7 Distance Learning Systems Keeping School Programs Afloat During Coronavirus Shutdowns

March 18, 2020 Marc Shumaker

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many schools are making the difficult decision to close their doors and keep students at home in an effort to promote social distancing. The majority of these institutions are implementing “learn from home” policies that leverage software, and in some instances, hardware, to reach students outside of the traditional classroom.

What Distance Learning Systems are Schools Using During the Coronavirus Outbreak?

Schools like Harvard, Stanford, UMass, MIT, and other universities have already announced their intentions to conduct courses remotely; meanwhile, elementary schools and high schools across the country have suspended classes and extended spring breaks to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 among staff and students.

Educational institutions of all levels rely on software to enable video streaming of lessons, hosting and tracking coursework and tests, and in some cases, the distribution of hardware like laptops and tablets to facilitate the usage of these programs. 

Vendors like Microsoft, Zoom, and Google are realizing the demand for these distance learning systems and have responded by allowing free or extended versions of their video conferencing products.

1. Microsoft Teams Helps With Document Collaboration

Microsoft Teams Premium allows users to schedule meetings, record them, and send files as large as a terabyte through chat.

In response to the increased demand for distance learning systems in the wake of the coronavirus, Microsoft is offering this product free for six months. Additionally, the free version of Teams is currently not limited by user size to accommodate larger classrooms operating remotely.

The Junior and Senior School, a Microsoft Showcase School in Cyprus, is one of many schools that will be taking advantage of the Teams application to collaborate during the weeks-long school closure. Instructors can assign homework, grade, and return assignments to students with feedback.

2. Schools Use Zoom for Video Conferencing

Zoom, a web conferencing and chat solution that allows groups to meet remotely through video, has lifted the 40 minute video call time limits for its free version. This will support the online learning programs of nearly 60,000 K-12 schools across the country.

Harvard and Colorado State University, among others, are leveraging Zoom to present virtual lectures in lieu of presentations in physical classrooms. The flexibility of the platform allows students to join video lectures from their phones, from which they can listen, watch, or participate through chat.

Sunset View Elementary School in Provo, Utah, is using Zoom to maintain teacher-student contact during their learn-from-home initiative. Although classes were cancelled due to the coronavirus, students can join video chats with teachers from their assigned chromebook, or from another device including a phone or tablet.

3. Panopto Lets Teachers Record Lessons for On-Demand Learning

In addition to streaming video lectures to students with Zoom, Harvard is using Panopto, a video recording and management solution, to pre-record lessons that can be downloaded by students on demand, allowing for additional flexibility.

While Panopto does not offer a special discount or extended trial due to coronavirus-related school closures, it‘s a widely used video conference tool primarily for schools.

4. Google G Suite for Education is a Collaboration Hub

Google G Suite for Education is an extensive library of productivity and collaboration apps that enable schools to operate remotely and handle day-to-day tasks for students and teachers alike.

Google is offering no-cost enterprise features for its G Suite and G Suite for Education users through July 1, to help schools cope with unexpected closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These enterprise features allow teachers to hold larger meetings through Google Hangouts, Google’s chat and video conferencing app. There’s also live streaming capacity for up to 100,000 viewers within a domain, and the ability for instructors to record video sessions.

The University of Puget Sound is using the Google Meet module of G Suite to administer exams remotely, and Williams College is leveraging the same module to facilitate online meetings between staff and students.

Other modules in G Suite allow students to download and upload files, chat with faculty and students, and create presentations remotely.

While Google G Suite is already a very popular distance learning system, the recent outbreak has dramatically increased their usage. Google apps are currently the most downloaded applications across all categories in Italy, a particularly hard-hit country.

5. Different Education Levels Use Blackboard as a Learning Management System (LMS)

Blackboard is an education solutions vendor that provides learning management systems, analytics, and web conferencing solutions.

The City University of New York (CUNY) is leveraging Blackboard Collaborate, a virtual classroom and conferencing solution, to connect with students individually through video chat, or to stream lessons to an entire class. Instructors can schedule meetings, record sessions, set up polls, and more.

Universities, high schools, and elementary schools alike are taking advantage of Blackboard to create learning spaces for each class at the beginning of the semester, complete with enrollment rosters.

Fairfax County Public Schools are also using Blackboard to facilitate student learning beyond the school building in an initiative they call 24-7 Learning.

Through Blackboard, teachers can streamline the content distribution process, grade work and provide feedback. Students can use the platform to submit homework and complete tests.

6. Schools Monitor Student Progress With Moodle

Moodle is an open-source learning management system that teachers use to monitor student progress, craft learning plans, and communicate with learners. Students use Moodle to access assignments and to interact with lesson plans.

Schools like St. Mary’s College of California are using distance-learning tools like Moodle as well as Zoom and Google applications to reach students who are self-isolating due to coronavirus worries.

Bellarmine Preparatory High School in Tacoma, Washington is another school that has shut down due to COVID-19 concerns and switched to distance-learning mode using Moodle. Bellarmine already leveraged this platform to communicate with students and administer learning materials during snow-day closures, easing the process into distance learning for the coronavirus outbreak.

7. Canvas Helps Instructors Distribute Learning Materials to Students

Canvas is an e-learning management system that enables students to access course documents, assignments, grades, and lectures from a computer or mobile device.

The University of Washington has decided to hold classes remotely for the remainder of the quarter to reduce the spreading of COVID-19. The university will be taking advantage of Canvas to distribute assignments to remote students and to make all learning materials available to them.

Middle School students in the Kettle Moraine School District of Wales, Wisconsin will be relying on Canvas to stay up to date on announcements, assignments, quizzes, and coursework modules during their three week shutdown.


Hardware is Critical Infrastructure for Remote Learners 

Many high schools, and even elementary schools, have been providing students with tablets and laptops for several years already, before the coronavirus outbreak. Others are scrambling to provide devices for students who don’t have computer access at home.

Here are a few examples of what schools around the country are doing to keep kids connected from home with hardware:

Challenges of Remote Education for Underprivileged Students

With more school districts and universities announcing their remote teaching plans by the day, the chance that you or a loved one will be impacted remains high and is increasing. Access to high-speed internet and the tools to interface with remote software is a challenge for many American households

The “Digital Divide”

Trying to learn from home creates a unique problem for the roughly 12 million students that do not have internet access in their households, forcing schools in some areas to simply close school without implementing remote learning programs. According to Pew, this problem is affecting approximately 15% of US households, and jumps to 35% when the household income is under 30,000 per year.

Access to reliable hardware - tablets, laptops, or desktops - is also a problem for many students, especially those in lower-income households, where as many as one in four do not have computer access at home.

How Schools Help Students Without Computer or Internet Access Learn From Home

For students where remote learning systems are not feasible, some schools have been getting back to basics, sending kids home with good ol’ paper and pencils. These students complete assignments in their packet, then turn them in once school resumes. This potentially several weeks-long delay in teacher-student feedback comes at a crucial time of year when schools are preparing students for standardized tests. The timing of school closures and their proximity to state testing has led some states to suspend these tests, including schools in Virginia, California, and Georgia, with more states likely to follow suit.

It is abundantly clear that the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has forced schools to evaluate different teaching styles and methods, at least temporarily. While internet and device access are still roadblocks to distance learning in many areas, some schools already have the software tools in place for remote education.

This is made easier through the use of education management software to host and grade assignments, quizzes and exams, web conferencing software to stream lectures, and hardware to interface with the remote learning software.

Have you or a family member experienced difficulties with using any of these online learning tools? Leave a review here!

About the Author

Marc Shumaker

Marc Shumaker is a senior content specialist at ZoomInfo, specializing in written content for Datanyze. Previously, he held a management role in the technographics division of research at DiscoverOrg, allowing him to gain a well-rounded view of technology trends and their functions within the enterprise.

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