Adult Education and Work Preparedness Program (AEWP) Coordinator, Calmia “Mia” Hart, received little notice that TASK would suspend all use of its main dining room on March 16 – the same space where adult education students meet with volunteers for tutoring sessions between meal service throughout the week. Determined to avoid gaps in their learning, her first response was to send each student home with enough books, school supplies and lesson plans to hold them over in the interim. Soon, however, it became clear that AEWP would need a more permanent solution to continue despite social distancing restrictions posed by the pandemic.
With assistance from Jaime Parker, Manager of Programs and Services at TASK, Mia and other AEWP staff Camille Little and Neil Washington, staged a meeting of the minds. The result was a new distance learning model that would allow AEWP students to continue their education from home.
“With the digital divide being a critical issue in households across our Trenton community, we had a few reservations about implementing remote learning,” Hart said. “However, not making the effort was not an option, particularly for students whose goals are time sensitive. So, we asked ourselves, ‘How can we best support our students and community?’ We felt that we had to do our due diligence and provide an opportunity for them to continue their education while staying at home. It is an essential need. The benefits of mounting this new initiative, by far, would outweigh perceived risks.” Hart reflected on the recent development of the asynchronous learning model that would keep students connected to their tutors and engaged in lesson plans during the pandemic.
While new to TASK’s adult education program, synchronous and asynchronous distance learning has been common practice for students all over the world for years. It provides much-coveted flexibility and unique opportunities to learn via internet-based instruction in lieu of conventional in-person classes. Data from the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) indicates nearly one third of U.S. college students participate in some sort of distance education. Now that social distancing measures have obligated many educational institutions to close in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on heavily populated campuses, distance education has rapidly gained even more traction, becoming mainstream learning model for students at all academic levels.
In TASK’s case, the first line of action was to ensure AEWP students had reliable access to two staples of effective distance learning – computers and internet access. In high poverty cities such as Trenton, low-income households are less likely to have access to technology necessary to complete homework, apply for jobs, obtain telehealth services or even simply to stay connected with family who may live in different locations in this digital age. In fact, recent studies show only 40 percent of Trenton households have reliable access to internet service.
After researching what resources were available to their students, the AEWP team was pleased to discover TDI -Connect (formerly recognized as Trenton Digital Initiative), a local organization that refurbishes and re-distributes used laptops to families across the Trenton area. TDI-Connect generously donated 10 Chromebook computers to TASK for AEWP students.
Computer Resource Assistant Neil Washington, a TASK new-hire, generally works with students on-site monitoring the computer lab and facilitating workshops that help students build computer literacy. On each laptop, Washington installed Conover Online™ and Essential Education GED Academy™, the two main applications used to tutor students looking to earn a GED and provide soft skills training for students seeking job-readiness support from TASK’s Employment Search Specialist Paulash Banarjee. He also bookmarked several resources to help students troubleshoot basic technical issues, increase their knowledge of basic computer applications, and develop other important skills, such as typing and surfing the web. Chrome Remote Desktop was also installed to each computer, allowing staff to monitor how students use laptops.
Broadband access would have been the next hurdle, but many of the AEWP students who were chosen to receive laptops were connected to Internet at home. One student, however, was able to receive free service through the Comcast Internet Essentials program.
Given the early success of what she considers a pilot run to distance learning at TASK, Hart, is optimistic about the new model becoming a permanent option for students. Currently, eight students have received computers, but Hart foresees being able to manage at least 20 students in the future. As students continue to move through their lesson plans, AEWP staff are exploring ways to expand the new distance learning strategy and provide more educational opportunities in the months to come.