Online Learning in the Wake of COVID-19

Tips and Resources for PreK-12 with Equity in Mind
Blog Post
Photo by Brad Flickinger, shared under CC BY license
March 16, 2020

UPDATED at 10:45 a.m. ET on 3/20/20 with new resources.

New America's Education Policy Program is providing articles and other information in this continuously updated collection: COVID-19's Impact on Education and Workforce Policy.

As news organizations report on closures and how schools plan to cope, we at New America are lifting up guidance and resources that match our focus on equity, quality, and a human-centered approach to the use of technology for learning. Below are resources curated by our Teaching, Learning, and Tech team that focus on helping more students gain access to remote learning, how to engage parents in at-home learning, how to find and use openly-licensed digital learning materials as a part of distance learning, and how to choose and use digital media with young children. (See also Kristina Ishmael's Weekly article, with Laura Spencer, on the enormity of the online learning challenge.) We hope this guidance, as well as brief summaries and links to resources, are helpful to education leaders, educators, and parents and families.

Focusing on access & equity

Finding a way to enable all students—not just those well-off who have high-speed Internet at home—to learn online is one of the top challenges facing school district leaders right now. (Though undoubtedly having access to meals and social services is even more paramount; more on that in this CNBC piece.) Here we spotlight some key resources from education technology associations and technology companies:

  • A new site, Learning Keeps Going, was launched last week by a coalition of organizations that focus on technology in education, including the Consortium on School Networking (COSN), Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Digital Promise, EdSurge, EdWeek, International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA). It features a COVID-19 Educator Help Desk, an online forum populated by volunteers and staff from ISTE and ISTE's affiliates and partners who answer questions and provide guidance.
  • For years, the SETDA has published reports in its Equity of Access initiative that help explain issues related to school broadband, the federal “e-rate” program, and other aspects of telecommunications in schools. Its Coalition for eLearning is now pulling together more resources for district leaders and held a webinar on strategies for e-learning in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak (Tuesday, March 17).
  • EdSurge, a news source published by the International Society for Technology in Education, is synthesizing advice from ISTE officials, providing a checklist and “to-do’s” for making the move to remote learning. It is also hosting weekly Friday webinars on how schools can manage new technology expectations in the wake of closures.
  • The Consortium for School Networking (COSN) has released a four-pager on "key considerations for districts contemplating moving classrooms online" with checklists of questions on connectivity, security, technical support, and more. It has also moved its annual conference to a virtual format, starting this week.
  • Curious about how other countries are handling the emergency shift to online learning? The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published Education Responses to COVID-19: Embracing Digital Learning and Online Collaboration.
  • Technology and media companies are waiving fees and temporarily opening free access to their tools. Some examples:
    • Children's media and tech companies are waiving fees, providing discounts, and building new resources. For example,, an early learning interactive platform that is part of Nickelodeon, announced it is partnering with the National Head Start Association and First Book to provide free access to low-income families. PBS Parents provides a free daily newsletter that offers tips and activities for learning at home. (See more below on PBS's offerings.)
    • Zoom is taking off the 40-minute time limit on its free service for schools affected by closures. Comcast is waiving its $9.95 monthly fee for Internet Essentials for 60 days; Charter Spectrum is doing the same. One key consideration in many of these cases, however, is whether the families will have to be sure to “opt-out” after 60 days to avoid surprise bills and whether low-income families will be able to take advantage of these offers in the first place. For example, households that have a recent unpaid bill with Comcast are not eligible for the Internet Essentials program. A question for Comcast: Will the company waive that eligibility restriction to enable more families to sign up?
  • English learners and their families will need access to digital resources in languages other than English. Our English Learner team at New America has published this list of more than 30 Digital Resources for English Learners.
  • In addition to the lost time and threats to learning outcomes, many teachers are concerned with fostering community while providing remote learning, which can be especially hard to do—but acutely necessary—while socially distanced. Inclusive, open, digital resources can be a great way to help teachers and students stay connected in meaningful ways that engage all students and maintain a sense of togetherness. Our recent report, Supporting LGBTQ-Inclusive Teaching: How Open Digital Materials Can Help, provides an introduction to this idea, which can be expanded to apply to the use of inclusive materials for many different subpopulations of students. (Also see more on the role of OER below.)

Choosing resources that are openly licensed

Open educational resources, or OER, are freely available educational materials that can be downloaded, customized, and shared. OER do not have to be digital or online, but in the vast majority of cases they are, which means that they are ideally suited for online learning. OER can be added into a suite of materials that school districts may be offering for virtual learning over the next several weeks.

Making the most of screen media at home

Parents of young children and adolescents are coping with a double-whammy: they now have to figure out new norms for their work lives (teleworking, coping with reduced work hours, or dealing with furloughs) while they also ensuring their kids maintain routines and stay on top of any homework (online or in packets sent home). Given the cancellation of extracurriculars, social gatherings, and sports activities, they are also likely to be looking for ways to use screen media wisely to keep their children occupied and learning. Some tips:

  • Co-engagement with media and “co-viewing” is optimal for learning and spurring conversations (and thereby helping to develop vocabulary and deeper understanding) around new content. Where time allows, family members watching videos and playing games together is a great way to keep learning and getting inspired to explore new topics. PBS has years of experience developing apps, videos, and games with this in mind (for parents and for teachers), and has developed apps to promote co-engagement, such as the PBS Parents Play & Learn app. And KQED has created a site devoted to Learn at Home Resources During the COVID-19 Epidemic. (Also see this landmark report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center on The New Co-Viewing.)
  • Reading, watching, and playing together also offers key moments for teaching skills of digital citizenship and media literacy. With young children, this can be as simple as pausing to talk together about the author or creator behind a film or book, why a manipulated photo may not be what it seems, or looking for clues within a text or a photo to provide evidence to back up what we are told. Older students can interact with games offered by news and media literacy programs like IREX’s Learn to Discern, interactive tools from the News Literacy Project, and StudentVote materials and other games from CIVIX. RAND has developed a database of such tools, and the National Association for Media Literacy Education provides more resources and context for educators and researchers. In fact, NAMLE just published these resources on fighting misinformation about the pandemic.
  • By using the framework of the Three C’s (Content, Context, and the individual Child), parents and educators can make more informed judgment calls about media that match the needs of their kids. This short quiz about the Three C’s (published free on the site) is designed as a conversation starter for anyone working with families who have questions about screen media. Media mentor programs, such as those developed in Maryland public libraries, are using these resources to trigger deeper discussions about how librarians can help with decisions about what types of media, used in what contexts, will advance learning.
  • Another framework to help parents is Using Technology to Support Learning at Home: Simple Tips for Parents of Young Children, published this week in Spanish and English by EDC. It includes advice on how to build positive tech habits and what to look for when selecting an app.
  • Being holed up at home is already leading people to consider new approaches to reading books together. Not only can students read print and ebooks and then schedule remote bookclubs using live video chat, there are also examples of authors of children’s books who have either created videos of their own or who are explicitly giving teachers permission to read their books out loud in a live video stream or recorded video. For more on this new phenomenon, follow #readaloudalert on Twitter, read this new guidance "Reading Aloud: Fair Use Enables Translating Classroom Practices to Online Learning" from American University's Washington College of Law, and register for the accompanying webinar on Tuesday March 31 at 1 pm ET, which features New America's Kristina Ishmael.
  • Parents, siblings, and other family members can assist and scaffold their children’s use of digital media to foster creation and authorship using tools such as WeVideo for home vlogging or to create stop-action videos of Playdoh creations. More ideas are offered below on how to encourage active (as opposed to passive) use of technology and media.

Choosing tech tools that enable school-to-home connections

Teachers and librarians are experts at choosing materials that match students’ level of understanding and creating lessons and classroom activities that challenge students to use those materials to reach new levels. Without the ability to teach face to face, this will be more difficult. But educators are already stepping up to open opportunities for at-home use of school-oriented materials.

  • Teachers are providing pointers and specifying apps where they can. Many are leveraging learning management systems and communication infrastructure like Google Classroom, Canvas, SeeSaw, Clever, Class Dojo, Remind, and others to stay in touch and select learning apps. Some of these options may be more likely offered in middle schools and high schools, where students are old enough to be managing online folders and are accustomed to logging in and out of online systems. For elementary school educators, the act of providing resources will likely be quite different. Depending on a school districts’ demographics and whether parents have any access to online or digital materials for their children to use at home, schools are turning to text messaging and email communication directed at parents, encouraging families to experiment with on-and-offline activities for learning, engage in read alouds and book sharing, outdoor exploration, and more.
  • Still, parents and teachers alike will be continuing to seek apps and other online resources that can support the subject-area learning, whether it is reading, math, science, or social studies. offers a tip sheet on how to sort the various curators of educational apps (curators include Common Sense Media, Teachers with Apps, and more.) Everyday, Wonderopolis serves up a "Wonder of the Day" and provides a searchable database of more than 2500 "Wonders" on everything from how to grow a bonsai tree to why the sky is blue to a new entry explaining COVID-19. The Association of Library Service to Children has started an awards program for Excellence in Early Learning Digital Media; its criteria list is a good guide for parents and educators as they assess options. For older students, check out the book suggestions (ebook and print) and other media ideas offered by the Young Adult Library Service Association. See also this new article from the Fordham Institute full of ideas for remote learning at home, with a focus on enriching media that help children grasp concepts in history, science, and more.

Using digital media with young children (0-8)

This is a particularly sensitive time for leaders of early learning and early elementary programs because debates continue to rage over how and if screen media should be used with young children. Because of mixed messages over the years (from advertisements on the benefits of particular apps to bans on “screen time” in early learning centers), many parents may be understandably confused about what is good practice. Earlier this month, Rhian Allvin, the president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, published a much-needed statement calling out the dangers of labeling software and curricular materials as "online preschool.” It was a much-needed statement; there is no doubt that games and interactive websites cannot replace the teaching and learning that comes with high-quality preschool.

Now, however, parents and grandparents will be seeking sound guidance on how to use ebooks, games, videos, and other materials with their children to keep their minds active and to stimulate learning at home while their preschools or elementary schools are closed. Several articles published in Young Children over the years are very helpful in gaining insights into activities that can be conducted using different types of media with young children. (Here's one on the pros and cons of e-books.) For education leaders, many frameworks and science-based recommendations have been published in the past five years. They include:

Moving from passive to active use of media and technology

The National Education Technology Plan of 2017 laid out a vision for all students to have access to a modern education system. It called out the digital use divide that “continues to exist between learners who are using technology in active, creative ways to support their learning and those who predominantly use technology for passive content consumption.” Many of today’s education leaders have responded to that call by helping students gain access to tools that enable them to create multimedia products, to use engineering and design principles, to have access to mentors and design tools in maker spaces, tech clubs, and DIY centers.

During the COVID-19 crisis, bringing students together in maker space and DIY centers will not be possible, but librarians, makerspace directors, and instructional technologists will be putting their heads together to determine how to keep creativity going in virtual spaces. Consider efforts like The Make-IT Place, a digital repository created by Maryland librarians that points people to training materials and project-based learning curricula. We’ll be watching to see how and if remote video conferencing might enable mentors to stay in touch with students and families so that form of creation and design can continue, especially for students without easy access to resources.

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