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Beginning with the end in mind: Using digital tools to re-engage absent students

Using digital tools to re-engage absent students


Partway through spring term, and at the start of a global crisis, everyone in our learning community was working at capacity and yet, there were students who were disengaged, or, for various reasons, had stopped participating in online learning altogether. 

One of my most promising students was absent more times than present that spring, so her explanation about Wi-Fi troubles, and the fact that she was an older sibling having to share devices or help monitor younger siblings, made it  clear that students, even our high performing ones, were “missing” due to a number of intersecting social, emotional and physical factors.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 8 million students were chronically absent in the U.S. during the 2015–16 school year, an increase from previous years (Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) for the 2013-14 School Year, 2018). This is even more frightening with a large-scale shift to remote learning.

The education and development of absent students is a huge concern, but also poses a familiar challenge for principals: retaining educational resources and federal funding, based on daily enrollment and attendance figures. Even as advocates call to alleviate those pressures, principals are seeking a combination of practices and interventions to re-connect students and speak to their realities long before they are “lost”. 

There is much to be said about connections between absent students and online engagementand how digital solutions may help. The real key to “recapturing” students starts on the front end of online learning, with ensuring compelling learning is taking place, even as schools do the footwork of re-engagement.

Below are questions school leaders can ask about how to maximize technology to engage and retain students:

How accessible are our online platforms and systems?

The focus on educational inequities of the “digital divide” is often on devices, with less attention on digital skills that affect accessing and sustaining interest in online learning. Students who are uncomfortable, overwhelmed or further challenged by underdeveloped executive skills needed to organize, prioritize and concentrate with all of the digital noise online, may avoid a system, and parents managing their own time, obligations and potential lack of digital literacy skills, may not be able or available to support.

 It can be challenging to replicate traditional classrooms, with teachers instead compiling disjointed apps and learning systems or getting to the stage of “replacing” hard copy materials with digital ones or adding in tech elements like videos, without modifying or expanding them with new tech capabilities. This potential for confusion and frustration or what amounts to “surviving“ online learning, can be remedied with solutions that make tools less intimidating and move beyond tech enhancements to transformation.

That may look like more uniform and unified access to systems, sites and edtech tools, and choosing more easily navigable tools and using them in more novel ways. Systems that consolidate from learning platforms like Google Classroom, G-Suite and other resources in a user-friendly format like Hāpara’s Workspace, an easy, intuitive hub for digital assignments and projects with lesson plans and materials from across the globe, as well as a student’s own organizing hub, Student Dashboard, reduces digital clutter and noise and primes student engagement from the onset.

Is the online experience welcoming and engaging?

An important valve in addressing the flow of students chronically absent online is ensuring students feel connected, engaged and like they matter; which can be challenging in physical classrooms and amplified in virtual ones. A students’ experience of school can be informed by connection, or lack thereof, to teachers and peers. Feeling welcomed and recognized is essential to online engagement and an emotional investment in their academic environment may help students prioritize attendance barring other motivators.

Not only do learning management systems (LMS) lack a built-in visual and tracking of real-time or near-real time participation and attendance, but they also lack the human touch that drives connective in-person instruction. High-quality relationships are even more important online where physical distance can affect a students’ sense of visibility and mattering. LMSs need supporting tools that promote personalized, positive and more immediate relationship-building. 

Hāpara Highlights, a tool that monitors students’ Chrome browsing, centers around relationship-building rather than punitive monitoring, and allows for greater differentiation with the ability to push out personalized resources and links, and promotes and monitors group projects, which can increase learner motivation and offer an opportunity for meaningful assessment.  

Similarly, the design of these tools can support or detract from an engaging user experience if they are too clunky, boring or not responsive to student’s needs. Student Dashboard, for example, incorporates student voice for a more simplified, personal and student-friendly design of their organizing hub. Students can even customize their interface’s color scheme and avatar, giving them an even greater sense of control over their own learning.

What is the impact of our grading policy?  

Early during the pandemic, many schools and districts opted for no grades or modified grading. This, and other mounting concerns, may have initially disincentivized students and parents from full participation. While grading may be a necessary measure, a global health crisis underscored needs for innovations to capture and retain student interest and attention beyond grades as an incentive. 

Highlights boosts peer collaboration and project-based learning with teacher filters to assign, manage and have an active view into student progress to suggest relevant resources from insight into student interests.  

Grading may continue to be a standard for assessing student learning, but it may also be problematic, especially for students unable to deliver graded work for various reasons. Advocates for reducing chronic absence even recommend not penalizing students who fail to login, as it may disproportionately impact our most vulnerable students.

Do students require more flexibility and more choice during the school day?

A switch to fully remote learning shows the myriad of students’ life demands. For many, blurring the distinctions between home life and designated formal learning leaves them unfocused and unmotivated due to some students facing more taxing, larger life demands. 

Whether watching younger siblings, sharing devices or having to work themselves, many students need a more flexible learning environment to meet remote classroom rigor and expectations, including allowance for completing student work outside narrow school confines. 

A new McKinsey report on learning loss as remote learning evolves is a concern for all students, and alarms have been sounded about heightened educational inequities for vulnerable students; emphasizing the importance of delivering both a quality and flexible remote education. Even small options for flexibility that refocus on learning help to retain students experiencing a massive change to the school structure and which may have yet to catch up to their other realities, which is happening at an unprecedented speed. 

With the goal of ensuring all students have a “coherent [and relevant] learning experience,” Hāpara’s combination of tools ignite students’ interest, personalize learning and organize its administrative component. It supports more independent learning with accessible and convenient materials and streamlined opportunities for student submissions and feedback. Highlights gives teachers direct access to in-progress student materials, allowing formative assessments that can be collaborative, not latent, learning opportunities. 

Workspace and the Student Dashboard streamline assignments, notifications and communications, but also remove paper documents from students’ desks, (a benefit to all), and also serve as one less barrier for those whose capacity for time management, prioritization and organizing may be overloaded.

Finally, tools like Workspace can also be used to give more choice to students, which is often a motivating factor. Teacher and Hāpara  user, Tammy Nesrallah, [a Grade 6 teacher at OCSB St. Jerome Catholic School], held a naming contest for monthly workspaces, (or a hub for that month’s specific assignments and resources), made sure videos were available outside of school hours so students felt shared ownership of resources to view at their leisure and used Google Forms for feedback on what was working, enjoyable and challenging; using this data to enhance content and materials —all in an effort to give students choice and flexibility with their own learning.  

 Data on a range of child welfare metrics shows the impact of education’s shift on students and learning loss, with some districts reporting “the number of students who’ve missed at least 10 percent of classes…has more than doubled” (Einhorn, 2020), and emerging research showing an estimated 3 million risk-immersed students, those who are homeless, in foster care, have disabilities or are English Language Learners, “appear to not be in school at all”. Chronic absence already disproportionately affects students who belong to disadvantaged groups and those potential lifelong gaps are only expected to be deepened with the pandemic. 

The biggest challenge of surfacing and retaining absent students is school leaders’ dual purpose of accountability for school funding and for connection; not just for “‘high-stakes accountability’…but to learn which kids need support”  (Barmore, 2020) and which interventions are most useful in sustaining students’ interest and engagement.

Personal, high-touch methods like frequent, varying, and even in-person outreach, as well as device distribution and Wi-Fi expansion is important and must exist alongside data and tech tools that operate within and maximize online systems. 

Metrics that trigger early warnings and intervention, automating, streamlining and emphasizing teacher and staff communication and instituting tools like Hāpara that simplify, organize and give insight into learning and student work are necessary.

But of course, merely showing up does not guarantee learning. Even when our lovely students return, circumstances and varying skills, interests and abilities may impact their full presence. That urgently requires implementing accessible, personalizable and adaptable online tools and systems that center student engagement, relationship-building and flexible learning to bring students back to the digital table and reliably keep them there.


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