Engaging Learners in a COVID World

Usually I base my stories on what other educators are doing. However, this winter I had a chance to teach an Osher course for Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). I really wanted to test out some of my ideas about engaging learners during this period of remote learning. In this blog article I’ll share some of my successes as well as many of my failed attempts working with senior adults.

Before the sessions began I decided to create a survey to find out what my class knew about tools for engagement and what they hoped to learn in the class. For any type of learning it’s important to assess your learner’s and customize your learning activities based on the interests of your students. I also decided before the class started to test out some features of Zoom. One of the best ways to engage people in addition to the Chat Room is the Poll feature. When I tried to create a poll for my first class with Ani Martinez and Jason Swanson to look at the Tomorrow Project powered by Remake Learning, I found the polling feature didn’t function for me. I thought: maybe I’m missing something. I’ll contact CMU. Well, guess what? CMU disabled the feature for study leaders, their term for instructors of Osher classes. They suggested I send them my questions. I didn’t like that idea. It would be cumbersome and difficult to do each week. I thought about other online sessions I had joined and remembered a few years ago one of my colleagues used an online tool called Mentimeter. I thought: I’ll create my own polls and pose them during the class.

At the end of our first class Ani Martinez suggested that we save the Chat discussion. I never had done that, but I agreed it made perfect sense. Guess what CMU had done? Yes, they eliminated the ability to share any comments. Why? I asked but never really received an answer. It would have been a wonderful tool for engaging the class at our next session, but I had to think about another way to handle the challenge. I asked my teaching assistant, Bev, to write down the key ideas that people shared and sent them to me as an email file. It worked. Not as seamless as just saving the Chat conversation, but it proved again how you sometimes have to pivot in ways you don’t expect when you teach online.

It was easy to create a Word Cloud activity in Mentimeter, but when I went to have my class access the poll for my first class, it didn’t work. They couldn’t see where to enter information. I used the opportunity to talk about how we learn from our mistakes. I decided I would search for another polling tool. Were there some other challenges for that first class? Yes, of course. Jason Swanson wanted to show a video, but that didn’t work. Fortunately, he had planned for an interactive activity using Padlet. It had been years since I used this online tool. I never would have thought about it for an online class activity. It worked quite well.

The senior adults in my class quickly entered their ideas for the activity that Jason had developed around the Futures Triangle. Jason spends most of his time working for KnowledgeWorks as a Futurist. He’s not a prognosticator, but a person who analyzes the past, the present and the future by looking at major trends. The Osher class added their comments online and then Jason shared the Padlet board with the class. It engaged everyone and provided a wonderful first step for the class to look at the future of learning – one of my goals.

Tom Lauwers, the founder and CEO of Birdbrain Technologies, joined the class for Week 2: Remote Robotics. Tom and his team at Birdbrain struggled in the early days of COVID. How did you engage learners in Physical Computing when students don’t have access to robots at home? After doing some research Tom realized that there was a tool, Netblox, developed by Vanderbilt years before the pandemic that would allow remote users to control physical devices. It was an Internet of Things (IoA) solution. Tom then had to work with his team to make the Hummingbird Kit and Finch robot work with Netsblox. That was an easy challenge. For my class Tom highlighted two pilot projects using Remote Robotics from the Pittsburgh area and then set the stage for my Osher students to control a series of Finch Robots from their remote sites. The Osher students would manipulate some variables using Finchblox, a Scratch-like programming language that Birdbrain created.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

While some of the students had great success, others floundered. Adult learners are not as open to new ideas and working in a digital playground. That was my key take-away from Session 2. You need to have more guided instruction. I should have remembered that from my days training teachers. However, the Osher students enjoyed their experience and we discovered another way to be engaged learners. I also observed how important “feedback” was for student success. Tom Lauwer’s did an excellent job observing how the students tested out ideas about moving the Finch. For any learning experience, especially for an online activity, immediate feedback is critical.

For Week 3 I invited Stephen MacIsaac, the executive director of the Neighborhood Learning Alliance (NLA) in Pittsburgh, to bring a team of students to talk about the World of Virtual Learning and Work. NLA had created a pre-COVID a program, High School U, that combined taking college classes in high school with job placements related to the courses that the students were taking. A local group. Partners4Work, helped to fund the project. What was unique about the High School U program was the opportunity to get paid for time in class as well as time on the job. In the original model NLA tried to place students with work partners that related to the student’s college classes. How can you do that during a time of Remote Learning? How do you keep students engaged as both content learners and workers? Stephen invited Deb Smallman, the NLA coordinator for the High School U program, to join him and share the High School U success story during COVID with my Osher class. Deb sent out the word and four students and one tutor joined us. My Osher class first heard from Deb about NLA’s pivot, but it was the student stories that really made a difference for the class. I learned a great lesson – always include personal stories. Building relationships are key for any learning and especially in remote learning you have to find creative ways for people to relate to each other.

I also discovered another tool for engagement for the session with the High School U students. During an earlier online event I had attended one of the presenters used Slido. I discovered that Slido had an AddOn™ app that was designed to work with Google Slides. That solved my earlier problem with Mentimeter. Slido made it easy to project a poll and then have my students see the results.

For our fourth session I turned to Jessica Lee to look at virtual art, especially music, as a tool for engaging learners. Jessica and I had worked together on a number of projects in the past five years, especially a series of Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center. However, Jessica had a personal interest in using Music as a tool for Wellness, or what Jess calls “A Healthy Body, Healthy Voice, Healthy Life.” Jessica not only entertained the class with wonderful exercises such as doing mouth percussion, “Za, Za Zoom,” but she also provided wonderful guidance around developing a Life Performance Lifestyle. The class didn’t need any slides to be engaged. It was more fun to actively participate in the exercises and hear Jess outline what she’s discovered teaching music online during this COVID period. It’s not easy to teach music remotely, since you cannot have people sing in real time. Zoom and all of its competitors have a sound delay that challenges any in-person music collaboration. However, as Jess pointed out, you can still use the same tools for one-on-one teaching and as my class demonstrated be very engaged by music. Social and emotional learning are keys for learning success. The arts are a wonderful tool to use to provide for new opportunities with social and emotional learning.

Justin Aglio, a colleague who just took over the leadership for the Penn State Readiness Institute in Pittsburgh, provided another lesson- don’t expect Internet connections to work in remote locations outside of your home. Justin thought he could create a hot spot for himself at the senior care facility where he was in the process of moving his father. The connection did not allow for a robust enough connection to make a Zoom session work. Fortunately, I remembered one of the key mantras for distance learning – always have a Plan B and Plan C. Justin sent his slide deck to me ahead of the class. That proved to be the key ingredient for sharing Justin’s story. I know I couldn’t be an animated and engaging as Justin, but since I knew Justin’s story and had his slide deck I was able to make his story come alive, especially getting my class engaged thinking about a Growth Mindset and participating in the Hope Moonshot that Justin had organized for the Readiness Institute.

Engaging learners requires us to think beyond today, but it’s critical to have real world connections. The Readiness Institute is designed to provide learners with connections to the community and business to make that real world connection.

I’ve always believed that in order to achieve “Deeper Learning” you need to apply what you’ve learned. In order to demonstrate to my class what a “capstone” project might look like, I created a movie for my class. This article is another example of how to process what you’ve learned.

My final session brought the pieces together. Justin Aglio joined the class and responded to people’s Hopes. He also explained that he’s had over 30 countries submit responses and some countries, like Ecuador, are thinking about a national campaign around the Hope Moonshot. Most of my Osher students shared their Personal Stories. They found the class rewarding and gave them new ideas for their Lifelong Learning. All of the projects were very anthropocentric, looking at a variety of needs for people ranging from veterans to educators with learning challenges to kids with cancer.

What’s Working During COVID

While many people have been concerned about the lack of learning during the COVID period, there have been a number of successful strategies and approaches.  Through a dialog with regional educators, my contributions to the work for the Consortium of Schools Networked (CoSN), and listening to personal stories from 2020 HundrED Virtual Innovation Summit, I’ve compiled a list of successes. In this posting, I’ll share some of the ideas I’ve discovered. We’ll look at how at one school in Pennsylvania has students working together in teams and collaborating even with remote learning and social distancing. We’ll hear from an online trainer how the pandemic has opened new learning doors for active learning for students, parents, and educators. We’ll hear from one edtech company that has made robotics a remote hands-on experience for all learners. We’ll discover a school district in California that has found ways to continue to expand the expertise for their professional learning community. Finally, we’ll discover how an African non-profit has had to be pivot to continue to deliver its entrepreneurial program for learners.


Collaboration and Working as a Team

Melissa Unger, the K-2 STEAM Teacher for the South Fayette School District, has been an educational leader for the past decade. The pandemic forced her to rethink how she designs learning experiences, especially to promote collaboration and team-building. According to Melissa, “Being in a Hybrid setting and social distancing has caused us to rethink what it means for students to work together and collaborate. One of the best tools I have used for this is FlipGrid–students are able to share their work, thoughts, or ideas via short videos, and others can comment. In each homeroom, students have only met half of their classmates in person this year, so FlipGrid has allowed for a greater sense of community building and information sharing. I have watched students use others’ videos as a way to add on to their own ideas and form connections. 


“I also think that now more than ever open-ended projects and STEAM tasks are really important for our students. These projects and tasks address an uncertainty that students need to understand – an uncertainty about the virus, school closures, and just what’s going to happen each day. With open-ended projects, I think students start to see that having all the information is not always necessary before moving forward. This new learning situation builds confidence and resilience during this time of uncertainty.”


Active Learning

Active learning is always an important goal. In order to achieve learning engagement it’s critical to think about instruction design. According to Kelesy Derringer, the Co-founder of CodeJoy LLC, ” The job of an educator is not to simply transmit information, but to design educational experiences. Even in online learning, this is still the job, though our delivery method has radically changed. In our classes at CodeJoy, we continue to ask, “What are the students DOING?” We offer opportunities to do more than listen – students can code and control robots, build their own catapults at home with craft supplies, engage in the Engineering Design Process together, talk to a live puppet, ask a florist to cut a rose in half to see what it looks like, strap a phone camera to a horse and go for a ride, or have a dance party with children all over the world! Engagement looks different online, but it should still be the cornerstone around which educators design their learning experiences.”

Lock downs and social distancing requirements have created serious challenges to hands-on robotics education, but also inspired creative solutions, such as 1:1 robotics and remote robots. According to Tom Lauwers, the CEO and Founder of Birdbrain Technologies, “With 1:1 robotics, all students have a robotics kit at home, and use remote collaboration tools like the newly released micro:bit classroom along with teacher-led video instruction to learn coding and robotics. Remote Robots is a new technology that we’ve developed to allow kids to code a robot in a beginner-friendly environment that is not located in the same location as them. We quickly created five 24/7 live-streamed robots in April that anyone can code, and have also created a tutorial for educators to set up their own remote robots. Together, 1:1 robotics and remote robots provide educators with a toolbox to continue physical computing and robotics education in these pandemic times.”

Creating a Professional Community

CoSN for the past three years has assembled a global team of advisors to look at Innovation in Education. I’ve been part of the CoSN Driving K-12 Innovation advisory team. This year in addition to the normal Hurdles, Accelerators, and Tech Enablers, we began to look at examples of innovation due to the COVID situation. Phillip Neufield, the Executive Officer for the Fresno Unified School District in California shared his insights with the CoSN community. According to Phillip, “Over the past five years, our district has moved to more experiential, actionable professional learning where teachers experiencing their learning as we intend teacher practices to land as learning experiences for their students (albeit with adult learning wisdom applied).”


“So in spring we delivered over 100 webinars to prepare teachers for the shift to distance learning with over 1,700 educators participating, some up to 3-5 times in different webinars.  Educators could access recorded sessions.  And we offered competency-based on-demand web training resources with over 10,000 unique visits.”


“We repeated this approach in summer to prepare educators for fall.
We found educators were bringing these new teaching practices back to their grade-level or department-level professional learning communities (teaching practices included the know-why, know-how, and tech mediated activities).”

Creative Pivoting

The problems learners, parents, and educators face in the United States due to the pandemic are truly global. During the Virtual HundrED Innovation 2020 Summit I listened to an African educator, Frank Omana, outline how his non-profit, EDUCATE!, pivoted.

Educate! tackles youth unemployment by partnering with youth, schools, and governments to design and deliver education solutions that equip young people in Africa with the skills to attain further education, overcome gender inequities, start businesses, get jobs, and drive development in their communities. With the appearance of COVID this skill-based model for entrepreneurial studies had to find a distance learning option

Frank and his team created “The Experience on Air.” They began to broadcast on national radio and available via text messaging. They kept the core components – practical experience with mentorships, skills, and assessments. Remarkably the pivot opened new doors for the African learners using the distance learning model.

In each of the cases I’ve outlined new doors opened, while old gateways were no longer available. In today’s world, that’s the lesson we all need to understand. We need to be nimble and pivot so we can maintain our educational goals like Birdbrain, CodeJoy, Frenso, or the South Fayette School District. The real test is how well are we meeting the needs of our learning community.

Extended Learning: Creating New Realities

Authors: Norton Gusky and Beatriz Arnillas

(Originally published for National Association of Secondary Principals in the November issue of Principal Leadership)

COVID-19 did more than affect people. It transformed how learning takes place for almost every student in the world. Emerging Technologies, like Extended Reality (XR)  in Immersive Environments or Extended Learning (XL), took a back seat to just getting students online. However, XR has great potential to address many issues of equity and access to resources in the world of social isolation. This article provides an overview of the technologies and opportunities for immersive learning as we move forward with the post-Covid (pC) world. 

What is Extended Learning? According to the Immersive Learning Report 2020 XL “Encompasses Augmented, Virtual, and Mixed Reality — a collection of technologies that enhance the physical world with interactive digital imagery and graphics.” 

Charles McClellan in his article VR and AR: The Business Reality explains the difference in the technologies, “Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are often mentioned in the same breath, but there are significant differences between the two technologies — although they also share many features.

“VR typically immerses the user in a virtual world via a headset that largely isolates you from the real world. AR, on the other hand, inserts virtual objects and information into the real world, augmenting your experience of it via a headset that, ideally, is as discreet as possible.” Mixed Reality takes elements from both VR and AR to create a “mixed” strategy. Also included in this mix are technologies that provide a 360 degree experience. 

Why would a secondary educator consider using XL in a classroom, remote learning environment, or a hybrid environment? According to John MacLeod, the Director of XR Libraries in California, there are three key benefits: 

  • All age groups benefit from XR
  • Increases content understanding
  • Provides link to future job/career opportunities 

Let’s look at each of these benefits in a little more details. Extended Learning works well with both middle and high school students. It’s not a strategy that has any age limitation. The level of engagement in the projects John MacLeod observed in Washington, Oregon, and California were well received by students at any age. 

We are always looking for ways to motivate students to become independent learners and take ownership for their learning. XL works across disciplines. Science-based activities as well as literary excursions provided great opportunities for students to learn more and at deeper levels. During this period of rethinking education, we need to find tools and resources that can engage students, especially when in a remote location. AR tools, especially 360 views have that potential, while VR tools require special equipment that might not be available to students working from home. 

Finally, we want our students to see the real world connection, especially with job and career opportunities. XL incorporates technologies that are among the fastest growing arenas in the marketplace. Digi-Capital,  sees an overall VR/AR market totalling $120 billion by 2020, with AR outpacing VR around 2019 and accounting for 75 percent of the market ($90 million). We should not only provide XL experiences, but provide opportunities for secondary students to use the tools that can create XL experiences. 

Kristine Cathey, a member of the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) adds two additional reasons to consider XL: 

  • Allows staff and students the opportunities to experience previously inaccessible places. For example, those in low income environments, or those with physical disabilities.
  • Lends itself to the development of empathy, and a greater understanding of the perspective of others (experiential empathy).

Let’s now look at some examples of projects that address these issues. 

Voyage Project with Cornell Middle School: Pittsburgh, PA

In 2018 students from the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) began to work with the Cornell Middle School, located about ten miles from Pittsburgh, on a STEM project. The educators at Cornell wanted to create an immersive experience for their students. According to the project website, “Voyage is a multiuser mobile virtual reality (VR) experience for Google Daydream that allows students to go on virtual field trips in which they immersively explore a deciduous forest biome. The experience is designed to be undertaken in a middle-school classroom and facilitated by a teacher using a tablet computer. Through this project, we explored different interaction techniques used to promote collaboration among students as well as between the students and the teacher.”

Susan Donnell, the science teacher from Cornell, explained the importance for this type of experience for her students who don’t have an opportunity to experience a wide variety of places. “It’s invaluable to take them some place. Even it’s virtual reality.”

According to Chris Hupp, the Director of Technology for the Cornell School District, “The project did give us a glimpse into the future. Some challenges include the number of students able to participate at the same time as well as the teacher trying to monitor students in a virtual space and physical space at the same time. The team developed an app on an iPad so the teacher didn’t need to put a headset on to see what the students were doing. “

Virtual Tour of Sewickley Academy campus: Pittsburgh, PA

Student creating animation – Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Erin Whitaker, the middle school Technology Coordinator and Teacher, for Sewickley Academy, an independent school located about ten miles from Pittsburgh, wanted to provide a collaborative learning experience for middle school students. She searched for a tool that would allow for a collaborative experience where students would be able to combine 360 degree photos, programming, animation, and research to create an animation. She discovered CoSpacesEDU, a software tool that provides all the tools for teams of students to produce a virtual or augmented reality product.

Erin divided the project into phases. Each student selected a part of the campus to research. The students created 360 degree photos for their campus section. Finally, the students had to include an animated guide to talk about the campus area. All of the individual projects were saved as one large file into CoSpacesEDU and then combined to generate a school-wide tour. For the final phase the students shared their tours with a real audience at the Grandparents and Special Friends Day at the end of the trimester.

Building History in 3D: Mill Valley, California

This project brought together the community library in Mill Valley, California with a team of high school students from Tamalpais High School. The students were asked to do research and then build a VR history of the region starting in 1864. The project lasted a semester. The high school students conducted local history research and used the software tool, SketchUp 3D modeling software, to recreate Mill Valley buildings as they were in the past. Students chose a Mill Valley building and participated in a series of hands-on tech classes to complete their 3D models. The finished models were rendered in TimeWalk Mill Valley, a historical virtual world. Students received an introduction to the industry standard game engine Unity to further enhance the representation of Mill Valley history. The program was a collaboration with TimeWalk.org, an open source project enabling students and other contributors to build historically accurate 3D models of their towns.

Building Immersive Worlds: Houston, Texas

As schools began to close when the Covid-19 virus struck, students from the Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy at Houston Independent School District (HISD) were learning how to design in 3D. One of their teachers, Astra Zeno, created a choice board that used interactive technology tools to help students showcase their knowledge.  “Since we were away from our MakerSpace, we used 3D design tools like TinkerCAD, Minecraft, Paint 3D, and AutoDesk Fusion 360 to create an interactive and immersive experience.  I also chose Minecraft EDU, PowerPoint, and FlipGrid as tools  to showcase student learning,”  Engineering teacher Astra Zeno said.  

Tackling a real-world problem heightened student engagement for this challenge. Ms. Zeno chose the format of a design slam for its innate integration of design, skill, and presentation. (See references below.) Younger students were asked to utilize their design skills to address climate change, while older students tackled affordable housing, disaster relief, and equitable access to resources. Since students could not create physical models in a traditional classroom due to COVID-19, they used tools such as TinkerCAD, Paint 3D and AutoDesk Fusion 360 to create 3D models of their solutions. The results were astounding! Designs ranged from “The Onsy” – a home energy tracker designed to help consumers reduce energy waste to “The Flood Vacuum” – an innovative device designed to move water away from essential travel routes during flooding events. They were able to create presentations showcasing the features of their 3D designs using PowerPoint’s new 3D design/morph tools. This allowed students to truly have an immersive view of each group’s design. 

There were also groups who imported their 3D designs into “virtual” worlds using Minecraft Education. When in Minecraft, viewers were able to see the designs in action!  Students then “pitched” their designs using FlipGrid’s screen recording feature. As an added bonus, students could also scan paper Merge cubes to see each group’s design in AR. Resource links are included for teachers looking to implement something similar and want to engage in current and relevant projects to students.

Links: