K-12 online learning platform sees big rise in use

Daily webinars available for teachers interested in exploring the free customizable tools.

Our campus, like the global community, is contending with COVID-19 and working to adapt to a new normal. Many are rapidly working on solutions. See all COVID-19 developments from University of Michigan Engineering.

Like thousands of K-12 Michigan teachers, Wendy Skinner wasn’t sure where to turn when the Michigan Department of Education released its “Learning at a Distance” guideline in early April, requiring teachers to help students maintain and continue learning outside the classroom during the COVID-19 crisis.

Then she attended a webinar on the Collabrify Roadmap Platform, a set of free, customizable digital learning tools developed by the Center for Digital Curricula at the U-M College of Engineering. Roadmaps provide teachers with scheduling templates that can be customized to include all the activities that would normally take place in their classrooms. The system guides students through the day, points them to the resources they need to complete their work and enables them to collaborate with teachers and each other. The platform also provides a searchable repository of online lessons developed and vetted by teachers.

Skinner, who teaches second grade at Brandywine Community Schools in Niles, Mich., says it’s a significant improvement over other attempts at K-12 online  platforms, which aren’t designed to be as comprehensive, intuitive or engaging.

“Roadmaps are the only thing I’ve seen where I can plug in my skills for my kids in the way that I’d do it in the classroom,” Skinner said. “The kids have a schedule, and there’s a nice visual finish and sequence to it. It’s all in one place and I can monitor it and look at what they’ve done. I can make sure that it includes the things that I value and make my connections with the kids meaningful.”

Created last summer as a supplemental tool to make educational resources more widely available to Michigan teachers, the system’s use has exploded since the COVID-19 crisis closed schools across the state. 

“We’ve had over 1,000 students accessing Roadmaps in the three weeks since [the guidelines were released],” said U-M engineering professor Elliot Soloway. “We’ve tapped into something here and I’m absolutely blown away. The teachers talk about a one-stop shop, and that’s what Roadmaps are.”

Soloway quickly ramped up content production as Roadmaps became the primary method of instruction for many Michigan students. He has launched a series of daily webinars to bring teachers on board.

Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau professor of electrical engineering and computer science, professor of education and co-director of the Michigan Engineering Center for Digital Curricula. He co-founded the Center for Digital Curricula in July to address what he saw as a gap between the technological tools being made available to students and the teaching tools available to teachers. While tools like Google Classroom can help streamline classroom logistics like grading and file sharing, Soloway said there was no single, reliable source for managing digital curricula.

“A lot of schools have attempted to arm their kids with some type of digital device to assist in learning—a Chromebook or a tablet,” said Don Manfredi, a mentor-in-residence at the U-M Office of Technology Transfer who helped launch the Center. “But the content to actually take advantage of these devices was very far behind. So the idea was, let’s provide teachers with a deeply digital curricula to make these devices more valuable to the kids. And with COVID-19, it’s just gotten pushed to the forefront.”

The Center relies on a core group of seven Michigan teachers who create and vet digital content in addition to their teaching duties. Skinner and over 100 other Michigan teachers are now using those materials, and some of them have stepped up to create new digital content which is now available on the repository.

“That’s the most amazing thing I’m seeing, is that you’ve now got these teachers who are working together, to help each other, for no reason other than their passion for education, and their passion for bringing education into the digital age,” said Manfredi. “It’s been remarkable.”

Students have also responded well to the system, including seventh grader Jillian Biewer, who attends Marysville Middle School in Marysville Mich. She particularly likes the BrainVentures exercises, which offer an opportunity to learn across multiple disciplines and collaborate with friends even though she’s isolating at home.

“When I’m doing a BrainVenture and I’m talking to people, it makes me feel closer in a way, like they’re there right next to me doing it with me,” she said. “It’s almost therapeutic because when I’m doing it, I’m not worrying about what’s going on around me, I’m not worrying about the news, I’m just learning in a fun way.”

Daily Zoom webinars for teachers on how to use the resources are scheduled for 1:00 p.m. EDT on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 8:00 p.m. EDT on Tuesday and Thursday. More information, as well as a searchable repository of digital classroom tools are available at goopenmichigan.org.