A Pivot and a Plan: Education During the Coronavirus Pandemic
"Beyond the pandemic, this is going to offer our community an expansive way to approach teaching and learning."
Members of Marlborough's Digital Education Committee, including Ms. Shauna Davis, Director of Technology and Digital Education, and Ms. Helen Mendoza, Dean of Faculty, first heard rumblings about schools preparing to shift to distance learning at the end of February 2020 while visiting schools on the East Coast.
"You could sense that something was happening," Ms. Davis remembers.
Once she returned to campus, Ms. Davis joined conversations with Dr. Sands and Marlborough's Senior Leadership, and they all agreed that there should be a distance learning plan in place, just in case, with the goals of learning continuity, reducing stress levels, and providing support to both faculty and students if a transition was needed.
The Academic Resource Center (ARC) team, in collaboration with a number of other faculty and staff members, immediately got to work, taking workshops, watching webinars, and exploring resources like One Schoolhouse and Global Online Academy to learn about distance learning implementation.
Marlborough's Librarian Nichole Gomez created a LibGuide, collecting and sharing resources as the team discovered and vetted them. The team also hosted workshops at lunch to assist the faculty in becoming familiar with tools like Zoom, testing connectivity, and providing headsets and other resources if needed.
Then, in mid-March, two weeks after Ms. Davis returned from the Digital Education Committee trip, Marlborough officially moved to distance learning.
"There was a sense of urgency around how we were going to adapt to challenges with teaching and learning in that virtual space," remembers Dr. Khanichi Charles, Science Instructor and 8th Grade Dean. "I'm not going to say it was easy, but we have people that were just so helpful and ready for the challenge."
In the spirit of collaboration, faculty collected resources specific for their subject matter, shared across departments, and utilized the virtual labs, demonstrations, and presentations appropriate for the new teaching format.
Marlborough's Online Learning Course
Towards the end of the spring semester, Ms. Davis, Dr. Laura Hotchkiss, and Ms. Mendoza began talking about the growing possibility that distance learning may continue into the 2020-2021 school year. They began to speak with other faculty members who expressed an interest in exploring and sharing additional distance learning tools. Quickly, a group of 16 faculty and staff volunteers formed a committee with the goal to build a three-week online course that would create a framework about how to effectively transition in-person teaching to a virtual space.
"There was significant learning taking place this summer," Dr. Charles remembers. "The spring gave us a window into the challenges that we would face as teachers, but also illuminated new opportunities."
One of those opportunities was to infuse the course with specific pedagogical practices that increase connection, social emotional wellness, and equitable pedagogy.
Through a student survey created by committee member Dr. Catherine Atwell, Dean of Student Research and History & Social Sciences Instructor, students expressed a particular interest in increasing connections, specifically among their peers and with their teachers. Additionally, with increased screen time due to the nature of distance learning, combined with additional life stressors, wellness became a key issue.
"Things are uncertain and unpredictable right now, which can amplify stress that some students may experience in their personal lives and make it incredibly difficult to learn and retain information. When we are experiencing significant distress, our brain shifts into survival mode and we are unable to learn in that condition," explains Ms. Morgan Duggan, Middle School Psychologist and Dean of Social and Emotional Learning.
"So how do we make sure that their brain is available for learning? By offering the predictability of routine and emotional safety of connection in the learning environment. The more consistency we can provide, the less for them to have to think about, which reduces students' cognitive load. In the online course, we suggested that teachers structure each class with openers for interpersonal connection, engaging strategies, brain breaks, and optimistic closures."
Connection is also critical for equitable pedagogy. Equity gives access and ensures every student feels like they are part of the greater community.
"Students can show up as their whole self, respected, and valued. We remain curious, embrace our differences, and also find some commonalities, as well," shares Ms. Duggan.
Utilizing feedback and focusing on these themes, the committee went to work developing the online course, which included outside resources as well as lessons created by faculty themselves.
"It was incredibly collaborative and very much tailored to Marlborough and what we need to support our students, our teachers, and our community. It exemplifies what we prioritize as a community," shares Dr. Charles.
After four weeks of work, the committee shared the course with the faculty and staff. Each of the three one-week modules concluded with the chance to put new teaching tools and strategies into practice. And throughout the course, faculty used a chat function to ask questions, share additional tools, and expand upon the ideas presented. Feedback from the course has been positive, with faculty feeling supported and bringing a rejuvenated sense of purpose to distance learning this fall.
"I tend to be very purpose driving in what I do, and this course has added to that purpose for me," says Dr. Charles. "We have set up an online experience for faculty that says that we prioritize social emotional wellness, connection, and equity. So I have that in my mind as I approach teaching and learning in my classroom. I know that when I fall short of that, I can check in with myself and my colleagues and get support to bring me back to that purpose."
"What evolved over the summer are these learning communities within Marlborough," reflects Ms. Davis. "Seeing everyone really step up and support each other, rethink practices, dig deep into the tools that could be leveraged for learning during this time, and the commitment to each other was incredibly inspiring to see. Every teacher became a leader in this landscape."
With the start of the school year, additional distance learning experiences offer new tools for the course. With this, the intention is to continue to grow the course, not just as a distance learning framework, but as a framework for Marlborough pedagogy in general.
While the faculty embarked on creating and implementing the new course, Ms. Davis and the Academic Resource Center team also committed to meeting any and all technology needs for distance learning.
From a connectivity survey sent to families as well as conversations with administrators, teachers, and students, the team was able to send out internet hotspots and loaner laptops to students in need.
Additionally, the team was thinking beyond distance learning to a hybrid scenario, where some learners would be in the classroom and others would be at home.
When looking into solutions for the hybrid learning environment, the ARC team always returned to the question "what do we want from a hybrid environment?" The answer always came back to the theme of connection. Students learning from home should feel connected to the classroom space and fully feel a part of the class. The team researched many different technologies, finding Swivl systems, Huddley Go cameras, and STEM Audio microphone systems (see below). These technology tools offer full views of the classroom and excellent sound between the classroom and meeting software.
"We've tested it with masks from all different parts of the classroom. It really does feel like you're in the same space," shared Ms. Davis. "Beyond the pandemic, this is going to offer our community an expansive way to approach teaching and learning."
Dr. Charles is also excited by the ability of this technology to influence teaching once students are back in the classroom together full time. "Since we're all connecting virtually, the boundaries of our classroom have been extended, or fully been removed. There's potential to do things with other students and other schools easily, and to bring in experts from across the country."
Wellness and Support
Of course, adapting to a new way of teaching and learning can take both a physical and emotional toll. With increased cognitive load, increased screen time, and isolation can come eye strain, headaches, anxiety, and depression.
In response, the Educational and Counseling Services department has continued to invest in a variety of tools and services to provide support for the Marlborough community.
Dr. Marisa Crandall, Director of Educational and Counseling Services, and Ms. Duggan will continue to provide direct individual counseling and group counseling for students via Zoom.
They will also continue to consult with teachers on classroom management and developmental appropriateness of behavior, providing strategies to support individual student learning experiences and through official accommodation plans, as well as offer guidance for teachers about how to infuse social emotional learning and anti-bias/anti-racist practices into the classroom.
"Parents now have a firsthand look at their child's learning experience, where they are witnessing their child simultaneously navigate challenges of distance learning and some of the typical stressors experience in adolescence," shares Ms. Duggan.
Because of this, the team is also available to meet with parents, offering increased parent training for emotional first aid and tailoring advice to the specific student and situation, including guidance about how to refer students for additional mental health support. Similarly, the team is training students to recognize warning signs that indicate mental health concerns in friends so they can provide support and make referrals to adults.
"My hope is that we've made ourselves available and normalize any feelings and emotions you might be having. Let's connect and reach out to one another when we feel like we could use some support. Nothing is too big or too small. Let's work through it together," says Ms. Duggan.
Classroom Technology Upgrades
The goal of all learning technology is to maintain the feeling of community and ensure students feel as though they are part of one cohesive classroom. To that end, Marlborough has invested in several new technology systems to enhance both the hybrid and distance learning environment.
The Swivl is a flexible camera and microphone system that helps to provide a more integrated and connected learning experience. It utilizes high quality audio and video, connecting to Zoom with a tablet or other mobile device, so the teacher and students in the classroom can see and hear their classmates at home, and vice versa. The Swivl is paired with a remote that acts as a home marker. The remote is positioned with a teacher or small student group and as the remote moves around the space, the camera swivels to follow the action. Swivl systems are already being used by the Science and Performing Arts Departments to rethink labs and lessons that are infused with dynamic movement. In a hybrid model, students at home can actively engage in small group work with students on campus.
In the summer of 2019 Marlborough installed three Ben-Q boards. Realizing the board's practicality for distance learning, Marlborough has installed another three boards. These interactive flat panels offer the ability to share multimedia, annotate presentations, and draw directly on the screen. With 4k UHD resolution and 16W speakers, the screens are germ-resistant utilizing a multilayer coating of non-toxic enduring nano ionic silver agent to kill most germs and prevent cross-infection. They also have the capability of streaming an image, with annotations, online to students learning from home.
Huddley Go Camera
Over the summer, Marlborough installed Huddley Go cameras into 30 classrooms. These compact HD cameras feature a 150-degree ultra-wide-angle lens to ensure every student in the classroom is in frame. Small, lightweight, and compatible with any meeting software platform, the camera can be used in traditional classrooms or large outdoor temporary learning spaces.
Stem Audio: Stem Wall Microphone and Speaker System
Paired with the Huddley Go Camera is the Stem Wall audio system. The Stem Wall system consists of 15 beaming microphones, two full-range speakers, and two subwoofers housed in a thin 3-inch x 4-foot bank that sits under a screen or board. It provides echo-canceling de-reverb, and noise cancellation algorithms for clear sound for both those in the classroom and at home.