A few weeks ago when schools first started closing en masse, the priorities were to make sure children were fed, safe, and to address immediate needs. Now teachers are confronting the reality that they will have to say goodbye to their students and families, and end the school year via video conference, or worse yet, a letter or phone call. As time has gone on, more of these nuanced and yet very important issues are beginning to surface.
When we first realized that it was no longer “business as usual,” our co-founder Tammy Kwan switched Cognitive ToyBox into research mode. While our product had successfully been addressing a pressing pre-COVID-19 evaluation requirement, post-COVID-19, we urgently needed to find out if early childhood assessment remained a priority. We wanted to determine how best to serve our current customers, as well as new ones. We embarked on a fact-finding mission to interview as many directors, administrators, and teachers at Early Head Start, Head Start, and PreK-12 programs as we could.
More than 50 conversations later, here are some key takeaways.
1. The Digital Divide is Pervasive
This topic is too broad to address here, and that’s not the intent of this post. However, it was such a prevalent concern in our calls that highlighting this issue seems necessary. Interestingly enough, whether kids and teachers have access to devices and the internet is not as predictable as you might think.
For example, a small rural district outside of Pittsburgh has faced financial challenges for years. Yet their visionary leadership in finding creative solutions to invest in digital resources and programs that have modernized the district’s capabilities are paying off. Elizabeth Forward School District Superintendent Dr. Todd Keruskin said the district has only missed one day of instruction during the closure and expects to meet the 180 days of instruction mandated by Pennsylvania in early June, although that requirement has been waived this year because so many school districts cannot meet the same standard.
Elizabeth Forward’s success in spite of the hurdles they have had to overcome does not seems to be the norm. More often we heard a vast discrepancy among families as to whether digital devices are available for children’s education. Even among districts who are able to provide devices, internet connections remain variable.
In particular, we are finding that early childhood programs are getting left behind in regard to access to devices, since districts are prioritizing the upper grades.
2. Mobile is a Common Denominator
Here are a few findings from a fact sheet published in June of 2019 from the Pew Research Center:
- 81% of Americans own smartphones.
- Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults now own desktop or laptop computers, while roughly half now own tablet computers and roughly half own e-reader devices.
- Roughly 1 in 5 American adults are “smartphone-only” internet users – meaning they own a smartphone, but do not have traditional home broadband service.
- Reliance on smartphones for online access is especially common among younger adults, non-whites and lower-income Americans.
Many of the teachers and administrators we spoke with are facing the reality that any product, service, or communication method they use to provide remote instruction must be mobile-friendly. If not, the digital divide among children who can and cannot access quality online resources and instruction increases significantly.
3. Parents (and Many Teachers) are Overwhelmed
Many parents have multiple children at home. Asking parents to log into multiple websites each day to download assignments and communicate with teachers quickly becomes overwhelming. Granted, being under quarantine adds extra stresses to a household that may not be present during “regular” online instruction. However, districts are doing their best to reduce the number of different websites and tools that they recommend or require. Instead of trying to replicate everything that happens in a regular school-based day, one tactic is to prioritize and focus on only one or a few goals. For instance, our head start customers in Alabama and Georgia are facilitating video calls that encourage social-emotional development and play.
We heard from multiple teachers who are struggling to keep up with digital communication streams from their districts on one side and their families on the other. Thus, ease of use has become a primary concern, both for teachers and parents. Learning management systems, assessment methods, communication tools, and other digital resources must be available on many different operating systems and devices. It’s important that products are designed with simple intuitive interfaces that require very little, if any, training to use.
4. Provide Quality Screen Time
Most of the Head Start programs we spoke with remain concerned about exposing kids to too much screen time, but are balancing that with the reality of only being able to conduct instruction via a half-hour daily video conference versus not at all. Finding creative ways to reach young children and their families without requiring that the kids themselves remain parked in front of a computer for hours on end is a challenge.
Cognitive ToyBox is meant for children ages 8 and under, which is a population especially monitored to avoid excess screen time. Our assessment games are five minutes or less per game. We do our best to make sure that screen time is kept to a minimum, while the quality of the data collected during each interaction is maximized.
In a recent Canvas8 report, Dr. Laura Zimmermann, child development and media researcher noted, “My hope is that this period will change the stigma surrounding the amount of time children are using digital devices and lead to a greater emphasis on the ways to foster creativity and the benefits of interacting with high-quality content.”
We are Resilient
We’d love to hear from more educators. Knowing about the most pressing problems helps Cognitive ToyBox and other education companies stay better informed and use that data to develop more effective products. The coronavirus situation is tragic and stressful. Yet we are resilient, and if some positive can come out of this time—in the form of more effective tools for education–then we all win.
Image courtesy of Cognitive ToyBox.