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Jeremy Morgan for Pluralsight

Posted on • Originally published at

The Tech Challenges of Moving K-12 to a Distance Learning Model

The global shift to home isolation has unique implications for public education. The era of slow and steady plans to virtualize education was given a donkey kick by this virus and the quarantine, and here's what I've observed.

I'm one of the directors on my local school board, and part of a group of technologists called in to discuss and help with "distance learning" and implementing it in our district. Though some of our problems are unique to our area, many of these problems are facing schools around the country, and possibly worldwide.

The primary challenge is educating students as much as possible from their homes. We had implemented some "distance learning" in the past, but nothing at this scale. Here's how it's gone so far.

About Our District

Where in the heck is Gaston?

We are a small district tucked into the Tualatin Valley outside of Portland, Oregon. We're in a unique spot because while small, we are not remote. We're connected and interact with some of the biggest districts in the state. Many districts our size are isolated, and hours away from other districts.

We are very fortunate. We have strong leadership and a Superintendent who is passionate, smart, and effective. We have access to funding when needed. We have many people who care about providing education. We're all in it together and have the support of the state of Oregon.

We're just on the edge of the "Silicon Forest" so we have tech companies willing to help with funding and supplies, as well as fiber internet in some areas. We have resources at our disposal, though sometimes it requires effort.

However, being on the very edge of the Portland Metro area, we have a mix of students in suburban areas to ones who are very rural. Our district stretches from a major population area to the foothills of the coast range of Oregon. We have a wide economic disparity, like most districts.

Equity Is a Mandate, Not an Option

The primary aim is educating students. All students. Equity is a factor that we can't legally (or morally) ignore: every student in our district must have equal access to education. This cannot be compromised because of where they live or the economic status of their family. We must present options to all students, or none.

This isn't as easy as it sounds, and it's where most of our challenges are rooted. At a minimum, the district must provide supplemental education for the students.

Challenge #1: Special Education

The Tech Challenges of Moving K-12 to a Virtual Learning Model

Special education programs are unique programs that require training and specialized work. Special education services are not optional and cannot be sidelined in the overall plan.

Solution: Create a program to meet the needs of special education students by collaborating with the families. Have education provided in divided times for the students, so we didn't exceed the gathering requirements or violate social distancing policies. Because of the size of our district, that solution is workable. However, in larger districts, this remains a challenge.

Challenge #2: Software

The Tech Challenges of Moving K-12 to a Virtual Learning Model

Do we have the software we need? The software for AP Calculus is far different from software teaching kindergartners how to read.

Our district is fortunate in that we've already put distance learning practices in place. We have established contracts with software vendors, some implementation, and a bit of a head start. Instead of "finding" the right solution, our mission is to expand on the existing solutions.

The Tech Challenges of Moving K-12 to a Virtual Learning Model

Many of the SaaS vendors we already work with are offering help and discounted rates, making this transition easier. But there are still gaps.

Solution: Accelerate existing efforts to move everything possible to online learning. Work with vendors to explore options, and train teachers to move curriculum online.

Challenge #3: Devices

The Tech Challenges of Moving K-12 to a Virtual Learning Model

If we transition to distance learning, the first consideration is hardware. Do we know all of our students have access to a computer or device to connect to the online classes? We had to find out.

Our Superintendent sent out an email survey to ask parents about connectivity. Does every student have their own device to connect to the internet for online classes? This surfaced a problem: if they have no internet access, they couldn't respond to a request via the internet. Time to pick up the phones.

School staff pulled phone lists and made calls to survey the families. That's when the goalposts moved.

We found out that our student base falls into one of these categories:

  • All students in the household have computers or a tablet to connect to online classes.
  • Some families have a single computer or device they can share
  • Some families have no device or only a parent's cell phone.

Solution: Get a device in the hand of every student. Many students already have Chromebooks. We have a cache of Chromebooks in our possession that were headed for surplus. They can be configured and distributed.

A local tech company also offered to provide laptops or devices for students in need. So we were confident we could give every student a device to connect to online learning.

Challenge #4: Internet Connectivity

The Tech Challenges of Moving K-12 to a Virtual Learning Model

Internet availability was a sticky issue.

Our students fall into one of these categories:

  • Rocket fast internet
  • Moderate internet
  • Slow internet through satellite
  • 5G only (cellphone tether)
  • No internet, no cell phone.

This creates another set of problems. Some students have screaming internet speeds while some have none. Part of this reasoning is economic issues, part is where they live geographically. We know that many ISPs in our area are offering free or reduced cost internet access right now. We can provide resources for them to contact the ISPs to set this up. But we still have a section of people who live so remote that no internet access is available for them. They don't even have cellphone service where they live.

Solution: Create two models. One for those connected to the internet, and those who are not.

  • Google Classroom / Online Ed
  • Printed packets of curriculum

Teachers can deploy their planned curriculum and give assignments via Google classroom, or paper packets.

Students with slow connections can arrange to go to the parking lot of their school and download video lectures via WiFi.

Challenge #5: Curriculum

The Tech Challenges of Moving K-12 to a Virtual Learning Model

It should come as no surprise that certain classes can easily be rolled into an online course. Others are near impossible. Some issues:

  • How can you have a science class with a lab?
  • How can you have math classes with software support for all aspects of it?
  • How do you run a shop class?
  • How can you have a music class?

These are all complicated issues, and unfortunately, we're stuck with "doing our best." In some cases, we can simulate exercises and have video instruction to take the place of experience. It's not the same, but close?

For certain classes, we just have to accept that it's the best we can do. We have to roll with the punches and get it done. In Oregon, the requirement is to provide supplemental education, and that is the primary focus for now. Most electives are not possible to roll into a distance learning model.

Solution: Anything that can be rolled into online curriculum is implemented. Everything else must wait until next year.

Meeting the Challenges

So we've established:

  • We can get a device in the hands of every student
  • We can get families connected to the internet, or
  • We can deliver paper packets to those who don't have internet

But how do we deliver paper packets to each student? We could:

  • Have the students come to the school individually and pick up a packet
  • Use the postal service / UPS / FedEx
  • Distribute it through the bus system

Distributing through the mail is an option but somewhat slow. Especially since we expected increased usage of USPS for household items. How much additional load would this place on the local postal service? Likely too much. 

We have bus routes that snake all over our district, and students are already accustomed to the stops and schedule. We can have bus drivers and teacher assistants deliver the packets and pick them up via the bus routes. This was the preferred solution for delivering packets.

We can have them delivered, and as long as the students maintain social distancing at the bus stop and we use precautions, This should meet our expectations.


  • Set up a time for students to borrow a device if they don't have it
  • Coordinate with students to pick up paper packets
  • Have teachers try to fit their existing curriculum into the software packages.

How Is It Working?

We have a plan, and we're executing on it. It will be officially rolled out on April 13th. It's too early to say if things are working yet, but I'll keep updating as time goes on. There is a plan and backup plans in case they fail. Nobody expected something like this, so nobody prepared for it. But we are focusing on doing our best to keep things moving.

What Can You Do?

The Tech Challenges of Moving K-12 to a Virtual Learning Model

If you're reading this and wondering about the condition of your local school district here are some things you can do:

  • Reach out to your district Superintendent to offer help
  • Offer your services if you can help (IT, engineering, provisioning, etc.)
  • Offer devices if you have extras you don't need
  • Offer to help set up internet access for those in need

Every school system is different, but they're all facing the same problems right now. Help out in any way you can. The reality is this year will negatively impact our students, but we can ease the pain by pitching in and helping.

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