Parents Struggle to Keep Kids “Connected” to the Classroom

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Illustration of a dad doing remote work at a desk

This article is part of a multi-part series examining the unique virtual learning challenges and opportunities many parents, teachers, and students face in the age of COVID-19. Learn more about our research methodology and key findings here.

Mastering the great balancing act is nothing new for parents. Whether working or staying at home, they are used to walking a narrow runway while carrying kids in one arm, a laptop and phone in the other, maybe a few friends in their back pockets, a hobby in their shoe, and the weight of their thoughts on their heads like a stack of encyclopedias. A trail of bills and countless other responsibilities march close behind telling them to “keep moving.”

Then, enter the coronavirus. That narrow runway below them? It’s been replaced by a tightrope. Everything in the balance? It just got a whole lot heavier.

This is what we heard from many of the parent participants in our recent EdTech Design Sprints research who shared the challenges they faced while helping their kids learn in the age of COVID-19.

We surveyed 36 parents with one to four children ranging in age from infants to over the age of 18. Within our parent survey group, 20% were not currently employed, while the remaining 80% were employed in some capacity. We also conducted 1:1 interviews with four parents to hear more about their individual experiences.

From our research, we learned parents are struggling to keep kids motivated, balance work/life priorities, and worry about the impact this lack of educational structure will have on their children’s futures and socialization.

Education in a Nation Overwhelmed by the Pandemic

Our conversations provided deeper context around the challenges parents, students, and educators are facing around the world. COVID-19 has led to school closures in at least 13 countries, disrupting the education of a record-breaking number of more than 290 million students, according to the UN education agency UNESCO.

With the traditional start of the school year right around the corner, districts across the United States are scrambling to come up with plans for reopening. On the home front, parents are grappling with the decision to risk sending their children back to school to reclaim some balance or keep them home and risk disappointing their kids who (like the rest of us) yearn for normalcy. This challenge is compounded for working parents who must balance competing priorities. As New York writer Deb Perlman recently wrote in The New York Times, “in the COVID-19 economy, [parents are] allowed only a kid or a job.”

Discrepancies in Virtual and In-person Education

So, did distance learning pass the test for the parents we surveyed? Nearly two-thirds of parents felt virtual learning could never be as effective as in-person learning. Among various reasons, they cited lack of structure, individualized learning opportunities, and social interactions as reasons why e-learning will never quite catch up with the physical classroom.

The parent cohort felt some of the greatest challenges in:

Motivation (The Struggle is Real)
88% of parents cited motivating their kids as a top challenge when using online education tools. The majority also cited staying engaged in a virtual classroom and the lack of real-time collaboration among top hurdles in distance learning.

That being said, they did find some silver linings in remote learning. 80% of parents found the self-guided nature of online education beneficial. The majority also liked the convenient, on-demand nature and ability to communicate directly with instructors.

Overall, parents felt kids most enjoyed interactive learning, like puzzles and videos.

Striking a Work/Life/School Balance
As we learned from our participants, parents are being expected to step up as teaching assistants during this time. This often requires them to learn new ways of doing things such as Common Core in math.

More than half (52%) of survey respondents spend over an hour on preparing for school each day. 20% spent two or more hours on preparation alone. When asked about their level of involvement in school work, some parents felt they had to choose between letting their job suffer or their child’s grades. Approximately 20% of survey respondents had to adapt their workday in some capacity to accommodate distance learning.

Replacing Socialization
While participants reported that their children enjoyed being at home and setting their own schedule, they also missed socializing with friends and teachers. Many felt it was difficult to replicate the peer-to-peer engagement provided through traditional in-person classroom activities.

As Angela Jerabek, founder and executive director of the national school improvement network BARR Center, noted in a recent op-ed, “Schools are not just educational spaces, but critical social and emotional learning communities. Schools do so much more than help students grow academically. They enable adults and students to connect and grow.”

Parents agreed: a strong WiFi connection is not enough to fill the void.

Lessons Learned

Many of us living in this unprecedented time have caught ourselves wondering what we might do differently had we known the pandemic were lurking around the corner.

Parents offered the following advice to help their “pre-pandemic selves” prepare for distance learning:

  • Experiment with schedules, then stick to what works
  • Create a dedicated space for learning
  • Ensure you have reliable internet and devices
  • Prepare to spend time with kids each day on school work
  • Enforce accountability
  • Practice patience

The “patience” they cited should not only be applied to children and educators, but to themselves as they tried to wrap their arms around an overwhelming “learn from home” tech stack.

Across the parents, teachers, and students we interviewed and surveyed, they shared more than 30 online technologies and online learning platforms used to enable distance learning.

Our parent participants experienced a range of frustrations with the tools they were asked to use—from teaching themselves how to use the tools effectively to wishing there were more opportunities for real-time collaboration with teachers and fellow students.

For some families, having the means to use digital learning is the biggest barrier of all. As recently described by ShareMyLesson, the digital divide—a term used to describe the gap between people who have sufficient knowledge of and access to technology and those who don’t—creates significant disadvantages for children from lower-income families who lack access to technology.

This issue has existed for far too long, but is amplified by the pandemic which has forced classrooms to move to the digital realm. Certain communities are seeking creative solutions to address this disparity, including working with telecommunications companies for resources, leveraging public television networks to distribute learning materials, and offering grants to broadband providers to help them provide access for underserved families.

How EdTech Tools Can Help Parents in the Digital Classroom

As our society continues to address the issue of equal access to technology, online education providers must also evaluate the tools they create and how they can best meet the needs of everyone involved in the learning experience.

In the final “sprint” of our EdTech research, we hosted a workshop to uncover solutions for some of the most common challenges families and educators are facing with remote learning.

To help parents supplement education, participants agreed on the following approaches:

  • Uniting the digital and physical worlds through local learning pods: Participants recommended developing small “learning pods” with fewer students to learn together. These designated pods would ideally have the opportunity to collaborate both virtually, and in safe/distanced physical environments to foster more engagement, 1:1 time, and socialization.
  • Gamification of learning modules: Participants agreed that gamification of learning would complement course work and help combat lack of student motivation and attention. They suggested schools offer board game assignments or pay for subscriptions to educational gaming platforms to engage students.
  • Access to an arsenal of teachers at “arm’s length:” Rather than rely on a single educator for each classroom, participants suggested the creation of a “repository” of teachers. These educators would be made available to a wider variety of kids to teach anyone from anywhere with greater flexibility.

Additionally, we discussed solutions to helping parents balance work and childcare/education, including:

  • Tools to create more structure: To create more structure—and help working parents balance priorities—participants suggested implementing calendar and scheduling tools at home to set parameters around “work” and home” time for families.
  • Virtual forums for parent-to-parent support: Many of our parent participants struggled to find a consistent support network in the wake of the pandemic. Our workshop participants identified the creation of virtual parent groups as an opportunity to “knowledge share” across families and refine learning techniques.
  • Workplace collaboration technology designed with parents in mind: Outside of the classroom, participants felt workplaces should provide their employees with collaboration tools that included features such as statuses and emojis to convey at home distractions for working parents.

Like all industries, education has been on an inevitable path to digital transformation; however, the global coronavirus pandemic is acting as a forcing function to digitize learning at a rapid pace.

Technology has the potential to reimagine the classroom when we need it most. Find out how DockYard can help develop educational technologies that are designed to meet the growing needs of parents, teachers, and students in today’s socially distanced world and far beyond.

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