Modern Life

Back to school: Facing the trials of long-distance learning

While the challenges of virtual schooling are real, technology can provide new opportunities for the remote classroom.

By Charlotte West — July 29, 2020

When Morgan Keena shifted her seventh-grade world history class to remote learning in March, she realized she’d have to do a few things differently. As a teacher at Lone Star Middle School in Nampa, Idaho, her in-person strategy of “voice and choice,” where students decide how to show their understanding of the material with individual projects, wouldn’t work through a screen. 

Keena asked her students how they preferred to learn and then designed weekly modules that allowed them to choose three activities to demonstrate their mastery of her lessons on topics such as Renaissance art, the Reformation, and the Inca Empire. Her students responded positively; she was even able to engage some online who hadn’t shown much interest in history before.

For 13-year-old Danae Martinez, having a say in her homework for Keena’s class was one of the best things about studying online. “I like getting to choose what I do, rather than having to be told what to do,” she says. “We have a lot more options with online learning.”

More than 56 million children and their teachers in the United States abruptly switched to remote education this spring due to the global pandemic. Now educators like Keena have an opportunity to be more thoughtful about what online education could be and should be. She plans to offer similar online assignments when school resumes in the fall — in whatever form it might take.

Teachers are working hard to create new types of lessons, school districts are investing in more technology, and industry partners are stepping in to help fill some of the gaps. While online education runs the risk of leaving some students behind due to a lack of technology and connectivity, it also has the potential to engage all students in new ways, including offline solutions and individualized learning opportunities.

Bridging the digital divide

Keena felt better prepared than many of her fellow teachers to switch to remote learning because she had already created a largely paperless classroom. And Lone Star, which is an HP Spotlight School, provides each of its 840 middle schoolers with access to their own device during the school year.

But that’s not the case for all students. While the number of one-to-one schools where every student has access to a device is steadily growing, only around 75% of all K–12 schools in the U.S. have enough laptops or tablets for every student. Many also lack access to a computer at home, or have to share a single device with their family. Schools also provide connectivity that might be lost in the shift to remote learning — more than 9 million children lack internet access at home, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“This is an opportunity to figure out how we can better leverage technology to support deep and meaningful learning.”

—S. Craig Watkins, professor, University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Karen Srba, an education professor at Saint Francis University in Pennsylvania, says the technology gap is particularly acute in rural areas. She works closely with K–12 teachers who have many students that are unable to participate in online learning due to living in remote locations without broadband. Some students can only get online on their phone, and others might have to drive several miles to get a Wi-Fi signal to download emails and assignments. “Teachers have had to find ways of delivering course materials house-to-house to be able to get these students access to their coursework,” she says.

Students aren’t the only ones struggling with functioning in a virtual classroom. Srba adds that many teachers had not had training in how to teach remotely prior to the pandemic and struggled with creating meaningful learning experiences at the same time they were managing virtual classrooms for the first time. To help address this gap in Pennsylvania, Saint Francis has been offering two free online courses with strategies for teachers on how to move online quickly.

Teachers are looking at scenarios such as how to teach two or more groups of students if classes are split up, and hybrid learning models. Another issue the training addresses is how teachers can support parents who are having to take the lead in learning at home. A concrete suggestion is the use of an interactive syllabus, for instance on Google Classroom or even just a simple Microsoft Word document, that allows parents to find all the information they need in one place.

Learning from students

Technology is a tool that is relied upon to deliver remote learning, but it’s not a solution in and of itself, says S. Craig Watkins, the Ernest S. Sharpe Centennial Professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. An expert on young people’s engagement with media and technology, he says “there’s a tendency to think that the mere presence of technology is an indicator that advanced learning is happening.”

Watkins says that educators can become more effective by paying attention to how students use technology on their own. His research has shown that students are extremely interested in learning how to do things and solve problems, regardless of whether they are at home or at school. He also notes that remote learning doesn’t have to require consistent access to broadband.


Martinez enjoys doing interactive video lessons, but some of her classmates prefer reading articles. “Not everybody’s the same, and we all get to choose what works best for us,” she says.

“One of the things we’ve noticed in this forced experiment with remote learning is that for many students and families, there are still technical barriers in terms of access,” says Watkins. “That’s a noteworthy challenge. But this is an opportunity to figure out how we can better leverage technology to support deep and meaningful learning.”

He says that schools have often failed to take advantage of students’ desire to create and exercise some degree of autonomy over their own learning. “If we can figure out a way to leverage that, I think the learning opportunities could be really interesting,” he says.

Bringing together high tech and low tech

Some potential solutions leverage technology to deliver content to students on paper. In some rural school districts, buses that deliver free meals are also dropping off assignments and picking up homework. In response to the pandemic, HP launched Turn to Learn, a new program with curated content from partners such as NASA, Britannica, and TIME for Kids, some in both English and Spanish, to help students without technology continue learning at home. By converting digital content to printed booklets, the program allows students to access material offline.

HP piloted the program for kindergarten through fourth grade in public and charter schools in Oakland, California, and has since expanded to other cities across the U.S. and into Canada, reaching students and teachers with close to 155,000 booklets. Some schools sent booklets home along with free and reduced meals, while others designated times when parents could pick up the material.

“HP Turn to Learn is really supporting those who don’t have smartphones, who don’t have devices at home, who might not even have internet,” says Michele Malejki, global head of Sustainability and Social Impact programs at HP.

How students are adapting to virtual school this fall.

Chad Hunt

Remote education gives students a new autonomy in how they wish to learn.

Another platform, HP Print, Play & Learn, allows families to download and print out worksheets, experiments, and other learning activities that are educational. This includes puzzles, math sheets, coloring pages, and STEM content from partners such as Canva, Conservation International, Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, Teachers Pay Teachers, and the Worldwide Wildlife Foundation Wild Classroom. It also includes new contributions from Black illustrators Adrian Brandon and Keturah A. Bobo to help engage kids in conversations about racial bias and social injustice. 

One benefit of both programs is that students have access to the most up-to-date content, whereas traditional textbooks can quickly become obsolete, according to Todd Gustafson, US president of Public Sector and Education at HP. Families can also personalize the information they are downloading to match the student’s interests.

The content for both programs focuses on concrete activities for younger children. “They are not necessarily able to read or write on their own,” Malejki adds. “We’re trying to get pen-to-paper activities where kids can sit down, learn to write, learn to draw, and learn to create.”

For older students without internet, Arist provides an alternative, mobile phone–based solution. The text-message learning platform was founded in 2018 by a Babson College student who was trying to help refugee students in Yemen who were more likely to have access to mobile phones than to the internet. Today, teachers are able to use the platform to design text message–based courses, and the company is allowing educators to use the platform free until September.

Moving ahead

Drawing on their experience this spring, educators are now considering what school might look like this fall, as some districts face all-remote learning again and others are lookng at a hybrid return or in-person school with opt-out options. Lone Star principal Greg Heideman says that the Nampa School District is doing a lot of contingency planning, including creating an online school for families that don’t want to send their children back to school until a vaccine is available. The online school will serve up to 1,000 of the district’s 14,000 students. The district is also looking at how to maintain social distancing, policies on masks, and how schedules might be modified. Even if schools are able to reopen, more blended learning is likely.

While Lone Star benefited from its existing digital infrastructure, Heideman says his fellow administrators know they need to have technology and devices already in place so they aren’t caught flat-footed again in case of additional outbreaks or a natural disaster. “If something like this happens, then we’re able to continue to support learning,” he says. “Because whenever we have to stop learning, kids regress.”

Keena hopes she’ll be able to have some kind of face-to-face interaction with her new students in the fall in order to build rapport with them. But overall, she feels prepared for whatever comes next.

“This was a great learning experience, not only for the students, but also for the teachers,” she says. “It’s been a time to kind of reevaluate how you teach. That was probably the most impactful thing, being able to slow down and realize that [something] hasn’t been working. And now, what can I do differently?”


Watch Episode 1 of The Way We Work Now, as a middle school teacher in Oakland, California, adapts to teaching her 6th grade students from afar.