College Responds to Teachers' Remote Learning Needs with LearnAway
by Tom Hanlon / Apr 28, 2020
When COVID-19 forced the closure of K-12 public schools in Illinois, the College of Education immediately sprang to action with LearnAway, a website that is rich and deep in its curriculum ideas and resources for teachers and parents working with remote learners.
On March 31, public K-12 schools in Illinois were instructed to begin remote learning, beginning the next day, April 1, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 2, The College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign launched the LearnAway website, offering resources for educators serving remote learners from birth through 12th grade.
“It really came about very quickly,” says Nancy Latham, executive director of the Council on Teacher Education, housed in the College of Education. “It was conceived, talked about, and built in ten days. Credit goes to the amazing resources we have here at the College and at the University of Illinois, to our tech resources and experts who were willing to dig in and make this happen.”
LearnAway (learnaway.education.illinois.edu) offers educator resources and curriculum ideas, including 10-minute expert chats called “10 Talks”—with one or more educators at a time from around the nation who have resources and ideas to share. “We want to tap into their expertise in how to do remote instruction,” says Lisa Monda-Amaya, associate dean for undergraduate programs at the College. “We’re hoping it can be a resource we have available for teachers at all times, and not just during the COVID-19 pandemic."
Dozens of educator resources already populate the site, which is growing daily. A few examples of the resources include: 15 common mistakes teachers make teaching with technology, 24 at-home learning activities to share with parents of young children, chemistry for life (lesson plans from the world’s largest scientific society), an autism toolkit, and assessment tools. And that barely scratches the surface.
As for curriculum ideas, currently there are 432 ideas on the site, organized in four grade levels and 22 content areas.
“A lot of professional organizations and companies have been coming out with great resources and ideas,” Monda-Amaya says. “We’re curating those ideas and resources so people can easily access the resources they need around a particular topic.”
Latham cites Jay Mann, director of the Office of School and Community Experiences as her sounding board, along with Bryan Jonker, senior web developer, and Gina Manola, director of marketing and communications.
“We wanted it to be a one-stop shop for educators,” Latham says. “Something that was dynamic and growing—helping teachers meet immediate needs because of the pandemic, but also serving as long-term help.”
Christopher Span, professor in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership and associate dean for graduate programs for the College, says, “The LearnAway website is like any good tool of information. It’s as valuable as the resources that you have around it. If you have more resources, you probably will be able to utilize these tools in a more effective way than if you have fewer resources.”
For example, Span says, “If you have a district that is using this website as supplemental to a design they’ve already created, that’s excellent. But if you have a district that is using this as the measure to educate their students, it’s not technically designed to serve that purpose. So that tells us we probably want to triage a bit with that district to assist them in the challenges they are facing.”
Remote Learning Challenges
Latham identifies two primary challenges that all educators are facing while adjusting to remote learning. “The first challenge is to create remote learning strategies to meet the same instructional goals that they have,” she says. “They’re still responsible for the social, emotional, physical, and intellectual health of our learners. Teachers do that with their whole hearts. But now they have to in the moment shift everything they know about how to do that. Yet, the goals haven’t changed.
“The second challenge is to redesign instruction and fully utilize online tools as a part of remote learning strategies in the most developmentally appropriate ways for individual learners and the healthiest ways for families. Educators really have a lot of plates in the air.”
Exacerbating those challenges, she adds, is the fact that teachers can’t force their face-to-face model into a remote model. “You can’t fit a round peg into a square hole,” she says. “But you can use online tools to accomplish remote learning in that redesign of instruction.”
Flexibility to Meet Wide Range of Needs
One aspect of the LearnAway site that Monda-Amaya finds particularly helpful is its flexibility. “If students are doing really well in a content area, a teacher can use the site to assign other online activities that will challenge them more,” she says. “You can find material that will boost the students to the next level of learning. With the universal design concept of learning, you plan your instruction so that everyone has access to the content they need, no matter what level they’re at. With the LearnAway site, there are so many choices.”
“A Repository to Serve Educators”
The College of Education was poised to respond quickly to teachers’ remote learning needs across the state in part because of its deep expertise in online education, says Christopher Span. “We’ve been engaged in online learning and continuing education programs for two decades now,” he says. Before the College and the University of Illinois at large shifted dramatically to remote learning and online education, the College surveyed their faculty and “found that eighty percent were already doing this kind of education,” Span says. It was far more typical, he adds, that only 20 percent—or fewer—were already teaching online in other colleges or universities across the state.
Not so with the College of Education. That’s one reason why it was able to respond so nimbly, quickly, and effectively to the announcement on March 31 that the state was moving to remote learning for K-12 learners. And that response is not static; it’s dynamic.
“We’ve made LearnAway a repository to serve educators and to grow,” Latham says. “The site is a place for a constant contribution of ideas. What teachers are going to think of and do to bridge this, we can’t even imagine. That’s how creative they are. And we’re hoping that their great ideas get shared through LearnAway.”