Amid shift to remote learning, UC students emerge ed tech leaders

When area schools scrambled to move instruction online, UC’s education students stepped up to help

When Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued a stay-at-home order in March ordering school buildings closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19, Julia Bley watched as her mother, a seventh grade English teacher at a Cincinnati Catholic school, panicked. 

“She was very overwhelmed,” said Bley, a second-year student at the University of Cincinnati who’s studying to become a high school English teacher. “She had this sense of helplessness. My mom is a very calm person, so for her to come home in a tizzy, it really upset me.”

The scramble to move classrooms online, almost overnight, with practically no time for planning and training, caught many educators unprepared. Bley’s mother struggled to overhaul her lesson plans into an online learning program that was not only educational, but also engaging and fun. 

“She was up at midnight,” said Bley. “I told her she could make videos. She said, ‘I can’t.’ I told her, ‘It’s easy.’”

And Bley should know — she’d already mastered digital teaching and learning tools in the education classes she’d been taking through UC’s School of Education. Seeing her mother struggle to improvise gave her an idea: Instead of creating a hypothetical final project for her Digital Communications class, why not help her mother transition her curriculum online in a real-world project instead?

Educating the educators

headshot of a woman in a dark green sweater

Sarah Schroeder regularly incorporates digital technology and tools into her classes. Photo provided

Bley emailed her idea to Sarah Schroeder, the UC associate professor and instructional designer who teaches Bley’s course. Schroeder soon began hearing from other students who were being called on to lend their technology expertise.

“During spring break, students started emailing me, saying, ‘Hey, my mom really needs help. Can I help her as part of this class?’ Or, ‘My neighbor is a teacher, and she wants to know about this tool for screencasting.’ They just started spontaneously helping people around them using what they learned in the class,” said Schroeder. 

“My students are stepping in with their parents, neighbors, aunts and uncles, and saying, ‘I got this. I can teach you.’ They’re supporting siblings who are learning online for the first time, as well as being a brand-new tech coach for their parents,” Schroeder added. “I said, ‘Let’s figure out a way to use this for class.’”

Noah Pinales, a third-year student majoring in human development and community engagement, put his technology skills to use developing a final project helping fourth grade teachers like Ernestine Moore at the Carson School, part of the Cincinnati Public Schools system, adapt their lesson plans online.

He created instructional videos, with questions and activities and built-in quizzes, in a project he estimates took him nearly 40 hours to complete.

I feel that we have an impact in the community, and it’s helping teachers. Teaching in general is so overwhelming. If we can step in to help in little tiny ways to help them be more confident, especially right now, it’s exciting that we can do that.

Sarah Schroeder

A man in a teal shirt stands against a tree

Noah Pinales says his final project not only helped teachers in need, but will help him land a job. Photo provided

“They needed the help,” Pinales said simply of the teachers he assisted. “The teachers are more worried about connecting with students and making sure they have their basic needs first. They were excited because not many teachers know how to do this stuff, and it will make their life easier.”

Pinales said that apart from the satisfaction of helping educators, the project also has another added benefit: it’s a resume booster. 

“I’ll be able to put this on a resume, and it’ll look good,” said Pinales, an aspiring early childhood education teacher.

Building technology leaders

Providing students with real-world experiences and giving them an edge in the competitive marketplace motivated professor Schroeder to retool the School of Education’s undergraduate technology program when she took it over three years ago, she said. 

Since then, the program has incorporated greater technology in more classes and offers more opportunities for students who want to become leaders in the future, she said. 

And the results, said Schroeder, are already showing.

“Schools have been contacting us back saying, ‘Wow! Your student teachers are such great technology leaders in our building. Or ‘Wow! We were able to call on them to help us, and they learned it in your classroom,’” she said. 

Students are seeking out opportunities to apply technology in creative ways, said Schroeder. One student remembered how frustrated he was by the PowerPoint slides his high school social studies teacher used, and so he offered to redesign slides for three of her lessons. 

Another student set up a Google classroom for a teacher in the Cincinnati Public Schools nearly four years ago, which the grateful teacher continues to use, said Schroeder. 

“I feel that we have an impact in the community, and it’s helping teachers,” said Schroeder. “Teaching in general is so overwhelming. If we can step in to help in little tiny ways to help them be more confident, especially right now, it’s exciting that we can do that.”

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Reshaping the classroom

And it’s not only teachers who UC educators are helping. The transition to remote learning has left many parents with children temporarily at home feeling as if they must fill the learning gap, said Schroeder. 

To better assist students, Schroeder prepared a series of webinars called “Better in 30!” The instructional videos, geared toward both parents and teachers, are designed to help them cope with the transition to online learning on the fly.

Topics for families include issues such as how to set expectations with children, the power of play, navigating online information and the parent’s role in remote learning. 

“You don’t have to be expected to teach your kids everything and know everything,” Schroeder tells parents. “You’re not the teacher.”

Other webinars for teachers address topics like how to host and manage live student meetings, collaborating remotely, designing meaningful discussions and increasing student engagement.  

For student Bley, being able to help her mother build engaging, effective learning skills not only provided her with a meaningful experience to help a loved one, but it also showed her how far she’d come in her studies and made her feel confident about tackling the next stage in her professional career. 

“I didn’t realize how much I had actually learned. It made me realize that,” said Bley. “I definitely do feel prepared.”

Impact Lives Here

The University of Cincinnati is leading public urban universities into a new era of innovation and impact. Our faculty, staff and students are saving lives, changing outcomes and bending the future in our city's direction. Next Lives Here.

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Featured image at top: School photo created by jcomp - www.freepik.com

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