LAUSD Is Switching To 'Distance Learning.' What Will That Look Like?

Teacher Jacqueline Porter-Morris shows second-grade students how to take a picture on an iPad in 2018. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

Sherman Oaks teacher Brent Smiley knew something was up last week when his school started checking out laptops to students — to take home.

Normally, the Los Angeles Unified School District "doesn't let those laptops get more than two feet from the cart," Smiley said. "It's a pretty good indicator that they're expecting to shut it down."

Smiley was right. On Friday morning, LAUSD announced plans to cancel in-person instruction starting Monday as the coronavirus spreads worldwide. For at least the next two weeks, all 472,000 students will continue their coursework online.

LAUSD has been preparing for this transition to "distance learning" for more than a week. District officials used emergency spending authority to buy $10 million worth of additional Chromebook-like devices to ensure every student could take one home. Supt. Austin Beutner told reporters Friday the newly-purchased laptops could be delivered to students next week.

THE TRADE-OFFS OF DISTANCE LEARNING

Schools have been preparing for the switch as well. Three teachers from across LAUSD told KPCC/LAist they received directives from their principals to be ready — just in case of a coronavirus-related closure — to either deliver lessons online or send printed course materials home with students.

One of those teachers — Smiley, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies — said his principal asked well before Friday morning's announcement for teachers to be ready with their distance learning materials by week's end.

A second teacher, Walter Reed Middle School math instructor John Zwiers, got similar "be-prepared-just-in-case" instructions from his principal. He's treating the shutdown as an unexpected golden opportunity for LAUSD to experiment with online learning platforms.

"We have to do something different because of a crisis," said Zwiers, "but this is an opportunity to try something that might work."

Other teachers are bracing for more-detrimental disruptions.

Aaron Lemos' seniors in the film program at John F. Kennedy High School in Granada Hills are assigned to complete a 20-minute film. They're expected to film these projects — using professional actors and high-end production equipment — over spring break. Lemos worries a closure longer than two weeks will hurt these projects.

"They look forward to that," Lemos said. "This is their big moment. For them to be told, 'Look guys, I don't know what's going to happen, so prepare for the worst,' it was really disappointing."

A FAMILIAR TOOL

LAUSD has been ramping up its use of a "learning management system" called Schoology for the last five years. Already, many students and parents regularly log on to the secure website to check grades and download assignments.

"[Schoology] is what we use every day," said Smiley. "The vast majority of students throughout the district are in that position where they are using that every day in at least some of their classes."

Smiley said his class materials, including textbooks, have been "completely digital" for the last few years. He's worried less about kids failing to master Schoology, and more that Schoology might break down on teachers or students during the closure.

"We're going to be taxing the bandwidth of the systems we used in a way that was never intended," he said. "It's going to be bumpy."

VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS

Zwiers hopes to come as close as he can to recreating the structure of a classroom environment in a virtual setting.

"What I don't want to do is give them a big stack of papers and say, 'Start working on this until we come back,'" he said, "because I think a lot of students would get stuck and frustrated. We want to keep things going remotely so that we can keep them motivated."

This year, Zwiers is already piloting a new curriculum that's already entirely digital. With the closure, he's now going to ramp up his use of an app called Microsoft OneNote. On that platform, Zwiers said he can convene students for large group discussions while also tracking their progress on individual assignments.

Under normal circumstances, OneNote's chat feature is a liability when used in classrooms; middle schoolers, after all, aren't always on-task. But in a distance-learning scenario, that chat feature will be invaluable, Zwiers said.

WHAT HAPPENS TO STUDENTS' DATA PLANS?

The one flaw in Zwiers' plans? Internet access.

"Most students," Zwiers said, "have a phone with some internet access where they can access Schoology and Schoology assignments."

But OneNote, he said, could quickly max out a student's data plan if they don't have a solid internet connection at home.

Zwiers isn't certain how many of his students will have difficulty, but LAUSD officials have estimated that one in four students lack internet access at home.

Beutner had pleaded with state officials for emergency funding to help pay for more laptops and hotspots from mobile internet providers that students could take home.

The laptops are on their way — but Beutner said Friday that the district has not secured a deal for more hotspots.