Online Learning During COVID-19

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 19 │Online Learning During COVID-19

Tuesday, April 28, 2020



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Show Notes

Natalie Milman

From navigating new forms of technology to keeping track of kids’ assignments, online learning during COVID-19 presents unique challenges. We talked with Dr. Natalie Milman, professor of Education Technology at George Washington University, to get her insights into emergency remote teaching and learning, education technology and more. She shares strategies for supporting your child academically, as well as guidance for making it through this difficult situation.


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Helen: Welcome back to today's episode of Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm your cohost, Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement at National PTA.

LaWanda: I'm LaWanda Toney, your cohost and Director of Strategic Communications at National PTA. Now that we've been attempting this whole remote learning thing with our families for a couple of weeks, I've got a whole lot more questions than answers.

Helen: That's right LaWanda we've heard from lots of families that are trying to navigate new forms of technology, figuring out their kid’s assignments, and of course the issue of simply not having enough hours in the day to get it all done. Some families are worried and are asking, am I doing this online learning thing right? Is my kid going to be ready for school next year? And the ultimate parent guilt question, am I even doing enough.

LaWanda: I can totally relate to many of those worries myself, so I'm really glad we have Dr. Natalie Milman with us to talk through some of these concerns.

Dr. Milman began her career as a second-grade teacher, science specialist, and technology teacher in Los Angeles, California. Today, she's a Professor of Educational Technology and the Director of the Educational Technology Leadership program at George Washington University. With over a decade of online teaching experience, Dr. Milman has worked with families across the country to help them understand education tech. She is also the mother of a high school student and college student. So she's definitely the right person to help us answer all our virtual learning questions, especially during COVID-19.

Helen: Welcome, Dr. Milman. Thank you for joining us today.

Natalie Milman: Thank you so much. It's, it's an honor to have the opportunity to share a little bit of wisdom with you all.

Helen: Well, we can't wait to hear all of that wisdom and before we dive in we'd love to just get to know you a little better. Could you tell us why education technology, what got you interested in that body of work?

Natalie Milman: Ever since I was an undergraduate, I wanted to be a professor. At the time, I wanted to be an English Professor. But after I graduated from my undergraduate institution, I decided that I wanted to work for a couple of years and wanted to get firsthand teaching experience. So I taught for five years in California and while I was working on my master's degree, I took an education technology course that was required and realized this is what I want to do. I want to help other people learn about the affordances of technology. So after a few years teaching, I worked on my doctorate and have been teaching at George Washington University since 2001. At first I started out teaching in a split position, Half face to face and half online and since 2011 have been teaching 100% online.

Helen: Oh, wow.

LaWanda: Wow. That's really great. So, you definitely understand kind of what families and parents may be going through. It's a little different than what you've been doing, because right now it feels like we're definitely in crisis remote teaching, versus the traditional sense of remote learning. What people have been calling it is emergency remote teaching. Why do you think that distinction matters? 

Natalie Milman: Well I think, I'm glad you're raising that because I think all, you know, everything that we are experiencing right now is during a pandemic. We have to recognize that we are parenting, working, existing during a pandemic and our children are too. And this is  just not a normal time. As an online educator for almost 20 years, I've been concerned that not only teachers who, who've never taught online, but professors, students as well as their parents and guardians will equate what we're doing today as online education. And it is not the online education that I have experienced. I can't imagine having to completely shift, or pivot online in days. My courses take months to develop and I revise them and update them continuously. So again this idea of emergency, remote teaching and learning is really important for us to understand that this isn't normal functioning.

Helen: Could you talk a little bit more about that Dr. Milman? So, in the ideal circumstances, what are some of the best practices around, remote learning and instruction? And then how are you seeing those, sort of like, in a day or two be managed in school districts across America during this crisis, right now?

Natalie Milman: One big difference is when I design a class, I have my normal stressors in life. But I don't have the worry of a pandemic and my family members, perhaps who may have been exposed, or the first responders in our family. They're just a lot more stressors.

Under normal conditions, when I design or redesign a class, it takes a while. I do it in bits and pieces and chunks. Like I might spend, a few hours a day, for several weeks working on it. We have an instructional design team at my institution that helps to review my classes.

So that's one thing, the time that I'm able to develop and design courses as well as the clear mind that I typically have when I design. And then there is also the interaction that I have with my students under normal conditions. I have found that even with my established online courses this semester, since all of this started happening... I've had to communicate much more with my students. And, also understand that my students who are all master's degree students, so many of them, are parents. Many of them are taking care of other family members.  The conditions in which they're working, and learning are not normal conditions either, so I have to take that into account.

LaWanda: Yeah. It feels like a lot of families had never really seen any kind of edtech platforms, and now they're being thrust in the world of Zoom and Skype and Microsoft Teams and Google classroom, et cetera. All types of other educational websites. What do you think are the most important things families need to know about educational technology, now that they're kids and they are immersed in it?

Natalie Milman: One of the most important things that is important for all families to understand is that the content should come first. That the technology is just a means for allowing us to communicate or understand or synthesize what we're learning. It really is the content that should be coming first. One of the things that that is really also important to understand is that with a lot of these tools do come some challenges that I'm hoping school districts are helping parents navigate. For example, one of the very popular web conference tools that you mentioned had some security issues very recently with people zoom bombing and, and coming in and saying, or showing inappropriate material.

There are ways to protect people against that. And of course there's always going to be hackers who, who come in and do things that they shouldn't do, whether it's for a joke or because they do want to start things up and do mean things. That's why I think communicating and asking school districts for guidance if they're using tools. That they understand and are sharing that information with parents.

Helen: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. It's, very timely.

I was just reading yesterday that our sort of neighboring County here, there were all kinds of login issues, so they had to delay the rollout of their online learning plans.

What sorts of things should families expect from the design perspective of online learning that, once the technical issues get sorted out, make it good. Cause I think a lot of families have worries about their kids being in front of computers too many hours a day. Like what, 9:09 what does good online teaching look like?

Natalie Milman: Well, three things. One is that students are engaging, and engagement when we think of online education, there are three main ways in which students can engage. They can engage with the content. They can engage with the instructor and they can engage with one another.

So the teacher can design, learning activities that take advantage of technology. I like to recommend because of the fact that we have many families sharing devices, many families playing musical chairs in their house of where they might be able to find a quiet space, in which to work. That asynchronous instruction and by asynchronous, I mean that we're not meeting live, that the teachers providing some recorded video. But I think one of the things that we get caught up in online education is we think it's only on the computer. There are school districts that are offering instruction by television. if I'm an elementary science teacher, for example, I might give them different options if we're learning about something that you can hopefully find household items and test.

I mean, something like bouncing balls if they’re studying physics and want to do some different experiments, like get out and do things. So the first is understanding how engagement happens.

The second is that understanding that online education doesn't only mean being, sitting in front of a screen and I will say, I don't think it's normal for anybody to sit at a screen and learn and watch a video ad infinitum.

You know, no one, not adults, not children. No one. So, and then the third thing is the importance of building a learning community. I think one of the great advantages of this shift, if we're trying to make lemonade out of lemons, is the fact that the teachers already had, more than half the year in which they'd been engaging and knew their students. So, building on those relationships that they already had and building on the relationships that they know their students had, I think is very, very important.

LaWanda: I love that you talked about lemons and lemonade. My lemonade for my son is been me being able to be in the classroom, even though I'm just in the corner listening. I get to see kind of, what kind of things they're working on because I don't get that opportunity, being at work. They just set up his class and they meet twice a week online for an hour. He's in the first grade, so I don't expect more than that. But they get to see their teacher and their classmates, and as you mentioned, work on a project like, for science, she demonstrated light and how light travels. Either, if it's opaque, like not being able to travel through something, translucent or transparent. And then their homework was trying to find items that you can put into those three categories. So it was good for me to see how she interacts with the kid,  because you get an opportunity to meet with teachers, but you never, you won't be able to be there a whole lot unless it's like for a field trip or something. So that's the lemonade for me.

Natalie Milman: Yeah and I think that example you just shared is an excellent example of how it's developmentally appropriate. It’s about an hour twice a week. But then the activities aren't sitting in front of a screen. That is developmentally appropriate and also, I think sensitive to the fact that everyone's home situation is going to be different. And, it sounds like the teacher is very sensitive to that because, for example, I have not been able to get flour. I'm lucky I still have one, one bag of flour, but let's say the experiment required flour. I'm sorry, not everyone is going to have flour on hand, and you can't even get it in some places. So being sensitive to what students' home environments are, I think it's wonderful that you're seeing that.

Helen: That sounds like a good best practice. I want to pick up on that Dr. Milman, cause we've asked, our audience and parents what their challenges are and we have a couple of scenarios for you.  Would you be game to, be a sort of coach on demand for a couple of scenarios that we heard about?

Natalie Milman: Yes, I’ll do my best.

Helen: Okay, so one is a mother of a second grader... Shared that their family's been having a hard time getting their son to focus on schoolwork and other educational activities. So, the goal that the district and their family sort of set was three hours of educational time each day, but after 30 or 40 minutes, her son is like, I'm out. I can't sit. I don't want to do anything. And I think this is a scenario so many families are wondering, when do you keep pushing kids to like, keep going you need to have this three hours of learning time. Versus you just give in and you're like what do you want to do? Do you want to go outside? Where do you fall and what would you advise parents sort of struggling in that situation?

Natalie Milman: Well, it's certainly challenging and one of the things, and I'm going to throw in a kind of another coaching thing, I guess too. So along those lines of  the parent who's concerned about the child that's lacking motivation. I would suggest sitting in talking with the child. I mean a second grader is very capable of communicating his or her ideas and feelings, and then if they're not comfortable communicating them. Then ask them to write or draw what they're feeling to keep a journal about what they're feeling and there might see some patterns, there.

And then it sounds like there has been a plan that's been developed with this scenario. I would say try it out and see how it works and if it's not working, then the plan needs to be modified. But also, in the great scope of things, if the child needs a break. Give him a break. But also I would say communicating with the child about a schedule and work and why things are important, but also trying to get at what are the, why is the child not feeling as motivated?

I mean, one of the reasons why I keep emphasizing these are not normal times, that what we're doing is emergency remote teaching and learning, is that, we've lost so much. We've lost our ability to be able to interact and learn. I've heard of teachers crying because they miss their students. And I know, I miss my colleagues at my own work. I'm sure this child misses his or her friends at school and misses the playground and running around and kicking a ball with other kids. And just being a kid.

So that's what I'd think, try to find out what the root of the problem is and then work with a solution with the child, but also with the teacher to see what might be doable. Maybe the child needs more breaks. Maybe the child needs less of the instructional time and, and maybe it needs to be chunked into smaller pieces. Maybe there are other interventions and accommodations that are needed that a professional might be able to provide. Maybe reaching out to the counselor to see what the counselor at the school can suggest.

LaWanda: Yeah. I think all of those are great approaches and it's really about trying to get a better understanding of your child and then making those decisions. Can we throw out another scenario for you?

Natalie Milman: Absolutely.

LaWanda: So we had a parent of a fifth-grader, and they share that they're worried about their child's academic progress and if they'll be ready for the sixth grade in the fall. What kinds of academic activities should their family be prioritizing right now?

Natalie Milman: Okay. That's a great question and I will say one answer is everyone's child is going to be in the same boat, although you know, the degree of whatever quote unquote preparedness that might be will vary child to child. But that is one of the answers that I gave earlier to some kindergarten parents that were asking me that we were talking about this very same concern.

But what are some activities? I would say, and I would think most teachers would agree... Reading every single day as much as possible. It doesn't matter what it is, it could be below their reading level. If you can get a hand on books, have your kids’ reading, and some children don't like to write a whole lot, but I would encourage maintaining a journal. And I would suggest maintaining a journal, not only to foster writing skills, but also to document this time in their lives. I would imagine that most kids will remember this very, very well, and being able to look at how they documented this time, in history, I think we'll be a treasure for them. And then they can tell their stories to their own children and their own grandchildren about what life was like during a pandemic. So it's like this ongoing dialogue.

I know with even with me I have a high school son and a college daughter who's actually supposed to be studying abroad in Argentina. But is instead studying abroad at home, in isolation. It's constant feeding and cleaning. But, you know, maybe try to have some time where children, and young adults and adolescents come together and measuring food and counting and thinking of ways of how you might incorporate math, and problem solving.

LaWanda: Dr Milman, I have to say this was such a helpful and timely episode. Thank you for sharing your insight and guidance with our listeners. Out of everything we've discussed. What is one thing parents should walk away with from today's episode?

Natalie Milman: I would say the one thing that I hope parents walk away with is understanding that these are not normal times and it's not going to be perfect. And we have to be flexible and understanding not only of ourselves, but of our family members and of our children and of the teachers and so on. You know, it's really easy for us to lose our patience or to critique someone. Just try to take a deep breath and remember that in the great scope of things, these are not normal times. That we're all going through this and this is hard and what I'll try to tell myself is that there's always someone else who's going through something even more difficult. And I try to focus on all the wonderful things that we do have and how fortunate we are. Now, I don't want to underestimate that some families really are having some very, very tough times. Some are losing beloved people that they know, colleagues, friends, family. But again, just not being so hard on ourselves because we're all in the same boat and this, this is hard and it's hard for everybody.

LaWanda: Yeah, I totally agree. Are there any resources available for parents that you might suggest?

Natalie Milman: Yeah. Well, I would say, first and foremost, trying to, see what the school district has to offer, is definitely one thing to consider. Another is, reaching out to one's friends and community. You know, we have lots of friends and our friends are going through this, other parents are going through this.

I belong to a book club and my book club has been meeting by web conference every week, whomever can join in. And a lot of our book club meeting is not talking about a book, it's talking about how we're managing, how our children are doing... Sometimes we're complaining, sometimes we're talking about good things going on. Reaching out to others and, and, and also checking in on other people, I think is important.

There are lots of different organizations that have compiled resources for families, ranging from the CDC, Centers for Disease Control to the National Child & Traumatic Stress Network, which has a parent caregiver guide. There have been articles that I've seen online, about how to talk to your teens and tweens about Coronavirus. Also, National Public Radio has had some resources. Just about every organization that I can think of has some kind of COVID resources.

LaWanda: That's great. Thank you so much for sharing those resources with us. My last question is, what are your social media handles and where can listeners go to learn more about you and your work?

Natalie Milman: My Twitter handle is @NatalieBMilman. And I try to post, on my relevant research as well as practices related to educational technology from the K-12 on up to higher education. 

Helen: Great. Well, thank you again for joining us Dr. Milman.

Natalie Milman: Thank you so much. And to all, we'll get through this. We have to, we have no choice, right?

Helen: And to our audience tuning in at home or even while you are working. Thank you for listening. For more resources related to today's episode check out, or follow us on social media at #backpacknotes. We've also got a new resource for you.

We completely understand that everyone is stressed and looking for some extra guidance during this pandemic. So, to help meet your challenges, National PTA has created a COVID-19 resource webpage for parents, students, and educators. To learn more, visit

LaWanda: Thanks for tuning in and see you next time.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.