While students in Department of Defense Education Activity schools might have imagined an early start to summer vacation as a result of the first of the brick-and-mortar schools shutting down in February due to COVID-19, the learning stopped for only a few days before instructors and students were back to reading, writing and arithmetic via digital learning efforts.
“What I’m so remarkably proud of is that our teacher workforce, our educational leaders in the field and our [information technology] specialists … have all been remarkably resilient and effective in trying to provide quality instruction to kids that are stuck at home,” DODEA Director Tom Brady said.
Across the U.S. military, DODEA runs 161 schools for about 71,000 pre-kindergarten through high school students worldwide. The first of those schools shut down in late February, said Patrick Martin, the acting chief of education operations at DODEA.
“We started in hot spots where host nation countries were beginning to take steps, so Daegu, [South Korea], was the first community to close on Feb. 20,” Martin said. “Then Vicenza and Aviano in Italy followed just a few days later, in line with local authorities.”
A young girl sits at a kitchen table and looks at a laptop computer screen. In the background, a young woman also looks at a computer screen.
The last of the schools to close was at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on March 25, he said.
But for students, the disruption in learning was short-lived, thanks to work by instructors, principals, district superintendents, and IT professionals with DODEA, Martin said.
“In all cases, we were able to transition from a closed school to the first learning activities being sent out in four days or fewer,” he said. “I think that was a testament to the hard work on the part of our teachers and leaders in the field.”
A large part of that online-learning capability comes through Google Classroom, Martin said. And while DODEA already had some online and digital learning capability, he said teachers were asking for Google Classroom capability, and the IT staffs were able to make that happen.
Between March 10 and March 25, he said, more than 16,000 Google classrooms were created and populated for students. That’s essentially one online classroom created for each course that had been taught in shuttered brick-and-mortar classrooms.
“It wasn’t perfect in four days, but they got it going in four days,” he said. “I’d say it’s still not perfect, but it is amazing what talented and dedicated educators can do when they’re put to the test and provided the tools that they need.”
Michael Morris, a 3rd-grade teacher at a DODEA school in Vicenza, said he thinks he and his students have made a successful transition to digital learning.
“Overall, I would say that we are very successful, given the situation,” he said. “There are varying degrees of success, and we are learning as we navigate through the virtual platform and making adjustments as we progress.”
One adjustment is that what happens online is different from what can happen in a real classroom, Morris said.
“The digital learning platform looks much different than a day at school, at the elementary level,” he said. “We strive to create assignments that students work on independently and without always being at the computer, which is challenging.”
One concern is that students aren’t spending all day online in front of the computer. It’s not only not good for them, it’s not good for learning either, Brady explained.
“About two weeks ago, we started looking at what do we need to do to make sure that we minimize digital fatigue,” Brady said. “We put out some guidelines on how many hours that we’re targeting for instruction for each kid, you know, by grade level, by elementary and high school … what can we do to make sure that we’re still hitting standards, but we’re not trying to overload parents and overload kids.”
Teachers are mindful of student computer time when planning lessons to minimize the amount of time they need to be in front of the computer, Morris said, but they still meet with students online each day. “We meet with students in small groups or one-on-one for instruction, and we are constantly looking at ways to maximize that time for learning and keeping student engagement,” he added.
David Rudy, the community superintendent for DODEA Europe South District, said that as part of the digital learning effort, students experience both “synchronous” and “asynchronous” learning. Synchronous learning involves face-to-face time with the teacher through online tools, while asynchronous learning involves students working on their own without involvement of the teacher.
“As part of the weekly digital learning plan, teachers publish their synchronous meeting schedule so that students and parents know exactly when and where they will be meeting with their teacher,” Rudy said. In Italy, he said, that means students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade will have two scheduled sessions per week with their instructors. For students in grades 6 through 12, these synchronous sessions happen during regularly scheduled class time once or twice a week for each student.
“Classwork and homework blend together in the asynchronous learning time, where students are engaging in learning activities that their teachers have designed for them to complete on their own time and schedule,” Rudy said. “Of course, these activities have due dates and expectations attached to them, so students have to be diligent to ‘be in school’ and complete the assigned work as laid out by their teachers.”
Another concern for educators is that while students might be learning online, and doing homework assignments as well, they are missing out on the important social aspects of being in class, being in school, participating in extracurricular activities, meeting with their teachers and friends, and developing the independence that comes with being away from their parents and on their own for a portion of each day