Teaching in the Age of COVID-19: Computational Thinking & Support for Educators

Teachers need support in designing student-centered remote learning

by Jena Barchas-LichtensteinJoanna Laursen BruckerRupu GuptaKathryn Nock
Jul 31, 2020

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that schools closed their doors across the US. In the wake of these emergency closures, Knology talked to 12 US educators about distance learning, computational thinking, and educational equity in the context of COVID-19. All educators worked public, private, or charter school classrooms with students in grades 3-8, and included administrators and coaches in addition to classroom teachers. Interviews took place between June 2 and July 9, 2020 with educators from California, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Virginia, Washington DC, and Wisconsin.

Key Findings

What does distance learning look like?

After schools closed down physically, they took different approaches to reaching students. Of the twelve educators we spoke to, most were in schools that used a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning.

  • At least 10 schools created learning resources that students could access asynchronously, including pre-recorded videos, photos of lessons or worksheets, or online assignments.
  • At least 8 had synchronous meetings that were open to the whole class, although attendance started lower than usual and dwindled over time.
  • At least 3 had synchronous meetings one-on-one with individual students.
  • At least 3 schools provided printed packets to send home to students, although two educators said this was a short-term solution for concerns about unequal access to online resources.
  • One teacher had ongoing access to their physical classroom and was able to deliver materials and print books to students’ homes.

Every educator said that attendance and engagement dropped after the initial move to distance learning and continued to decrease until the school year ended.

What were schools’ and teachers’ top priorities in spring 2020?

Educators we interviewed uniformly said that non-instructional priorities were most important at this point of time, citing student safety, emotional support, mental health, sense of community, and engagement. Equity concerns were one major reason why both schools and individual educators de-prioritized instruction. These concerns included:

  • Differing access to computers and internet,
  • Parents’ varying ability to help with schoolwork, for reasons including limited time due to work commitments and care obligations, unfamiliarity with the content, or language barriers,
  • Challenges in remotely providing required services for students with IEPs and students designated as English learners, and
  • Worry that online instruction would cause students who were already disengaged to become even more so, and cause previously engaged students to lose interest.

English and math remained instructional priorities for schools, although individual educators did not necessarily indicate whether they agreed or how strongly they agreed with this approach. Most teachers said that they were asked to reinforce previously taught content and provide enrichment, rather than moving forward with new curriculum. Standardized testing and formal assessments were canceled, and teachers said that many students benefited from the lack of pressure usually associated with these measures. At the same time, teachers did not feel like they had good low-stakes strategies for assessing students’ understanding of online lessons.


Teachers consistently described engagement with school and the school community as their top priority, rather than the curriculum content. Engagement meant keeping students’ brains exercised and interested, and maintaining a sense of community. The majority of teachers focused on how to keep kids engaged with online lessons and activities to maintain a sense of community with their peer groups, which they saw as an important and beneficial part of school. While they said it was a major goal, many teachers described struggling to create the same sense of community online as in person. They saw engagement in the terms described above as a prerequisite for future learning, and many of them said directly that maintaining this connection was their primary intention.

Technology Practices

Educators who taught technology or supported other teachers with technology saw the transition as an opportunity to help students learn technology practices. They wanted students to master:

  • Accessing assignments and lessons;
  • Interacting with each other and the teacher online; and
  • Digital etiquette.

Much like engagement, these practices are a prerequisite for meaningful online learning. Because teachers said it was likely that at least part of the 2020-2021 school year would take place online, focusing on these prerequisites was seen as an investment in students’ future success.

What could the future of education look like, based on what we know now?

Educators did not see a return to pre-pandemic educational practices as feasible in the short-term. Remote teaching strategies that teachers found to be effective included:

  • Pre-recording videos that students could watch at convenient times and using synchronous meetings to answer questions;
  • Providing multiple assignment options and allowing students a choice; and
  • Building in time for one-on-one conversations with students and parents by phone or video.

In the longer term, at least some teachers were optimistic that the pandemic would be an opportunity to reconsider educational norms as basic as the length of the school day and the number and type of classes students were required to take. They saw the moment as ripe for a transition to project-based learning and other strategies that allow students to work on their own time on projects they were excited about. Some also thought that integrating technology more fully into the classroom would prepare students for adult life. As one educator put it,

“Some of us believe it will never go back to the way it was...I think it’s going to be ultimately a good thing. I mean sometimes you need to come to a head and we know the education system in public education is broken. It’s a mess, and to get the learning to happen for today and tomorrow’s society, it needs to change… Where are the practical skills? Where are the things that are going to truly help me when I go to not only high school, but college, and then to a career?”

This and other comments from educators pointed to a general sense that the pandemic might upend and transform education and schools in the US. Educators and experts outside of this study have voiced similar opinions as they have analyzed the various functions performed by schools in the past (see, for example, Simon Rodberg’s article or Harley Litzelman’s article).

What are the implications for computational thinking?

Computational thinking (CT) is a problem-solving methodology and a pedagogy that can be used across subjects. Because distance learning requires students to work more independently, some teachers saw CT as a helpful tool in supporting students to break down the steps of a problem on their own. As one teacher noted,

“Students’ lack of familiarity with virtual learning was a tremendous blessing in creating awareness of all the steps needed to build an algorithm. That transfers directly, and is true of any game: What are the steps? What are the patterns? Looking for patterns like patterns of social communication.”

Some teachers used primarily web-based tools like Zoombinis and Code.org to teach CT, even before moving to distance learning. Those teachers said transitioning to remote learning was relatively straightforward since students were already familiar with the interfaces. As a methodology for students to direct their own learning, CT shows a lot of promise in helping students learn remotely.

However, many teachers continue to think of CT as a specific set of activities, often related to robotics, coding, and other kinds of hands-on materials. These teachers expressed frustration and saw CT as difficult – or even impossible – to teach remotely. At best, hands-on and group projects required teachers to make sure all students had the same materials available at home to engage in tactile learning.

Many of the general challenges in remote learning also extended to CT. As in all subject areas, teachers did not have as much awareness or understanding of what students were doing, due to lack of direct and close observation. As a result, teachers found it hard to give regular feedback and course-correct. Troubleshooting at a distance was particularly tough.

What support do teachers need?

Teachers said it was likely that at least part of the 2020-2021 school year would take place online. But teachers need support to be as effective remotely as they are in the classroom.

First and foremost, teachers feel stuck: they know that many of their classroom practices don’t work well online, but they don’t know what does work well. They need professional development in designing learning for remote instruction, rather than strategies to translate their classroom practices online. (Here’s an example of one strategy.) This training should support teachers in making the virtual classroom more interactive, using new tools (like Google Drive and Jamboard) and old ones (like the telephone) to encourage student collaboration. Schools and districts need to give teachers permission to experiment and be creative; while some experiments may not be successful, room to be creative is key.

In tandem with remote-centered professional development, many teachers also need comfort with basic technology. Even teachers who are comfortable with the range of common digital tools do not necessarily feel prepared to help students and parents use them effectively.

Teachers need support and encouragement to work together remotely. Apart from tech teachers who were tasked with supporting their colleagues, we did not hear about collaboration between teachers during the remote learning period. Without the informal interactions that take place over the school day in hallways and break rooms, teachers may be doing all of their prep work in isolation. Working together would help teachers solve shared problems, increase their comfort with collaboration software, and help them see opportunities to integrate these technologies into their teaching.

Teachers need computational thinking as a way to encourage student independence. However, putting it into practice requires supporting educators in gaining an understanding of CT as a problem-solving methodology that spans the full range of disciplines. Teachers said that gaining insight into students’ process was difficult with independent remote work; CT provides one way to structure student reflections on how they are working, which in turn will help teachers provide feedback.

Many of the issues that education is facing cannot be solved at the level of individual teachers. Providing equitable education requires schools and districts to create structures that do not exacerbate existing inequities. Providing devices and internet access is relatively straightforward and districts around the country have found ways to do so. However, ensuring that students have adult support requires some creative restructuring. Some schools and districts are stepping in to create small “pods” that provide equitable in-person support while mitigating the COVID-19 risk of bringing back in-person schooling at full capacity.


This material is based upon work supported by the Education Innovation and Research Program (EIR) of the US Department of Education (DOE) under award U411C190179: Including Neurodiversity in Foundational and Applied Computational Thinking (INFACT). TERC, a non-profit research and development organization in Cambridge, MA, is the prime awardee of the grant. All research described here was funded 100% by EIR funding with an associated award funding amount of $138,162. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Education.

Photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com

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