These Learning Tools Are Shaping the Online Schoolhouse

Remote learning is here to stay. These platforms have designed virtual classrooms around the needs of teachers and students.

Before the global pandemic started, I did not think anything could break my heart as thoroughly as watching my daughter struggle with remote kindergarten.

In the grand scheme of things, not being able to operate Google Meet is a privileged problem to have. After all, my daughter has a quiet room, reliable internet, active adult support, and her own electronic device. Still, it’s a nightmare. One of us has to babysit her on the computer, as she can’t manage Google Meet, writing on her whiteboard, and studying the class material by herself. There’s always one poorly lit, hyperactive student who never mutes. And when her teacher calls on her, my daughter goes white and flips her Chromebook face-down. It’s been an adjustment.

But remote schooling isn’t going anywhere. In a survey administered by the Rand Corporation last December, a public policy research organization, about two out of 10 US school districts out of 375 will consider adopting, will adopt, or have adopted virtual learning as part of their respective district portfolio in the upcoming years due to parent demand. It allows some parents to better protect children from institutional racism, lets high-energy kids escape distractions, and gives families some leeway when it comes to commutes and sick days.

Keeping structural inequity in mind, is it possible to improve some of the technical aspects of the online learning experience? Just as Zoom became hero software for the work-from-home masses, a growing number of companies are building the next generation of the remote schoolhouse. These new software tools for online learning include features that offer better controls for teachers, make unique considerations for students of different age groups, and cut some slack to the kids who need it the most.

A Room With a View

Photograph: Class

If grown adults can’t be counted on to mute themselves, how can we expect children with barely formed prefrontal cortices to do so? The problem is that online web conferencing software, like Zoom, was designed for work before it was hastily repurposed for teaching. So what would a platform designed specifically for online learning look like?

Pre-pandemic, companies like Coursera focused on putting educational material online. It’s hard to argue that this approach wasn’t successful. But the Coursera platform itself is not particularly engaging. I’ve taken courses through it, and you teach yourself, more or less, by reading the material and clicking through quizzes. There’s no way to exercise in-person instruction methods like group work or question-and-answer sessions.

“Coursera is basically a platform for online teaching, not online learning,” says Paulo Blikstein, a professor at Columbia University who studies new educational technologies. “I’m surprised that there are tons of features that just aren’t there, even after all these years.”

Software like Class addresses these missing features by integrating learning and teaching tools into Zoom. The software is aimed at K-12 students, although it can also be used for higher education and corporate training, as well. Earlier this year, the company announced $30 million in Series A financing to ramp up its launch on multiple platforms and to get the software out to 7,500 educational institutions that have indicated interest in purchasing it.

Class CEO Michael Chasen (who was the former CEO of Blackboard, another education-tech learning management company) consulted education professionals from all grades and across all topics to develop the software. “Their needs seemed pretty universal,” he says, walking me through an online demo. Multiple tools let Class more closely replicate teaching methods you might find in an in-person classroom.

Perhaps the first, and most noticeable, is Podium View. Instead of getting buried in a gallery view, the class instructor is now set on a podium to the side of the class. For younger students like my daughter, who find themselves overwhelmed at speaking in front of a large group of people, the instructor has asymmetrical control over the view—they can mute all students, switch on a “privacy” view so other students can’t see everyone else making funny faces, and incorporate outside content into the lessons. This all makes it much easier for parents to “drop off” their younger children at the computer.

For older students, in addition to instructor-only tools like taking attendance, alphabetizing students in the gallery view, and various forms of data analysis, the instructor can also pull aside students for one-on-one interactions, organize students in breakout rooms for small-group discussions, and incorporate click-on quizzes into the lecture.

You can see similar features in Engageli, another online learning platform that raised about $15 million in funding last year. Founder and CEO Dan Avida’s platform is intended for university educators, rather than for K-12, but it has many similar features like asymmetrical control.

Engageli also claims to ease dozens of instructor pain points. For example, course instructors are able to monitor students from multiple screens, which makes it much easier to organize a big class. Students can download their notes and screenshots directly from Engageli and into collaborative Google documents. And rather than using eye-tracking software or other potential intrusions into students’ privacy, an engagement meter lets students anonymously self-report interest.

Social Support

Photograph: Class

Improving the online experience is just one part of fixing the problems with remote schooling. In the Rand survey, school district leaders indicated that students needed both access to technology and consistent internet connectivity, as well as better instructional resources. Fixing Zoom doesn’t help if you don’t have a computer in the first place.

Both Engageli and Class have made steps to acknowledge inequality. For example, Engageli is optimized to work on older and low-cost devices, like 10-year-old laptops or even smartphones. In an email, Avida noted that Engageli’s Table Groups feature allows interpreters to sit with ESL or deaf students. Chasen also says Zoom recently expanded its accessibility features to accommodate American Sign Language interpreters.

“I think it’s a great thing that there’s a generation of companies that are focusing on making videoconferencing software a decent platform for learning,” Blikstein says. But he did issue a warning. “We’re figuring out what works and what doesn’t through anecdotal evidence or the personal opinion of entrepreneurs, rather than academic research. It’s scary to test new software on children, particularly when it comes to privacy.” He cited the uproar over proctorial software that branded children as cheating if they went to the bathroom.

Even though widespread vaccination may soon spell the end of the pandemic, remote learning isn’t going anywhere. “You can’t train hundreds of teachers and millions of students in online learning without there being a profound effect,” Chasen says. 

Whether it’s for sick days, office hours, or offering courses that might not be available locally, my daughter may be using her videoconferencing skills for a while. We’ll work on keeping the camera on for next year. 

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