Online instruction has made education inequities more clear


Amanda Godley, a professor in the School of Education and associate in the Learning Research and Development Center, kicked off the Institute for Learning’s Leaders Forum last week with a very timely talk about what teachers have learned during this period of forced online instruction and how that plays into equity issues.

Rosita Apodaca, executive director of the Institute for Learning, said the pandemic has made education inequities even more clear.

The institute, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, is an outreach of Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center that helps educators bring research about teaching and learning into classrooms. The Leaders Online Forum, from June 2 to 5, focused on “Getting Better @ Getting Better: Equity, Empathy & Education for Today’s Students.”

Godley, whose talk was titled “Improvement for Today’s Students: What We Have Learned Working Online,” outlined six “big ideas” toward reimagining education in the fall and beyond to be better and more equitable. While her talk focused mostly on primary and secondary schools, many of the same concepts would apply at the university level.

1. Technology and equity

The pandemic has shown how technology can assist in education, but it also has highlighted the things technology can’t replace, like social interactions between students and with teachers that are key to motivating students, Godley said.

And the pandemic made the technological inequities more apparent and exacerbated.

“Many of the teachers I know, when confronted with the absolute necessity for students to have devices and internet access during remote learning, realized that some of the assignments they’ve been giving in the past, such as to do a research project or create a map at home, have not really been accessible or equitable for all students who didn’t have that technological access,” Godley said.

Over the summer, she said, schools and teachers need to be proactive about figuring out what students’ tech needs are and providing that technology.

Schools also should be having conversations with students about what worked and what didn’t during the spring online learning sessions. Godley said while synchronous learning with students and teacher interacting in real time is a great way to connect, there are other avenues to explore. She said one school in Maine is having weekly advisory sessions with five or six students at a time, so the kids can interact with an adult and with each other.

2. Student motivation and engaged learning

Many teachers found that as remote learning has lingered on through the spring, students were signing on to classes less and less.

Godley said using project-based and thematic learning can help keep kids engaged. Another way is to include the family in the projects, such as cooking or creating projects.

Teachers can give students choices of what they want to learn by talking to them individually each week to set goals.

And finally, she said, teachers need to address current issues, such as the pandemic and the Black Live Matter movement.

“If we don’t address the social issues that have been on our students’ minds for the past six months, we’ll lose them,” Godley said.

3. Assessments

Grades, Godley said, may not reflect how much someone has learned, but instead may be influenced by the resources and support the child has at home or the traumas occurring at home, such as a parent being unemployed.

Assessments should be done more holistically, she said, to meet students where they are. Ideally, teachers would do assessments through conversations with the students.

4. Differentiations

Schools tend to lump students into groups — honors, special education, English learners. Again, within these groups each student has different challenges. One may have a sick parent, another may be caring for younger siblings.

These differences existed before the pandemic but have been made more obvious under the current situation.

Godley urged teachers to look at children individually. She said IEPs (individualized education programs) have become increasingly standardized, and teachers and parents need to push back to make them more tailored to each student.

5. Partnerships and networks

Schools need to maximize their partnerships with cities, housing authorities, nonprofits, universities and local businesses to help families, Godley said.

For instance, Pitt has donated nearly 600 computers to Pittsburgh Public Schools to help keep students connected during the pandemic. Pitt also has allowed staff to use 20 percent of their work hours to volunteers. Some of those volunteers are helping translate information about COVID-19 into different languages.

Partnerships between schools also are important, she said. In Western Pennsylvania, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit has set up weekly calls between school superintendents to share ideas about remote learning and other issues related to the pandemic.

6. Relationships with families and students

Most importantly, Godley said, teachers need to create and maintain two-way communication with their students and their families.

Over the summer, schools need to be asking families what they expect in the fall and what they would like to see, and teachers should be aware of what challenges families are facing in the face of the pandemic and the racial protests.

Godley quoted a Tweet by author and University of Georgia professor Bettina Love: “Teachers, if you don’t have a relationship with your students that is loving, trusting, and built on anti-racism don’t show up out of nowhere talking about #GeorgeFloydprotest #protest2020. Also, don’t just teach our pain. Make sure you teach about our resistance.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.


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