chat, meet and work on projects remotely, and it’s free.

One of the first things she did was create a Minecraft channel, which helped students get on board and excited about remote learning. The channel has turned into a community where around 300 students across the district are helping one another and enthusiastically sharing their Minecraft: Education Edition creations.

Killian is impressed with students’ ability to create things in Minecraft with chemical elements, like torches that work underwater. “I’m so proud of them,” she says. “I’m not really teaching chemistry in library, and I didn’t know these things, so I think it’s incredible.”

Killian also turns to tools like Microsoft Flipgrid, a free tool for educators and families that engages students through creating and sharing short videos, to encourage the kids to share their talents and showcase some of their favorite activities from home. And she uses Microsoft Stream to record herself reading stories to young audiences, giving them automatic access through their classroom channel on Teams.

“I get excited about the new learning, but for some people it’s quite stressful, and we need to be aware that there are other factors going on in each household,” she says. “We need to be supportive of each other.”

Killian views the technology solutions as connectivity tools above all.

“It’s really just a time to connect with students and their families,” she says, “so they know we still care, we miss them, and we want to provide experiences to keep them learning.”

It’s “pretty amazing to me that I can do that online.”

— Shannon Mastrogiovanni, science and language arts special education instructor in New Jersey, U.S.

When the teachers at Newmark, a K-12 approved private school for children with disabilities in New Jersey, learned on a Friday afternoon that school would be going online for a minimum of four weeks starting Monday due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were prepared — or as prepared as anyone could be, given the circumstances.

Newmark, which serves 180 students with developmental differences like anxiety, autism and mood disorders, had partnered with Microsoft a year earlier to get its students and faculty trained on platforms like Teams, which enables a secure and inclusive remote classroom, and OneNote Class Notebook. With everyone equipped with a laptop and the software, moving learning online at the drop of a hat was relatively simple — especially for students.

A woman using a headset and microphone works in her home office

Photo courtesy of Shannon Mastrogiovanni

“They’re definitely engaged, and sometimes I feel like they learn things more quickly on Teams than even myself or other teachers, because this is what they grew up with,” says Shannon Mastrogiovanni, an eighth-grade science and language arts special education instructor who leads the IT effort. “So it was a very easy, seamless transition for most of them. It’s very intuitive.”

For her students, many of whom struggle with organizational skills, having their assignments, homework and other class materials on OneNote from the beginning of the year meant no scrambling for notebooks or papers.

On one recent day, she had three groups of students working on a language arts assignment and was able to “pop in” to hear conversations and check progress as she would in a regular classroom.

She’s also had 12 students reading “Animal Farm” and analyzing the characters together remotely: She divided students into three groups of four and assigned each a character, then set up separate Teams meetings for the groups to discuss their character and make notes in OneNote. The groups then came together for a broader Teams discussion where one student from each group talked through ways their character developed over the past chapter, and another shared the group’s notes.

“That’s pretty amazing to me that I can do that online,” she says.

“It’s a godsend, I’ll be honest with you, to be able to be where we’re at” just weeks into this pandemic, says Regina Peter, Newmark’s executive director.

Peter and Mastrogiovanni have also discovered that remote learning could change their approach to education for the future. Gone soon may be the days lost to inclement weather and mid-day doctor’s appointments.

“Teaching can happen anywhere now with technology,” Peter says. “If there’s a blizzard, we shouldn’t be out of school for a week. We should be able to work from home.”

“The teachers across the world, we feel like such a large community. Technology has brought us together.”

— Monica Bahl, school primary computing coordinator in New Delhi, India

Enriching, empowering, exciting. These are Monica Bahl’s three favorite “e” words, and she conjures them frequently when talking about the online learning happening at the British School of India in New Delhi.

“I get really excited when I talk about remote teaching,” says Bahl, who teaches computer skills to students in grades one through six.

A woman works on a laptop in her home

Photo courtesy of Monica Bahl

Bahl took an interest a while ago in coding with Minecraft, which she introduced to her students. That encouraged her to use another Microsoft platform — Teams, the online hub for chatting, meeting and working together. When she had to take a personal leave in February of this year, she decided to give remote teaching a shot with Teams.

“It was a great success. We entirely enjoyed it,” she says. “It was as if I had never taken a leave.”

As the school prepared for distance learning a few weeks later due to the coronavirus outbreak, she supported the school’s idea of implementing Teams. Although teachers had used apps and online instruction tools in the past, Bahl notes that Teams helped everyone understand the power of technology for collaboration and one-on-one engagement. “We are using this platform not just for teaching, but for supporting each other,” Bahl says.

Now dance, art and yoga teachers are offering virtual classes. School assemblies have gone online to create a sense of community. Instructors are able to leave effective and timely feedback for students with OneNote, and students with learning challenges are using tools like Immersive Reader to keep up.

Incredibly, the school is experiencing 100% participation.

Bahl dreams of an online conference of teachers from around the world. “This remote teaching has bonded all of us,” she says. “The teachers across the world, we feel like such a large community. Technology has brought us together.”

Optimistic by nature, Bahl is staying positive about the near future of online learning. She’s looking forward to getting back to normal, but “because we have this powerful tool we are not disheartened,” she says. “We feel empowered as a community. We don’t say we can’t do anything.”

It’s important that “kids are able to see and connect with each other right now.”

— Andy Knueven, fifth-grade math teacher in Indiana, U.S.

Smiling man stands in a classroom filled with colorful decor and signage

Photo courtesy of Andy Knueven

Andy Knueven discovered Flipgrid three years ago, and it seemed new and different and worth trying out. Little did the fifth-grade math teacher know it would become “an amazing vehicle to be able to empower my students and amplify their voice, and to be able to capture and see what they know.”

He’s been using it in his classroom ever since to encourage student sharing, from silly introductions at the beginning of the year to an end-of-year effort to give advice to the incoming class.

The app has taken on new significance now that his students are learning remotely. Knueven uses its blackboard and whiteboard features to sketch out concepts, and the video element helps him maintain a visual connection.

It also has a valuable feature for teachers: Social-media style metrics and comment fields allow them to assess students’ engagement and comprehension. “I can see 230-plus people have watched this on that day,” Knueven says. “I know they’re hearing the directions.”

He recently asked students to record themselves creating their names with the letters of the periodic table. In past years, Knueven has had them post their names on a classroom bulletin board. On Flipgrid, he was surprised to see the assignment garner 101 responses, 880 views and over 16 hours of student engagement.

A screengrab of Flipgrid, where a smiling man's picture and various emojis and cartoon characters denote nine different video clipsKnueven uses Flipgrid to keep his students engaged in learning.”They all might not want to spend 16 hours in a classroom, but they really enjoy this way of seeing their peers’ work and presentations,” he says. “The engagement concept of it is really important, where kids are able to see and connect with each other right now.”

Flipgrid includes Immersive Reader, with tools that read text out loud and provide other reading assistance, and other accessibility features to help ensure all students can participate. It can also enable shy students and learners of all abilities to express themselves with confidence.

“I see a whole different type of personality come through,” Knueven says. “It definitely allows students to do this on their time, where they’re comfortable, and not a one-and-done moment that a lot of structures or processes in a typical classroom only provide.”

Knueven is happy to see other teachers trying out the versatile tool, including a humanities teacher who started using it to continue her fifth graders’ book buddy program with a preschool class.

He says that because of Flipgrid, “having that sense of normalcy for what we had already been doing in class is still possible.”

“It has really been quite insightful … how people are taking to the platform and the freedoms it opens up.”

— Anthony Martin, college digital innovations and engagement manager in England

Anthony Martin, the digital innovations and engagement manager at Exeter College in southwest England, was preparing to roll out a digital strategy for the tertiary school’s 8,000 students. But that was supposed to launch in September — not now.

Watching the coronavirus sweep through China earlier this year, Martin and his colleagues began to think about how they would handle such a crisis if and when it came to the United Kingdom. “OK,” they reasoned, “this could be both a problem for us and also an opportunity.”

When the virus did arrive and the college closed its physical campus, Martin says his goal was simply to minimize learning disruption. If instructors preferred traditional teaching methods, like PowerPoint presentations or paper handouts, that was fine. But they also could use the newly implemented Microsoft Teams if they felt comfortable with the technology.

Man sits in front of a laptop in an empty classroom

Photo courtesy of Anthony Martin

“The uptake has been absolutely phenomenal,” he says. The six-month lead time to launch Teams was fast-tracked, as the school went from having effectively zero Teams channels to 556 in just two weeks.

“I’m not surprised by the outcome,” he adds. “We were already using it for our faculty and support areas, but at this scale it has really been quite insightful, I think, in terms of how people are taking to the platform and the freedoms it opens up.”

The college’s digital teams built out a rapid self-service Student Data Sync solution, provided students with the additional Microsoft 365 tools and supported instructors moving to OneDrive and OneNote, which helped with a fast transition to remote learning.

While Martin expected the digital rollout to complement physical class time, he now ponders how the extreme situation imposed by the coronavirus lockdown will affect the future.

“I’d love to see the classroom flipped, where tutors are more able to engage directly with students, offer one-to-one support, mentoring and help expand upon knowledge learned outside of class — not just a lecture-based, 40-minute repeat of the same slide show given to a previous group,” he says.

Nevertheless, “I think it must be ‘digital where it fits best,’” he says. “Digital transformation is actually all about people. Yes, the technology is important, but it’s only there to support the users in getting the best possible outcomes.”

Find more information and resources for making the transition to remote learning.

Lead photo: Karey Killian, a K-5 library teacher in Pennsylvania’s Milton Area School District, connects with students online from her home as her daughters, Eleanor and Adelyn, study nearby. (Photo courtesy of Karey Killian)