Ten Takeaways from the Great Remote Learning Experiment

In this three-part blog series, we share ten remote learning takeaways that can help OnCourse school districts prepare for 2020-2021.

With very little warning and virtually no training, educators and students watched the entire concept of school turn upside down. Districts switched into triage mode and set out to the Internet to find new ways to teach and learn.

Most schools chose a strategy that was perfect for the moment: to strive for the most frictionless experience possible. The more we can minimize training, complexity, and technology hurdles, the better our teachers and students will be in the short term.

Many of us are now thinking long-term, particularly about the possibility of having to go remote at some point in 2020-2021. When and how do we transition from frictionless learning to rigorous learning?  What steps can we take to prepare a durable, secure, high-fidelity online experience, while also gearing up for the traditional school year?

In Part One of this blog, we’ll share some of the common gaps districts found in their online programs in Spring 2020 and how OnCourse can help. In Part Two, we’ll discuss four ways that OnCourse districts are adding rigor to remote learning. In Part Three, we talk about district approaches to blended learning and non-traditional grading.

Part One: Closing Gaps Discovered in Spring 2020


Determining Your Acceptable Level of Student Security

In our scramble to launch remote learning, ensuring reliable access and equity were top priorities. Normal security concerns got less attention than usual. Rightly so; we had to turn on the lights before we could properly assess the room.

Soon we uncovered new challenges. “Zoombombing” entered the lexicon, causing school districts like New York City to ban the tool outright. Lawsuits began to crop up accusing Google of collecting data and biometrics from children. Fairfax Public Schools was one of thousands of schools who rapidly implemented Google but learned that teachers couldn’t moderate student comments, leading to a rash of student harassment with no ability to intervene.

Cybersecurity was a top concern for many of us in a pre-COVID world; how do we protect our students if remote learning continues?

Every district will have to make an informed decision on acceptable exposure. In the rush to fast and free technology, we tend to look the other way on what student data may be exposed or tracked. Ultimately, we may decide that the benefits are worth the risks, but it should be a decision made thoughtfully and not purely from convenience. It may pay to do a quick inventory of ed-tech tools in use with a cursory review of known risks.

Early in this experiment, many schools performed a Connectivity Survey in their communities. Now that we are wrapping up the year, it may also be time to do a retrospective survey. Your school can collect student reflections on their online experience (including safety/security) and parent feedback on their ability to keep up with the school's online program.

Are parents successfully staying abreast of student work? Early indications are that obstacles are proving stubborn, which we discuss in the next section.

Restoring Parent Engagement

In online conversations, educators and parents are beginning to lament the lack of parent transparency in digital tools. Parent, Greg Nixon, describes feeling shut out of one popular program.

Google Classroom is frustrating because it does not allow parents to access their child's dashboard to see the activity there in real time as the child sees it.  In effect, I am not allowed access to my own child's current or upcoming assignments.  I have to wait to do that with my kids, which is sometimes too late for me to be of help to them.

The reason most free classroom tools steer clear of parent access is because it is tricky to accomplish successfully. The system must have a sophisticated enough database to understand "relationship". It should respect custody restrictions. Perhaps the toughest obstacle is the simplest; it is notoriously hard to get parents to go to one place to keep track of student assignments, let alone several.

Ideally, parents should be able to retrieve information from a single location that they are familiar with. Based on the criteria above, the best possible place is the the parent portal of your Student Information System. Parents already have a secure login and should be experienced with logging into collect grades, teacher messages, or register new students. With the right features enabled, it could be an ideal place to access different online activities. Some SIS products like OnCourse even provide analytics on parent engagement.


In the data visualization above, the school district can quickly determine what percentage of parents or students have logged in within 90, 30, or 7 days. They can also see who has never recorded a login and click to discover which individuals are in each group. This makes it easy to generate a checklist of people for outreach.

How do you make your SIS the “Grand Central Station” where teachers, parents, and students go for all-things-remote-learning? Check the next section.

Managing a Sprawling Library of Learning Tools

Over the past few months, our feeds and inboxes have been flooded by hundreds of remote learning tools. Flipgrid, Buncee, Google Classroom, NearPod, EdPuzzle, Peardeck, etc. These tools have been game-changers for creating an engaging digital classroom experience. Educators showed off their legendary global collaborative clout by connecting their peers with this tech.

However, from a macro view, some schools have started to feel the strain of “edtech entropy” – having so many tools that counterproductive effects start to arise. Students are increasingly led through a cognitively demanding web of technology products strung together by hyperlinks and access codes. Teachers are having to manage rosters across multiple platforms. It can be a challenging for administrators or parents to keep track of which platforms are in use and provide support.

Our transition to 2020-2021 may be inspired by a familiar evolutionary precedent; moving from gathering to gardening. How can we bring the different productive tools we’ve found into a more manageable, central location?

An ideal plot for your ed-tech garden should be well-integrated and roster-equipped, familiar and accessible to student and parents. Many OnCourse districts, especially Google districts, have found their own garden in the OnCourse SIS and Classroom LMS combination. 


The OnCourse-Google integration offers schools a best-of-both-worlds approach. Teachers can continue to use Google Docs and Slides, however they are 'served' from the OnCourse Connect portal that parents and students already log into on a regular basis. This centralizes the experience, increases transparency for parents, and also offers a more secure messaging environment. Teachers will also enjoy the connection to both their rosters and Grade Books. 

OnCourse-to-Google is only one possible avenue. The OnCourse Connect portal can be used to consolidate resources and experiences from tools like OneDrive, Flipgrid, EdPuzzle, and others. The OnCourse Classroom LMS also has its own powerful features, like a standards-aligned test bank with more than 100,000 tech-enhanced items.

OnCourse's classroom message boards are moderated, which solves the harassment issues experienced by districts relying on relatively unconstrained Google Chat features. Another great benefit is that administrators gain oversight to monitor student activity, which was another function that was found to be sorely lacking in most district's remote learning programs.

Improving Administrative Support

One major consequence of using free, decentralized tools is that school administrators have found themselves largely shut out of the remote learning experience. Administrators have lacked the transparency needed to understand how the student/parent experience is unfolding or how to best support teachers directly.

This can be solved using the method described above; connecting all remote learning channels to a central hub, in this case the OnCourse SIS and Classroom LMS combo. Administrators can pull up the exact live view that any individual student or guardian is currently viewing, making it possible to understand and support their activity.

assessment-student-data-1This transparency has another major benefit. Once schools begin to reintegrate rigorous formative assessment, administrators can track how students, classrooms, or schools are progressing toward grade level standards, which is simply not possible in most free online tools.

Formative assessment will be covered in Part 2, Adding Reach and Rigor to Remote Learning.

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Part Two: Adding Reach and Rigor to Remote Learning
Identifying Learning Gaps with Digital Diagnostics
Meeting the Needs of All Learners, Remotely
Reintroducing Rigor to Online Formative Activities
Supporting Early Learners