“It just isn’t the same.” That’s the lament of almost all educators and students as they try to engage and learn virtually while schools and summer camps are closed.
For the Boston families whose computer coding class shifted to Zoom when COVID-19 hit, online learning surely wasn’t the same, but it was laughter- and creativity-filled, with parents and children engaged at a level “far better than we expected,” according to Gay Mohrbacher, course co-facilitator and a WGBH Education senior project manager.
With the move online, expectations shifted on almost everything — content, interactions, pacing and engagement.
WGBH offered the course with Boston’s Tech Goes Home, which delivers digital skills-building courses to adults and families — and prioritizes underserved populations. The course, initially held at ACCESS, a nonprofit organization in Chinatown, was part of the PBS KIDS Family & Community Learning effort supported by the federal Ready To Learn initiative.
“We knew we were going to miss our routine of eating a meal together — pizza or fried rice —and roaming around the room and talking with participants,” said Ji-Sun Ham, a trainer for Tech Goes Home and co-facilitator of the course. “We aimed for a similar level of interaction by engaging the families with games, stories and songs, and interpersonal activities.”
To introduce coding, for example, they invited the children to attempt to “program” their instructor to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Children tried to break the task into ordered steps, but when the instructor followed their instructions literally, it produced hilarious results.
“Students learned that when following code, computers do exactly what they are told and nothing more,” said Mohrbacher.
The students then applied that understanding to PBS KIDS’ ScratchJr, a free app that helps kids ages 5-8 learn core coding concepts. With their families, they created their own interactive stories and games using graphical programming blocks in sequences that make characters move, jump, dance and sing.
“Keeping the children engaged and moving around was important, so we set up activities like Simon Says, which helped kids burn energy and also got them thinking about the way commands are given,” said Mohrbacher.
Sharing the children’s final ScratchJr projects, which included an animated birthday card and a re-enactment of a family trip, was actually easier in the virtual environment.
“We had families email their final projects to us, and we were able to share them in real time online with the group,” says Mohrbacher.
“Each family was engaged at different points, and we were impressed that they could commit to these hours, even with all the scheduling issues and distractions at home,” says Ham.
“Our families stuck with us.”