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RAND Study: Online Resources Not Teachers' Top Choice Before Coronavirus Pandemic

040220_Calif_Remote_Learning_2_AP.JPG-BLOG.JPGAs schools scramble to transition to distance learning, many are starting to rely heavily on digital resources. Districts are curating lists for teachers to use with their online classes, and some sample e-learning schedules recommend that students spend multiple blocks of time during the day on different apps and platforms. 

That's a big change from how teachers were using digital materials before the coronavirus closed schools, according to a new report from the RAND Corporation

The group's analysis examines how teachers used online materials during the 2018-19 school year. Researchers used data from the American Instructional Resources Survey (AIRS), which surveyed nearly 6,000 teachers. They asked which resources teachers used, how often they used them, and what barriers they and their students faced when it came to accessing digital learning. 

In this report, digital materials were defined as resources that didn't, on their own, comprise an entire course of study—so it didn't include full curricula that are also available in online form, like EngageNY. 

When teachers and students were in school building classrooms, the report found, digital materials rarely took center stage. While most teachers—88 percent—said they had used these resources in their classrooms, fewer than a third of respondents said that they would consider any of the digital offerings as one of their main materials that they used the most. Fewer than one in five teachers said that they used digital resources for more than half of their instructional time. 

This is a very important finding for schools and districts to keep in mind now, as many are attempting to move instruction entirely online, said Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher for the RAND Corporation, and project lead on the AIRS study. Most teachers and students aren't used to using digital resources so regularly, and will need a lot of support, she said. 

The most popular platforms used by teachers in the study included YouTube, the learning games site Kahoot!, and BrainPOP, a website with short video clips, quizzes, and other supplemental activities. When it came to planning instruction, Teachers Pay Teachers was the go-to resource: 56 percent of teachers said they had used the marketplace to plan a lesson. 

Now, as districts are selecting lists of recommended tools for teachers to use in this new environment, schools should consider whether the resources they are identifying line up with the curriculum they were using before schools closed, Kaufman said. 

"Because teachers were just using digital materials mostly as supplements, they were likely using materials that were not necessarily intended to constitute curriculum or support students over time," she said. 

Unequal Access

RAND's data also shows that equity of access—a central question in conversations about e-learning during the pandemic—was already a concern for teachers considering whether to use online resources in a traditional school setting. 

At school, teachers said, internet and device access wasn't a big barrier to use. But for their students at home, it was: 43 percent said it was a minor barrier, while 23 percent said it was a major barrier. 

In a recent Education Week survey, district leaders said they were taking steps to get students connected during coronavirus-related shutdowns: 75 percent of district leaders said their schools were providing devices to every student who needed them, while 41 percent said they were providing home internet access to all who needed it. But these numbers still leave a lot of students without a way to log on.

And even if students are given computers, they might still struggle to access and navigate unfamiliar learning materials at home, without teacher support, said Kaufman. 

"This just has huge implications regarding who's going to benefit from digital materials and who's not during school closures," she said. 

Image: Lindsey Lilley, an employee of the Elk Grove Unified School District, hands a Chromebook to the parent of a student in the district, at Monterey Trail High School in Elk Grove, Calif., Thursday, April 2, 2020. In response to the order to close school buildings to the public, due to the coronavirus, the laptops are being loaned to qualifying district families as part of the district's "distance learning" program which will be ready to go live by mid-April. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

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