Making The Grade: Building a low-cost distance-learning solution during COVID-19

The past few weeks have been wild at my school. Over just a few days, we went from thinking there would be a 20% chance we’d shut down to making serious plans due to the COVID–19 outbreak. This scenario meant that we had to launch a distance learning platform virtually overnight. This week, for Making The Grade, I want to explain how I built a low-cost, distance learning solution for our school.

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About Making The Grade: Every Saturday, Bradley Chambers publishes a new article about Apple in education. He has been managing Apple devices in an education environment since 2009. Through his experience deploying and managing hundreds of Macs and hundreds of iPads, Bradley will highlight ways in which Apple’s products work at scale, stories from the trenches of IT management, and ways Apple could improve its products for students.

When we began to make plans, I knew I wanted two things to be my focus: simplicity for teachers and ease of access for parents.

Simplicity for teachers

Our teachers already had to figure out how to teach remotely, so my goal was to make the publishing process as easy as possible. I originally thought we’d be recording in QuickTime, but then I realized teachers would end up doing a lesson in two parts: full camera and screen recording. I realized that the Zoom app would allow us to record our screen and overlay the camera for free. They would start empty meetings, hit record, run through their lesson, and then save the video. Our students also did live group check-ins using Zoom, so the benefit was that our teachers only had to learn a single application to begin recording digital lessons. Because our teachers’ MacBook Airs have built-in cameras and microphones, no other equipment was needed.

Simplicity for parents

Another critical factor I needed to consider was ease of access for parents. I knew that our parents had likely had their work lives thrown into turmoil, so the last thing I wanted was to create headaches for them. Instead of trying to roll out a new Learning Management Solution overnight that would create challenges, we went with a simple approach: Embed the videos to our website (password protected) by grade and organized by subject. Our first week went great, and we had lots of kind words from parents on how easy it was for parents to access the content.

Turning in assignments

For turning in assignments, we allowed parents to scan the work with their smartphone and email the teachers. If they didn’t want to do or weren’t able to do that, we had “drop off” and “pick up” days at our school where parents could drive through and be handed new assignments while turning in old ones.

Thank you, Zoom

I cannot thank Zoom enough for how it’s supported schools during this time. It’s upgraded our accounts to offer more than 40 minutes of meetings for free, and its app has been excellent for us. Applications like Camtasia would have certainly been more powerful, but for our use case, using Zoom has empowered our teachers to teach students. It truly allowed us to build a low-cost distance-learning solution during COVID-19.

Wrap-up on low-cost distance-learning solution during COVID-19

It’s been a crazy few weeks, and it’s probably just beginning. But I feel like we struck a delicate yet effective balance for the size of our school. Larger districts certainly couldn’t have used a solution like ours, but it worked for us. If you learn anything from this article, it’s to focus on the overall experience for teachers and parents while finding a solution that works well for your environment. The only costs we incurred were upgrading a single Zoom account for some larger meetings as well as moving to Vimeo Business for our video hosting.

Going forward, if we need to build a new solution for a longer period, I would certainly turn to a more permanent solution powered by Clever logins.

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Bradley lives in Chattanooga, TN where he manages Apple devices for a private school. 

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