We've been teaching engineering, robotics, and coding to thousands of kids for years. But it wasn't until Covid-19 hit in March, that we had the time or the need to pivot, and convert our classes to a virtual setting. There was a lot of fear from the teaching staff initially. They weren't afraid of the technology, but of providing the same warm, supportive environment, their students had come to expect in person.
We had to change some of the curriculum, and figure out how to teach hands-on projects without the ability to quietly walk over to a student and help fix a build that was backwards. We had to figure out how to maintain the pace of the project without losing the interest of a more experienced student, or leaving a student who was struggling with a particular step behind. Thanks to all the families who volunteered to be part of our pilot classes, and a truly dedicated team at The Robot Garage, we were able to roll out our first classes to the public in May and have had great feedback from hundreds of students since then.
Through this process we learned 6 lessons that have helped us. They all support our goal to "create an aha moment everyday for every student". Covid-19 has created change and stress for most of us. We're worried about how our kids will do with virtual classes, how to keep them engaged, how to keep their worry at bay. We've found that if we can create a stress-free bubble for our classes, it's invaluable to our students. With in-person classes that means warm, supportive, well-trained teachers but with virtual learning, that's just the start. For kids there's a lot of anxiety about people noticing they're struggling. If their computers are not working, or they are late to class, or the group has to wait for them, it's really stressful. Because of that, many of these lessons have to do with supporting families so that they can support their kids.
6 BIG LESSONS
Text Reminders - Stress is at an all time high for parents with their children home doing virtually learning. If they are working parents, it can be even more challenging and it's easy to forget it's time for a child's online class. We were having a seriously big problem with students arriving late to class, holding other kids up, and feeling ashamed if they were late. We tried email reminders and calling to track down students but it wasn't until we subscribed to a texting service that the problem almost completely disappeared. We now text parents 35 minutes prior to class. It gives them time to wind down what they're doing and help their child get their screen and work area set up without the panic of being late or rushed.
Tech Support - Every family lives differently, and has different skills. Some families have 2 parents who are engineers, multiple computers, and great technical experience. Setting up multiple screens (which coding classes require) and downloading software is easy for them. Then there are the rest of us. The goal is to have every child join the first day of class feeling confident, excited, and on an equal footing. Through trial and error, we found that we needed a dedicated tech support team to schedule calls with families needing help walking through the set-up process prior to the first class. This investment can be both time-consuming and costly but we've found there's no substitute.
Set-Up Videos - Nothing replaces personal tech support but it's not always needed. We created short set-up videos for all our online classes and they are emailed to families when they register. Most importantly, we can see who has and hasn't opened the videos so we can be pro-active and start calling families to make sure they are ready for class as we get close to the start date.
Small Classes - There are certain classes that work well for large groups but hands-on coding and engineering are not among them. Lectures or even open-ended creative projects can work with a lot of people, but if the goal is to get students from point A to point B with no mistakes, it takes a lot of oversight from the teacher. We've found that classes need to be capped at 4 or 5 students to give everyone the attention they need and finish projects successfully.
Live Teacher Support - It's almost impossible for a teacher to stay on task with a particular lesson, engage every child, finish on time, and also deal with internet issues or late students. Because of that, our company know has a "live class" support channel on Slack so it's easy for a teacher to communicate quickly to an in-house team that Zack's computer froze or Grace is late for class. The team works behind the scenes to trouble shoot so the teacher can proceed with the class, and the family at home doesn't feel panicked or alone. We usually are able to call them before they even have time to look for our number.
Finish With A Win - We all know that student engagement is the key to learning and virtual learning creates some challenges to this. We've found that if each of our sessions ends with a win, the kids leave happy and return happy. This makes the classes fun for the individual students, as well as the group as a whole. Because of that, our teachers have goals they know they need to help each child reach in every class. It could be getting a first video game working, knowing the bells and whistles will come later. It could be completing a mechanical Lego project and having that time at the end to be amazed that you built something that works.