Confessions of A Failed Quarantine Home-school “Teacher” (And Five Thoughts That Could Help)

About a week before the whole world stopped, I was sitting in my son’s third grade classroom. I was there to watch his class present their family heritage projects. For the most part, the kids were respectful of their peers and listened, but there was one thing that stood out to me – the room seethed with motion. The parents sat in chairs in the center of the room while 27 or so third graders orbited the room. What was even stranger is that my son’s teacher seemed perfectly fine with it and, more importantly, it seemed to work.

I am cringing as my son screams at me about how much he hates i-Ready and just can’t do it anymore. I try not to yell back as I explain that he only needs to do twenty minutes of reading and math each and then we can move to other things.

Flash forward to this morning. I am cringing as my son screams at me about how much he hates i-Ready and just can’t do it anymore. I try not to yell back as I explain that he only needs to do twenty minutes of reading and math each and then we can move to other things. It is now day thirtysomething of this forced homeschool experience. Every day is like the next. I am “lucky” enough to have this time to spend with him. I was furloughed at the beginning of April. I jumped in with both feet making schedules and planning the day’s work. The day always starts with good intentions and ends with tears.

Here I am, a proponent of Ed Tech and I can’t make it work with my son. I feel like I’ve failed. But here’s the thing… There is a flaw in this system.

I am trying to get my son to sit and be productive like an office worker. I am asking him to spend hours sitting in front of his laptop using a myriad of disjointed tools and slide decks.

It frustrates me that he won’t just sit still and do the work. If he’d just hit his targets he could be done and out in the yard by 2:30pm. But now it’s 4:56pm on Thursday. He hasn’t done all his assignments for the day. I’ve just gotten a note from his teacher that everything is due tomorrow. I don’t know how we will get it done.

So, what’s wrong? I think back to his classroom — The constant motion and interactivity. The kids could ask questions of each other, be themselves, move around, and sit in different places. It was a much more natural state for an 8-year-old. Now I am asking him to clock time in front of a laptop.

I also think about what he likes to do. It’s full of activity. Even when he is watching YouTube videos, the energy is different than the EdTech tools he has today.

Of course, It’s not his teachers’ fault. They are trying to navigate this situation as best they can. In most cases, they also found themselves in this new world with extraordinarily little notice and they are learning on the fly. It’s also not really a problem with the EdTech tools themselves. They weren’t meant for this situation. The ones we are using were meant to supplement regular instruction but not replace it.

I also think about what he likes to do. It’s full of activity. Even when he is watching YouTube videos, the energy is different than the EdTech tools he has today.

Again, I am part of the problem. I’ve spent the last twentysomething years chasing greater productivity and let’s face it. 8-year-olds are not thrilled by productivity. So, what would be better?

5 thoughts on a better approach to interactive remote education

1. YouTube-ify it!

Both of my kids and all their friends love YouTube videos. There are a few things in common with all of these.

  • They are irreverent and unscripted (or at least feel that way)
  • They are loud and have a lot of music
  • They usually involve something that is a “challenge” or a mystery to solve.
  • They are almost always of someone doing something else (e.g., playing Minecraft or trying new products).

We could use this energy-packed, quick hitting format in the media content created for online instruction.

2. Gamify it!

I used to think gamifying could be simple like earning badges, but I am starting to think that is my “dad” way of thinking about this. Sure, I still get a thrill our of badges on my workout apps, but nothing my kid does has anything similar. Back to YouTube…  My son watches 3 main types of videos:

  • Gaming – playing Minecraft or some other game and commentating on what is happening
  • Challenges/Mystery – doing something for a specific period – often there is not even a tangible award for completing the challenge
  • Making and/or trying something – trying a new fishing lure (my son loves fishing) or unboxing a product from amazon — and reporting on the result

It’s a more classic concept of gamification he enjoys. it might work well with educations. Some possible examples:

  • A reading challenge where you hide quietly for 20 minutes. the challenge is for no one to find you until you’re done.
  • Record yourself making a meal and explain why it’s healthy or even unhealthy.
  • Record yourself building a structure out of household items and explain why it stays up or doesn’t.
  • Watch a video about a subject, say sea horses, and record your reactions as you watch.

The problem is that these things are all done on different apps or on different platforms. The results are uploaded to different locations.

3. Channel it!

I do have to say that there are some examples of the tactics mentioned above in my son’s instruction today. In fact, our biggest success was recording an Earth Day video of him re-purposing a soda can into a mini lantern (incidentally, something he learned on YouTube).

The problem is that these things are all done on different apps or on different platforms. The results are uploaded to different locations.

A better solution would be for each student to have their own channel where they upload all their videos. Teachers and peers could subscribe and comment (perhaps rate positively) the videos. In fact, constructive commentary could be a participation component of the curriculum 

4. Mobilize it!

The biggest challenge mentioned above is that my son does most of the work stationary in front of a laptop. Most of the apps, at least in my experience, don’t work as well on mobile device. There are a couple of things that could help here.’

  • Schools could give kids a mobile camera that works easily with a smart phone or tablet. I’ve found that my son likes to use cameras that are not part of his devices.
    • Instruction should be based on smaller form factors such as a 7-10-inch tablet or smart phone. Something portable that a kid can easily move around and interact with.

5. Individualize it!

If we used more of these type of tools with instruction being mode parameter based, students could individualize their content. They may be able to engage in ways that stimulate their own interests and creativity.

Where it’s appropriate the social channel could be used for sharing and interacting with other students. This would also be done via video. Of course, Teachers would have to ensure that commentary is appropriate and student work is protected from any type of bullying.

These are just a few thoughts on how maybe we could increase engagement and adoption during these times, especially if we find ourselves in a similar situation in the autumn (let’s hope not). I am definitely not suggesting replacing teachers, their expertise, or curriculum. I also realize that there need to be some more traditional style instructional tools. I am only thinking of ways that we can engage kids where they are, make things a bit more fun, and maybe avoid a shouting match or two.

3 Keys to Remote Project Management Success (and One Mistake to Avoid)

Maybe remote project management is your dream job, or maybe the situation with COVID-19 forced you into it. No matter the reason, you must make it a success. Managing a project remotely doesn’t have to be difficult if you keep a few keys in mind and let yourself be a little creative. Here are 3 keys (and one thing to avoid) for successful remote project management:

1. It’s all about people

This is a key for any type of project management, but it’s even more important for managing projects remotely. Gone are the impromptu chats around the coffee pot or before the meeting. Instead, our days become chunked into one-hour or even 30-minute conference calls. It may be tempting to just get right to business – that is after everyone connects to the call, figures out their mute button, and settles down whatever is going on behind them. Make sure you have an agenda item, or even a note on your own, to ask people how they are doing – to connect. You don’t need any crazy icebreakers, just a few minutes of chat. You might find it makes the whole meeting go smoother.

If people are late, have trouble connecting, or go on mute or get quiet, don’t jump to conclusions that they are not interested or slacking off – assume positive intent. What does that mean? Well, there is a lot going on in people’s lives right now, especially during this time when your colleagues may be trying to juggle education for their kids or an anxious pet. Most people are trying to juggle a lot. If inattentiveness becomes a pattern, don’t make a huge point of it on the call, or worse, talk to their manager. Follow-up afterwards and check in with the person. It’s another opportunity to build a connection.

The moral of the story here, is now is the time to be more flexible with people. The more people feel you care about them, the more eager they will be to do their work for your project.

2. Communicate, communicate communicate!

Now is the time to over-communicate with your team. Be as transparent with your team. Remember that reporting is not communicating. It won’t be enough to send out a status report and assume that everyone reads it. If there is something that a team member or stakeholder needs to see, call it out separate from the status report. Make sure your meetings are effective with clear and published next steps. Make sure every action has an owner.

Now might be a good time to send daily, bullet-point updates to your sponsor or project stakeholders, especially if your project is at a critical point (e.g., close to a go-live). A good rule of thumb here is to communicate until someone tells you to stop. It might also be a good time for a quick 10-15-minute standup call every day to make sure your team is raising any issues as early as possible.

Finally, follow-up and follow through. Again, you never want to assume that everyone read an email or opened an attachment. It might be time to deploy the secret meaning of PM – professional mosquito.

3. Use the right tools

The third key is a good tool set. Having some type of chat mechanism is critical. Most companies provide this, but if not, you might want to look at tools like Google Hangouts, Slack, or even WhatsApp. Whatever tool you have at your disposal, use it. Reach out to people regularly and not always about work. Try to have some fun.

This might not be a good time to rely on a large project plan tool, such as MS Project, as the main communication tool for project progress. It might make more sense to whip up a quick presentation or checklist to share with your team. It might be a little more work on your part, but it could save you some headaches.

If you are using an agile methodology, low-tech might be best, I once held a sprint planning meeting by aiming my camera at a wall and using post it notes. Be creative and use what you have at hand.

If all else fails, using the good ol’ telephone might be as good as any tool. The trick is all of this is that the tool cannot over-complicate things. The simpler and intuitive the better. And don’t use email as your main tool. It’s good for creating a project record and memorializing conversations, but it’s not a good tool to drive action and make human connections.

What not to do

Above all, now is not the time to run silent and assume everyone knows you are doing a great job. Don’t let those texts or instant messages age. Be as responsive as possible. If you use the keys above, you’ll avoid this trap. Running silent can lead to isolation, detaching from your team, and worse, false assumptions that all is well (or all is terrible). Now is the time to reach out and be human. Remember, people are key, and more communication is better. Tools are good, but they cannot get in the way. Remote project management is a great way to hone your skills, get creative with what you have, and be more agile (no pun intended).