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.

Connecting Learning to Real World Problem Solving

For the past ten years Mimo Ito and the Connected Learning Research Network have looked at how young people learn. They realized that there were three overlapping spheres – interests, opportunities, and relationships. At the center of these three spheres is “Connected Learning.” I discovered this powerful look at student learning through my work with the Remake Learning Network in Pittsburgh. I used some of the principles to develop a series of Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center of Pittsburgh. Recently Mimo Ito and Connected Learning Research team published an updated report on their findings – Reflections on a Decade of Engaged Scholarship.

According to Mimi Ito there are three outcomes that demonstrate when Connected Learning occurs:

  • The project sponsors or legitimizes the interests of diverse youth;
  • The learners are engaged in shared practices, e.g. solving real world problems;
  • Learning is connected across settings through brokering and coordination.

Let’s look at each one of these outcomes through the lens of a series of Design Challenges that students in the Parkway West Consortium of Schools participated during the 2019-20 school year.

Learning based on Interests

When I first approach the schools in the Parkway West Consortium, I give them choices. Each of the choices is based on a real-world problem that the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) has identified as a problem where they want high school students to provide fresh insights. The schools receive their first or second choice. Each school approaches this in a slightly different way. One school might look at a course that has a fit. Another school might consider an after-school club or activity group. Another school might open the Design Challenge to any students to who have an interest. In each case students participate based on their interests. For instance: South Fayette High School decided to participate in the “Gems of the Hill District” Design Challenge. They outlined the responsibilities and let students from three classes choose to participate. It was not a required activity. It was based on students’ interest in the Design Challenge.

Engaging in Shared Practices

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

One of the keys for successful connected learning is focusing on real world problems. The EIC each year looks at problems where students might provide valuable ideas. For example: several years ago the EIC developed a Design Challenge around new LEED certification directions to take the building. Even though, the EIC had a platinum status, the management team realized that there were more sustainable opportunities. One of the teams, from Montour High School, focused on the need for more living plants within the building. The student consulting team developed a prototype for a green wall for Innovation Hall, one of the spaces at the EIC.

During the summer of 2019 the EIC management team decided to build on the original idea that Montour had developed and implemented at their high school. This time the high school student consultants from Montour, Chartiers Valley, and Parkway West Career and Technology Center were asked to develop a prototype for a “Mobile Green Wall.”

Learning is Connected Across Settings

The “Mobile Green Wall” provides great examples how the students had to collaborate and work as three teams to solve a real-world problem. The Chartiers Valley team worked on the schematics for the prototype using CAD-based software. The team from Montour focused on the plants and the environmental needs that would be part of the design. The student consultants from Parkway West constructed a metal scale model that incorporated Chartiers Valley’s design incorporating Montour’s recommendations. The student consulting teams had to broker and coordinate their ideas. Quite honestly, there was a time when it didn’t look like the pieces were going to fit together. However, the students persevered and ended up with a prototype that will be used by the Energy Innovation Center in the future.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

2019 TRETC: The Future of Learning

I love going to conferences to network with colleagues and discover new ideas. The Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference (TRETC) in Pittsburgh on October 14 offers a variety of opportunities for educational leaders:

  • Engaging keynote speaker – former Pixar Senior Scientist, Tony DeRose;
  • Over 40 sessions lead by local leaders and innovative educators;
  • Classroom proven strategies that teachers and administrators can implement immediately;
  • Opportunities to network with cutting edge practitioners and local start-ups;
  • Centrally located and free parking – no need for flying across the country or driving for hours to connect with districts and leaders with national and international recognition.

TRETC 2018 ShowcaseIn addition, this year’s conference at the Baldwin High School, near Downtown Pittsburgh, brings a Spotlight on Pittsburgh Innovation. This past year Remake Learning of Pittsburgh sponsored an opportunity for projects to showcase the innovations that they have developed. Over 70 projects from the greater Pittsburgh area submitted a proposal. At TRETC nine of these educational programs will give Ignite Talks and share their success stories. In addition, seven university and corporate projects will join the Innovation Zone at TRETC to highlight their stories.

TRETC has become the premier K-12 learning event in the Pittsburgh region. This year the conference also hopes to draw future educators from local universities and colleges in the region. The conference includes presentations, poster sessions, a student showcase, an Innovation Zone, an Exhibitors Space, and time to network and learn more about the amazing things happening in classrooms and learning spaces around Western Pennsylvania.

Here’s one event where everyone comes out a winner.