May 25, 2024


Digitally first class

This tech-savvy school shares tips for online learning amid coronavirus pandemic

This story about technology in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

MINEOLA, N.Y. – Earlier this school year, the first graders at the Hampton Street School were about to take a coding class, something they’ve been doing since kindergarten. “Coding gives us another way to solve our problems,” Diane Nodell, the library media specialist, reminded them. “Are you ready to learn the basics?”

The children were. They opened their iPads and within minutes were following arrows around the grid on their tablets, producing different colors with each set of directions. As they worked, Nodell assured them the assignment was helping their brains. “You’re going to grow neurons,” she said.

First graders work on a coding assignment. They will send their answers to student mentors at a nearby university who will review the work.
First graders work on a coding assignment. They will send their answers to student mentors at a nearby university who will review the work.

The coding lesson, with students tapping away on individual iPads, was typical in the Mineola Union Free School District in the New York City suburbs. For almost a decade, even young kids here have spent hours a day on screens as Mineola’s educators sought to transform schooling here.

Mineola was more prepared than most districts when the coronavirus shuttered schools around the country, forcing children everywhere to spend more time on screens, trying to keep up with school work, or just keep busy. Few other districts had embraced the promise of technology as enthusiastically as this Long Island district. Each student already had a device that all but the youngest took home every day, and some spent hours a day working online in school. Children and teachers were familiar with a variety of learning apps and other educational software. Educators had years of experience integrating technology into their teaching.

Superintendent Michael Nagler said a teacher told him, “Little did we know, but we’ve been preparing for a moment like this for years.”

Mineola’s experience could become even more valuable. Some proposals have suggested students will continue to spend some days learning at home when schools reopen in the fall. At the least, schools are only likely to use more technology, not less. 

Reopening plans: Scheduled days home, more online learning, lots of hand-washing

Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he would work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other technology experts “to reimagine” education in the state – and give technology a greater role.

“I believe that many of the systems that Mineola currently has in place would be exemplars,” Nagler wrote in an email. He said has not heard from either Cuomo or Gates. (The Gates Foundation is among the many supporters of The Hechinger Report and USA TODAY’s education coverage.)

For a more tech-focused school system to work, Nagler said the state needs to create more infrastructure, such as a centralized guide to online courses, to help schools get there.

The Cuomo administration has recruited experts but hasn’t yet outlined details for how technology might address various concerns about education in New York, such as inequality. Cuomo, who appeared to question this week whether students have to be in classrooms at all, drew immediate fire from many educators and parents, and his secretary later wrote on Twitter that “nothing could ever replace in-person learning.” Nagler said maybe the governor should have been clearer, but that even those who may resist remote learning and technology now could change their minds. “Parents don’t see the benefits when you introduce them,” he said, adding that when something like coronavirus happens, that changes.

‘Mama is tired’: After school closures, some families burn out on online classes. Others thrive

And yet, even in a place like Mineola where classrooms were already steeped in technology, educators are well aware that computers can’t do everything. The district’s experience and its new efforts to educate children largely confined to their homes for the remainder of the school year highlight both the possibilities and the restrictions of using technology to deliver an adequate education to millions of American children.

Even Nagler, the tech enthusiast behind Mineola’s shift online, has been quick to point out the limits of what his district can do now that school buildings are closed. “This is not school. It’s a bridge,” he said shortly after schools closed. Whatever schools do now, he said, “it has to be about social and emotional learning, not about sending home enough work to keep (students) busy.”

A podcast instead of a report, but some classes still use paper

Mineola High School student Pamela Lopez records a podcast with the help of librarian Jeffrey Appelbaum.
Mineola High School student Pamela Lopez records a podcast with the help of librarian Jeffrey Appelbaum.

On a rainy day last November, the library at Mineola High School had more than enough online and offline activities to keep students occupied. While some read or even colored, four girls donned virtual reality headsets and in an adjacent studio Pamela Lopez, an English language learner, worked on a podcast on dubstep music. “Dancing to dubstep makes your neck muscles stronger,” she said into a microphone.

It was the kind of report students traditionally deliver orally to their classmates. But library media specialist Jeffrey Appelbaum thought podcasts provide a personal presence and let students send their work out to the world. He described how students created a podcast featuring an interview with a World War II veteran. “He’s 89 years old, so this is the way to archive a community member,” Appelbaum said.

Though teachers at the high school did not have to use technology, it was everywhere. All students had iPads, pop-up screens lined the hallways and a fabrication lab featured computer-controlled cutters that enabled students to design, create – and sell – products.

Years before coronavirus became a household word, educators in Mineola saw technology as a way to prepare students for what they said will likely be an increasingly digital future. “Technology is vital,” Mineola High School principal Whittney Smith said. “We live in a world where all facets of work require a high level of knowledge in how you use technology, and we’re kind of on the precipice of technology replacing many jobs, so it’s incumbent on us to give students skills.”

Too much screen time? Yes, your kids are on screens in these trying times. No, you’re not a terrible parent because of coronavirus.

Since 2017, students in Mineola have been introduced to coding through unplugged classes in preschool, and by first grade, have been allowed to take the devices home. Because of the devices and other technology, teachers have tested and tracked student progress more easily than was previously possible and provided more personalized learning. Students have been able to access a much wider range of texts, materials and tools than the schools could physically stock in classrooms.

Not every classroom or lesson is dominated by tech. Shortly before Thanksgiving, second graders in dual-language classes at Hampton Street worked in small groups to answer questions about the origins of the holiday. One did the work on paper, the other on their tablets. The students “are good either way. They’re flexible. I really like that we use both,” principal Margarita Maravel said. “Otherwise, we’re not doing our job.”

In a preschool class at Hampton Street, students worked on learning the letter L by cutting it from paper or fashioning it from clay. Still, the children are getting ready for the technology they will find in future classes. They take “unplugged” coding classes and track their progress with badges, a low-tech offshoot of a movement in which adults and older students create digital markers indicating they have mastered a certain subject or skill. In Mineola, preschool students like Elena Wagner, a bubbly red-haired girl, have the opportunity to win paper badges.

“I practiced all day but I couldn’t do it, but I tried my best,” she said. Elena kept at it and finally got the badge for knowing her ABCs, which she proudly pasted in her badge book. The book also includes QR codes that parents can scan for access to pointers on helping their child, educational songs and other materials.

Preschool student Elena Wagner earned a badge for knowing her ABCs.
Preschool student Elena Wagner earned a badge for knowing her ABCs.

Mineola school board president Christine Napolitano said the district’s schools were not bad before all the changes took place, and parents were not unhappy. But, she said, there was a feeling that the district could do more to engage its children and “really try to get our kids ready for whatever the world is going to throw at them.”

Nagler, who became superintendent in 2009, had lots of ideas about how to do that.

“We’re in this revolution that is moving quickly,” said Nagler, a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year in 2019. “The iPhone didn’t exist when today’s high school seniors were in kindergarten, so how do you help your 5-year-olds get ready for when they graduate?”

Nagler has also pushed the idea that the spread of technology means students should learn skills rather than facts; the curriculum in Mineola reflects that. In the later elementary grades, for example, students investigate broad themes spanning several subject areas, such as the conflict between individuality and conformity or how location affects survival. Instead of taking a test, students create a project of their own choosing, such as an infomercial, a diorama or a performance to show their understanding. 

“You really don’t have to teach facts anymore. What you do with those facts and the application of those facts is much more critical,” Nagler said. “Children need to apply what they learn, not just regurgitate.”

He cited his son as an example of a child applying knowledge. When the boy’s iPhone broke, he didn’t want to pay someone to fix it, so he researched how he could do it. He’s like “every kid in Mineola,” Nagler said. “They know where to find the information if they want it.”

But other educators have argued de-emphasizing facts is heretical and even dangerous. Some research suggests students thrive when the curriculum is focused on content knowledge, while other studies have found a focus on skills, such as critical thinking, isn’t effective if students don’t have background knowledge. “Your brain has to have something to hook on to,” said Joe Clement, co-author of “Screen Schooled” and a teacher in Virginia. “Knowing the difference between Jacksonian democracy and Jeffersonian democracy can help kids understand what’s going on today.”

And research on the effects of using technology in education has been mixed. A RAND Corp. study found very limited improvements in academic performance when personalized learning, which is often delivered via technology, is used. Another study, by the Reboot Foundation, determined that U.S. fourth graders who used tablets in most classes scored lower on a standardized reading test than those who never used them in school. Eighth graders seemed to get some benefit from the devices.

Personalized learning: Is online school program backed by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg the answer for coronavirus closures?

While Napolitano and Mineola educators said parents are enthusiastic about Mineola’s innovations, it’s still unclear whether the changes have reaped academic benefits for the district. Mineola’s scores on New York State’s standardized tests have improved and are above average, but remain below average for its county. Located some 20 miles from Manhattan, Mineola has about 2,800 students, a bit more than half of whom are white. In 2017-18, the district spent almost $32,000 a year per student, compared with a New York State average of around $25,000. 

A second grade class completes a Thanksgiving project on paper. Children in another second grade class used their iPads to do the project.
A second grade class completes a Thanksgiving project on paper. Children in another second grade class used their iPads to do the project.

Annahita Ball, a professor of social work at the State University of New York’s University at Buffalo, recently studied fourth and fifth graders who received school tablets. She found academic motivation went down among students with assigned tablets and declined even more among students who could use the iPads at home than those who kept them at school.

“It’s exactly what you don’t want to happen,” she said. “We need so much more research to understand what is really happening here. What tends to happen in higher education – and it’s happening here – is putting the cart before the horse.”

‘It depends on how it’s used’

In our digital world, debating the value of technology in education ignores the real issues, said Karen Cator, CEO of the Digital Promise, which works for innovation in schools. “The answer is, it depends. It depends on how it’s used,” she said.

She and others believe Mineola is doing it well.

Many schools, rushing to teach online in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown, have not been able to figure out how to quickly adjust their lessons to use technology. While Mineola had already made that initial adjustment, and reportedly done so successfully, the world its educators envisioned is not the one we’re seeing now, one where perhaps millions of students sit alone typing on devices. “You can’t eliminate teachers and you need schools,” Nagler said. “Children have to talk to each other” and learn how to live in society. He argued that devices, programs and apps are tools, nothing more. “If you treat technology as curriculum, it’s not going to work,” he said.

‘Historic academic regression’: Why homeschooling is so hard amid school closures

While children at Hampton Street have iPads by kindergarten, principal Margarita Maravel estimated before the lockdown that her students were on their iPads for less than half the day. Even that might be excessive for parents who worry about children spending too much time staring at screens – a concern bolstered by a study in JAMA Pediatrics showing that screen use by very young children has a negative effect on brain development. 

Children in Mineola’s preschool program create letters using clay.
Children in Mineola’s preschool program create letters using clay.

But Nagler said the real concern both now and before the coronavirus crisis is what children do when they’re not doing schoolwork. Danielle Herro, an associate professor of digital media and learning at Clemson University, agrees. “Most kids experience far more screen time at home than they ever do at school,” she said.

With schools closed because of coronavirus, though, technology clearly has come to dominate. Children at Jackson Avenue School, which serves grades three and four, get assignments at the beginning of the week and then interact with their teachers remotely throughout the week, sometimes as a whole class and sometimes in small groups, using the WebEx platform. “Kids continue to work, to set their own goals. There’s no replacement for school but we’re trying to keep them engaged,” said Jackson Avenue principal Janet Gonzalez.

The badges have also become a key part of Mineola’s distance learning, with students from preschool to grade 12 taking various challenges and earning badges when they meet one. One such challenge asked elementary school kids to design an exercise for their physical education teacher to perform on video.

But unlike many districts moving to remote learning after the coronavirus forced closures, Nagler said the district’s main focus has been on students’ social and emotional state, not ramping up academics. Teachers have been instructed to watch children as they interact via a software platform to make sure they seem OK. The high school has been reaching out to students making sure they can submit work and are engaged. “We don’t want to lose anybody,” principal Smith said.

Missing students: Without in-person classes, many students have essentially gone missing, teachers say

Every student has opportunities to interact with teachers in real time. But although the remote platform used for these encounters has been largely successful – even pre-K students can see and talk with their teachers on FaceTime – the time with teachers, let alone classmates, is limited, with every teacher doing about two hours of online time a day.  

Staff and students have posted silly videos and the district held a virtual spirit week to help students feel a sense of community. “It’s important to try to bring some normalcy into a lot of kids’ lives when nothing is normal,” Nagler said.

Perhaps ironically for a district so invested in technology, bringing normalcy has meant a big push to get kids off their screens. Students have been urged to draw. For virtual spirit week, students were told to spend two hours offline. Elementary schools encouraged students to put down their devices with a bingo card of activities that didn’t involve technology at all, like tidying their rooms, going outside, or doing a cartwheel.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus online classes, learning: School has tips for Andrew Cuomo