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“Education must be a force driving positive change for our society. In the midst of our current challenges, the mission of the UCI School of Education has been unwavering: to advance educational science, learning outcomes and equity for all students,” says Dean Richard Arum. “Our faculty, students and staff have been working diligently to help create a new, better reality for future generations of students in a multitude of inspiring ways.” iStock

The seismic, pandemic-induced shift to remote instruction created unprecedented logistical and technical challenges with effects on teachers, students, parents, public and private school systems, and institutions of higher learning that have yet to be fully determined. UCI’s School of Education has responded in a variety of meaningful ways to help communities in Orange County and beyond move past these challenges.

In March, after years of planning, the UCI Online Learning Research Center was launched, just in time to assist students and teachers from preschool to postgraduate levels in making the transition to remote learning. Co-directed by Mark Warschauer, professor of education and informatics, and Di Xu, associate professor of education, the center provides evidence-based resources, materials and guidelines for K-12 and college educators, students and researchers to improve academic achievement and equity in learning.

Problems posed by the virtual classroom range from technical glitches to diminished student learning experiences and educational outcomes. According to research by Xu and Warschauer, the electronic environment requires higher levels of self-directed learning skills and makes interpersonal interactions difficult. Students need additional support and attention, and faculty need guidance on which online strategies are most effective and why and how to use them.

The advantages of online learning include 24/7 access to materials, automated scoring, better tracking of student engagement, the potential to share resources and opportunities to develop personalized learning plans for each student. And while in traditional education teachers had no idea what was occurring outside the classroom, now they can electronically track how often students are online, at what times, when they begin their homework and how long they spend on assignments.

As schools across the country continue to grapple with both in-class and remote instruction and hybrid formats in response to the pandemic, Warschauer and Xu are optimistic that despite stumbles, many potential benefits of online learning are being realized. Remote instruction, they note, is not a replacement for in-person teaching but a complementary mode that can play a valuable role in the education ecosystem. In addition, they believe that the research and tools improving remote learning can be translated to improve face-to-face instruction as well.

Educating the educators

Established in fall 2018, the UCI Teacher Academy offers professional development for K-12 educators – teachers, principals, administrators and superintendents. By doing so, it seeks to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for K-12 students and their families.

“We need to give teachers the time and space to learn in order to continue to grow and get better at their profession,” says Elizabeth van Es, faculty director of the academy and professor of education. “Unlike other professions, teachers are expected to be experts on the first day of school. Our workshops provide engaging ways to teach content. It’s one thing to know about photosynthesis but a whole other matter to know how to teach it to a fifth-grade science class.”

The academy also supports teacher preparation, such as the UCI School of Education’s Master of Arts in Teaching and UCI’s CalTeach program. During this current period of remote instruction, Teacher Academy staff and faculty are sharing curated materials – including resources, stories, websites and tips – to promote high-quality learning experiences. Over the summer, the academy engaged more than 500 educators from across Southern California in a series of workshops aimed at improving online instruction and learning.

Community connections

The Orange County Educational Advancement Network began in fall 2018, establishing research-practice partnerships between the UCI School of Education and a group of K-12 schools. These pair a UCI faculty member and doctoral student with leadership at each school to identify its greatest needs and goals, conduct studies, and provide insights and actionable items that will have a positive impact. In addition to the individual partnerships, the K-12 schools and UCI’s School of Education then come together to focus on district-, county- or regionwide needs.

“The pandemic has forced us to be closer in our partnerships,” says June Ahn, faculty director of OCEAN and UCI associate professor of education. “It was not and is not business as usual; schools need partners to think and work with.”

During the summer, OCEAN created four working groups focused on promoting mental health and well-being for students, collaborating with teachers to improve instruction and learning, supporting principals and administrators, and forming family learning pods that match UCI undergraduates with families that need tutoring services.

“We found that many parents and schools are searching for ways to provide personal attention to students as they attend virtual or hybrid classes,” Ahn says. “We believe that equitable and community-driven approaches are vital to help each other in this critical moment. We are going to use OCEAN to model how a university can help facilitate this type of assistance for communities and families in need.”