A virtual classroom approach for K–12 doesn’t need to cause frustration

Author: Mark Stone

  • Executive summary

    The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a rapid and widespread transition to distance learning in K–12 and higher education. School districts, teachers, parents and students were caught off-guard, placing tremendous stress on the entire ecosystem.

    In building the virtual classroom, a host of challenges had to be addressed immediately: School systems had to adopt new technologies, students needed to adapt to a new environment and parents had to adjust to new demands on their time and home resources. As blended and fully remote education continues into 2021, students, parents and teachers have gained fluency with multiple tools and approaches, but many remain frustrated and stressed.

    The groundwork for navigating the new normal, however, was more quickly established by the business community from the pandemic’s onset. Many businesses were already accustomed to holding webinars, and video conferencing was part of normal operations. Comfort with tool integration and various media for specific use cases was already built-in.

    Fortunately, there are many lessons the education sector can learn from the business world. With successful implementation of integrated and interoperable tools, innovation is enabling educators to meet the challenges ahead.

    Keep reading to explore:

    • The challenges faced by educators, parents and students.
    • What lessons the education sector can take from the business community.
    • The importance of interoperability and integrated tools for a robust technology solution.
    • The essential features for a remote learning solution.
    • How bite-sized learning, gamification and digital citizenship will play a role in the future of education.
    • How Verizon can help educators on the path to blended learning.
  • The challenge facing educators, parents and students

  • As the pandemic took hold, the education system was already facing significant disadvantages in digital transformation.

    Consider: In the US, more than 9 million children lack internet access at home for learning. Furthermore, 17% of students don’t have access to a computer at home, and 18% are connecting to the internet without high-speed access.1  While the discrepancy is more evident in rural areas, many Americans across the country have struggled with the transition to remote learning in the virtual classroom.

    Beyond the digital divide, remote learning presents educators, parents and students each with their own unique challenges.

  • seventeen percent icon
  • of students don't have access to a computer

  • eighteen percent icon
  • are connecting to the internet without high-speed access.

Educators +

For educators, the technical challenges were paramount, especially those employed by schools without any digital curriculum. Many were forced to piece together and create courses on the go. Without a guidebook from which to work, the flexibility to cater to different learning styles or the ability to connect with students in the usual ways, teachers were left in an unenviable position.

But perhaps the most persistent hurdle for teachers was the immediate requirement to conduct classes over the internet using a video conferencing tool like Zoom.

Tyler Wood, vice president of marketing for eDynamic Learning, an online curriculum provider for middle schools and high schools, explained that for most teachers, these tools were unfamiliar. “Even tech-savvy teachers struggled to determine how to deliver the digital curriculum to mimic the classroom setting,” she said.2

Technology aside, it was a massive undertaking. How do you keep your students comfortable and give them the attention and emotional support remotely? How do you teach using methods you’ve never had to rely on?

Adding to the confusion, every state had different guidelines on how remote learning would be delivered.3 “In some cases, hybrid models with a mix of in-person and virtual were mandated,” Wood said. “In others, it was completely virtual. Many were told to create their own online curriculum, which was a very challenging task,” she said.4


Parents +

As difficult and overwhelming as they were and continue to be, the challenges for educators are mostly tangible. Many parents, however, were left in the dark in terms of what they were responsible for and what they needed to do for their children.5 The road map was not clear.

Imagine juggling a household, an infant in the home and daily hordes of emails from teachers—all while staying on top of many apps, platforms and login credentials that may not function on certain browsers or operating systems.

The most significant predicament for parents as the pandemic rages on is the increased demand placed upon them. When the parent is the only figure of authority in the child’s life, the parent-child dynamic at home can shift.

Without the benefit of a daily school routine, kids may revert to being more dependent on parents for structure, interaction, basic needs and more.

On top of these pressures is the burden of having your child at home learning remotely while you’re working, whether at home or at a physical workplace. Parents are answering these new questions every day: How do you keep up your responsibilities while making sure your child participates in their school day? What if you have to find a babysitter or cut hours to stay home?

In other words, when parents face the responsibility of becoming both parent and teacher, the stresses can add up—especially if they are already coping with transformation in their own workplace.


  • Students +

    For children, the shift to remote or hybrid learning introduces a major disruptive element to their daily lives.6 First, their schedules were changing week to week without any clear direction. Would they have to go to school today or learn from home? What about next week?

    While some thrived in the remote learning environment, the lack of flexibility for different learning styles presented a severe stumbling block for many. Learning from home meant less opportunity to learn from and imitate other students. It meant less performance benchmarking, less healthy competition and less motivation to improve.

    Time management, another critical life skill that is often nurtured in a more structured environment, continues to be a concern for many students.

    Finally, and most importantly, the pandemic has taken an emotional toll on our children. “This is totally different for them,” said Wood. “They don’t get to see their friends, they don’t get to talk to their friends at lunch. They don’t have their teacher right next to them to help them if they get stuck. And so for them, I think it’s been a horrible year.”7


    • Learning from the business community

    • Faced with these wide-ranging challenges, the world of education can turn to the business community for a model of how to leverage technology to adapt to an evolving “normal.”

    Embracing digital tools +

    In the corporate world, webinars, video conferencing and digital tools are the norm. What’s more, most people with experience in the business community are comfortable using different media—from instant messaging to conference calls and video chats—for specific use cases. Factors like scheduling, agendas, etiquette and communication before and after meetings are second nature for the corporate world.

    Think of a typical webinar, Zoom meeting or other video conference call in the business world. There’s generally high-quality audio and video, and the sharing of dynamic content is simple and effective. Perhaps there’s a digital whiteboard for team collaboration, and chatting with other attendees is seamless.

    While for many K–12 schools these unified communications features are not yet a reality, the business community is setting an example of how they can be used to support meaningful and productive learning.


    • “In the corporate world, webinars, video conferencing and digital tools are the norm.”

    Buy-in from everyone +
    • “While employees of any given company may have varying levels of skills and acceptance for technology, the business community as a whole has been embracing technology for decades.”

    One lesson the education community must take from the business community: It is crucial for everyone to be on board with digital transformation. A big-picture, full-team approach is required. While employees of any given company may have varying levels of skills and acceptance for technology, the business community as a whole has been embracing technology for decades.

    The education sector, however, has seen more internal debate about adopting new technologies.8 Some teachers may advocate for new digital ways of teaching while others worry about their students’ access to technology or simply resist any hint of doing things a new way. Then, again, standards and curricula vary across school systems. This lack of cohesiveness represents a significant stumbling block for education.


    Mitigating security risks +

    An equally crucial takeaway from the business community concerns the importance of cyber security. Protecting digital assets is commonplace in the world of business.

    In education, physical security may already be a priority, but the necessity for K–12 cyber security cannot be underestimated. One study found that since 2005, K–12 schools have leaked 24.5 million records in data breaches.9

    Now, with the number of students learning remotely and teachers and school staff working from home, cyber security incidents are on the rise in the education sector.10 IT infrastructure, once behind the safe perimeter of the school’s network and security systems, has extended far beyond those safe confines. Security experts and federal organizations warn that malicious cyber criminals are targeting K–12 educational institutions—with threats that include ransomware attacks, data theft and disrupting distance learning.11

    To ensure these breaches don’t happen for education, investment in cyber security—both in tools and in good cyber hygiene for all staff, students and teachers—must be prioritized.

    Thanks to the technology at its disposal, the business community securely shifted to work from home, online collaboration and virtual business meetings. As people quickly aligned on work-from-home practices, cyber security was top of mind.


    • “Since 2005, K–12 schools have leaked 24.5 million records in data breaches.”

    A difficult balance +
  • Ultimately, K–12 and higher education institutions face many of the same challenges that enterprises do as they seek to deliver superior experiences and outcomes for the students, faculty and communities they serve. And providing modern learning capabilities supported by a robust technology foundation and architecture is a high priority for many institutions.

    Perhaps more critically, however, these institutions must balance managing constant budget concerns with the need to keep schools running, ensuring continuity of operations and providing a secure and nurturing learning environment, whether within a physical building or campus or in a remote setting.


    • Building the virtual classroom

    • Combining remote and in-person education, blended learning—or the hybrid education model—is expected to be more common tomorrow and into the future.12 For the virtual classroom to be successful, however, it must move beyond casual collaboration tools and leverage the type of integrated and interoperable solutions the business world has already embraced.


    Interoperability +

    Interoperability, defined as a secure and seamless exchange of data between divergent technologies and applications, is critical. In the business world, interoperability is accelerating and even encouraged between competing vendors—Microsoft Teams integrates with competitor Google Drive, for example.13

    In education, however, interoperability once again lags behind many sectors.14 With multiple systems, applications and tools that don’t communicate with each other, schools may be left scrambling to integrate and compile data in one place.

    Administrators could benefit from one dashboard to bring together and display student data coming from different tools and applications. These tools should help teachers limit the manual entry of student data into different systems and reduce time interpreting data from various tools. Students and parents, on the other hand, can gain a clear picture of academic performance from all learning environments in a simple and readable format.


    • “Administrators could benefit from one dashboard to bring together and display student data coming from different tools and applications.”

    Integrated tools +

    During the early stages of the pandemic, simple and popular collaboration tools like Zoom offered a critical lifeline for business. While persistent security issues like Zoom-bombing15 and connectivity concerns, evident in the digital divide, presented early stumbling blocks, the issues were quickly addressed and most companies persevered.16

    As education tried to catch up, it became clear that although collaboration tools are effective, they’re not sufficient for the diverse requirements of schools. Beyond these basic services, educators may benefit from practical solutions that can serve as the foundation for blended learning now—and that can expand to add new capabilities, including those that go beyond traditional education.

    Some new online learning platforms are still relatively basic, while others are much more robust. Transforming virtual classrooms into effective learning environments requires a rich set of remote learning features. Many online curricula consist of a student in front of a computer who hits “play” without teacher intervention. More robust solutions may assist with more student-teacher interaction and allow for simple communication in a school setting and feedback through the learning platform.


    The educator's wish list +

    The education sector remains as committed as it always has been to providing safe, equal access to quality education. Innovations that support digital equity while helping schools achieve their goals to create rich, immersive and engaging learning experiences are essential.


    To improve the experience of the digital classroom, important capabilities include:

    • text to speech blk

      Reliable audio and video

    • share blk

      Dynamic content sharing

    • document compliance

      Seamless breakout sessions

    • compose blk

      Easy note-taking

    • duplicate blk

      Inclusive digital whiteboarding

    • team leader

      Support for one-on-one sessions, small group discussions and large lectures

    Because ease of use is a top priority, schools are focusing on the user interface, ensuring that it’s intuitive for all students and faculty with minimal or no IT support required. Also on their priority list: easy installation, reliability, security and expandability (in terms of both users and capabilities).

    Ultimately, they can benefit from a remote learning platform that not only inspires but also offers endless possibilities for class enrichment. The goal is to ensure that the virtual classroom is an effective learning environment.

    With the right technology, schools should be better positioned to adopt innovative teaching techniques, embrace flexible schedules, boost study group effectiveness, improve departmental collaboration and even prepare for rapid emergency response.


    • “Ultimately, they can benefit from a remote learning platform that not only inspires but also offers endless possibilities for class enrichment. The goal is to ensure that the virtual classroom is an effective learning environment.”

    Future trends +
    • “The average attention span of a millennial is 12 seconds, while for Gen Z, it’s 8 seconds.”

    Younger generations are already transforming the workplace;17 it’s only a matter of time before the education sector catches up. As we look into the future of education, especially in a blended environment, teaching styles must adapt to meet the technology expectations of each new generation that is even more digitally invested than the last.

    Bite-sized learning and self-guided learning

     With the exception of those left behind in the digital divide, today’s students are growing up with technology in their pocket and readily available. As a group, their learning styles have evolved to match diminishing attention spans. The average attention span of a millennial is 12 seconds, for example, while for Gen Z, it’s 8 seconds.18

    It’s no wonder many younger learners prefer bite-sized learning modules to remote learning courses running 30 minutes and more.

    Millennials, Gen Z and the current K–12 generation are accustomed to 140 characters or fewer and want their information accessible on demand and on the go. Course content that meets them where they are should be no different.



    Gamification involves introducing game-playing elements to courses and areas of learning to help boost knowledge retention and engagement. Gamification might include allowing students to score points or receive rewards or encouraging competition. Gamification can pay off in the physical classroom or online.

    Within the remote-learning market, game-based learning product revenues are expected to grow to $7.2 billion by 2028.19

    The goals of gamification should include enhanced learning, increased engagement and improved retention. “The more you can integrate their interests and skills into their education experience, the more you’re going to keep kids engaged,” said Wood. “When they are able to make a connection between school and their future, the more invested they will be in school.” However, she warns that in some cases, gamification can be a distraction to learning.20

    Digital citizenship

    As society’s reliance on technology continues to grow, so does the need for good digital citizenship. As part of a robust blended learning program, students in K–12 should be encouraged to be good digital citizens.

    Digital citizenship transcends online safety and should foster thoughtful, empathetic online lives that strive to find a balance between technology and humanity.

    Using technology, good digital citizens improve their community, conduct nontoxic online relationships with those holding differing beliefs and use their voice to engage with public leaders to help shape public policy.

    • Enabling the future of education

    • “Blended learning is the answer for many schools. It offers the freedom to integrate on-site and online learning and the flexibility to move to one approach exclusively if necessary.”

    Blended learning doesn’t come with a handbook. During the initial response to the pandemic, teachers—some with online teaching experience, others without—had to come up with imaginative teaching methods quickly, adapting or adopting them depending on how effective they proved to be. They faced a lot of challenges early on, but continue to explore blended learning and build (and share) their expertise.

    These trends and many others point toward a clear fact: Blended learning is the answer for many schools. It offers the freedom to integrate on-site and online learning and the flexibility to move to one approach exclusively if necessary. Thanks to better technology and more experience, blended learning can offer a learning environment that is much more than the sum of its parts— and one that’s capable of supporting the whole student. As the impact of COVID-19 persists, schools must ensure that blended learning goes beyond traditional on-site and remote education.

    While some K–12 schools are readily able to shift from on-site to virtual classrooms, many others are challenged with underserved districts where off-site e-learning tools are not available. 

    • Verizon is here to help with tools that can effectively aid in the transition. Whether it’s phone continuity that allows for ongoing communications in an unforeseen event, remote call centers to empower your staff to support students and parents, or providing virtual classrooms through mobile broadband hotspot solutions without the requirement for internet service.

      Education is our guiding light to a brighter future. And technology is a critical enabler for students and teachers in the classroom, online and in hybrid learning environments. With Verizon as your partner, you can support effective distance learning today.

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    1 “4.4 million households with children don’t have consistent access to computers for online learning during the pandemic,” USA Facts (September 28, 2020).

    2 Original interview with Tyler Wood conducted over Zoom (November 24, 2020).

    3 “States All Over the Map on Remote Learning Rigor, Detail,” Sarah Schwartz, Education Week (May 14, 2020).

    4 Wood, op. cit.

    5 “’I don’t know if I can do this’: Parents brace for school year juggling jobs, remote learning amid COVID-19 pandemic,” Charisse Jones, USA TODAY (August 17, 2020).

    6 “Young children frustrated and in tears over digital learning as parents try to adapt during coronavirus pandemic,” Kaitlyn Ross and LaPorsche Thomas, CBS 8 (August 18, 2020).

    7 Wood, op. cit.

    8 “Technology in the Classroom: What the Research Tells Us,” Aaron S. Richmond and Jordan D. Troisi, Inside Higher Ed (December 12, 2018).

    9 “US schools leaked 24.5 million records in 1,327 data breaches since 2005,” Sam Cook, Comparitech (July 1, 2020).

    10 “Schools Already Struggled With Cybersecurity. Then Came Covid-19,” Lily Hay Newman, Wired (July 1, 2020).

    11 “Cybercriminals targeting K-12 distance learning education to cause disruptions and steal data,” Security Magazine (December 11, 2020).

    12 “Post-pandemic, remote learning could be here to stay,” Jessica Dickler, CNBC (May 20, 2020).

    13 “Microsoft Teams adds third party file integration,” Kady Dundas, Microsoft (June 21, 2017).

    14 “Why Teachers Need Interoperability — Whether They Know It or Not,” Sam Peterson, EdSurge (October 27, 2020).

    15 “’Zoombombing’: When Video Conferences Go Wrong,” Taylor Lorenz, New York Times (March 20, 2020).

    16 “Zoom releases 5.0 update with security and privacy improvements,” Tom Warren, The Verge (April 22, 2020).

    17 “How Generation Z Will Transform the Future Workplace,” Ryan Jenkins, Inc. (January 15, 2019).

    18 “How Businesses Can Engage Their Millennial and Gen Z Employees,” Gadjo Sevilla, PC Mag (January 23, 2020).

    19 “Gamification in Education Market By Component (Software, Services), Deployment (Cloud, On-Premise), Application (Academic, Corporate Training), And Region (North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa, South America), Global Forecast 2018 to 2028,” Adroit Market Research (September 2020).

    20 Wood, op. cit.