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Interview: PreK-12 Distance Learning During the COVID-19 Shutdown

Steve Nathans-Kelly: I'm here today with Bob Krieger from Christ Episcopal School in Covington, Louisiana. We're going to talk a little bit about Bob's role as Director of Technology at the school during the current crisis when they, like many schools and many religious organizations, are working with a number of streaming technologies to try to keep the community together, and continue learning. So in terms of the day-to-day operations, how much live distance learning is going on? And what are you using to deliver it?

Bob Krieger: My school--just for those who don't know about us--we go from preK all the way through 12th grade. We have two campuses. One is the early childhood campus--pre-K, kindergarten classes--and the other one is the main campus, the 1st through 12th. For 3rd through 12th, we all have email addresses. The kids themselves can log in with their computers as themselves without having to use mom and dad's email address, which is great cause it keeps everything within the school domain, which is really nice. The teachers do live classes for our 3rd through 8th graders. The teachers don't really have online classes every day, but they do meet with the kids online in a live video conference-type situation, about twice a week, and then they have office hours.

For high school, we're trying to keep things a little bit more along the lines of what normal school is like. When your class at school begins at eight in the morning, then your class online begins at eight in the morning. They're not going to be as long. We're cutting it short to about 40 minutes. That gives the kids time to get away from their computer, go do something and come back, so they're not stuck in front of the computer for four or five or six hours a day.

The big deal, right before we started this--when we felt the shutdown was coming--was trying to do a crash course in how to do video streaming, how to do the recording, how to do Google Classroom. A lot of the teachers didn't have that or they knew about it, but hadn't bothered getting started with it yet. I was showing them how it works and then letting them run with it. Being here, being ready to go online to show them how to do certain things, they had questions like, "How do I do this or?" Or, "What's the best way to do that?" Getting online with them as well as via video chat or a remote online connection ... Windows and Macs and Chromebooks all install a different way. And that makes it difficult. And I need to be able to help them do that.

One of the ways I've done it is my little setup here. I use a Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini, which I got a few weeks before this whole thing started. It was basically something that I was gonna use for personal use, for recording plays at school, for recording chapels at school as well. But when this crisis came along, I said, "Well, let me see what I can do." So what I actually have in my office, you'll see behind me, I've got a Windows 10 PC. Then over on this side. I've got a Mac and a Chromebook. And with the, the ATEM Mini, I have it all set up. So there's no switching in the the Google Meet or the Zoom or whatever to get to it, to show my screen. All I have to do is do a switch. So there's the Windows 10 PC; we've got the Mac, and of course the Mac is up, I have my ATEM software on there. And then the Chromebook, and then I come back here. So it actually really helps. When I'm giving a lesson to someone online or to a bunch of people online, it's like, "Let me show you how you do it on a PC and they can actually see the PC right there. Let me show you on the Chromebook. Let me show you on the Mac." And it really helps me get the job done quicker. They're able to see what's going on better than me just talking to them on the phone. Like, "Do you see that icon in the corner?" "Which one? The red one?" "No, the blue one." "I don't have a blue one." It's really kind of difficult to just talk your way through it 'cause I'm trying to remember how things go and having it right here in front of me and showing them at the same time. It works.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: So you've been actually using this setup in training faculty remotely, is that right? Because it seemed like at the beginning of this crisis, there was a lot of putting faculty in a room together to learn how to do this stuff, when it wasn't really the right time to do that.

Bob Krieger: When we closed school, we had two days. Wectold the students and told the faculty, "We're shutting down on Friday. You have the weekend. Monday and Tuesday are just free days. Go relax, go sleep, go do whatever." Mainly to the students, "Go do what you gotta do." And then Wednesday we began school. During that Monday and Tuesday, I took that time. I took lower school first and second grade, and I took third and fourth and then seventh and then the school teachers all separately during those days to give them the basics of how to do what they're gonna do. I don't consider it that hard, but it's new to them. They're used to just throwing up a PowerPoint or a video up on the screen and showing it and displaying it. "Well, let me show you how to do that here so that you have the ability to do this remotely."

Steve Nathans-Kelly: You mentioned before we get started that you're using Google Meet. How did you decide on that versus Zoom or versus another option? Was it something the school was already using?

Bob Krieger: No, the school wasn't using any kind of video conferencing software at all for classes or for teachers. I know the administration would have Zoom meetings with other administrators around the country. But that was them, that was out of my hands, and that's where they picked. I was looking at something we use. We're a Google school. Our email system, our classroom, and everything is all Google-based, all Gmail-based, and everybody knows that. Everybody works with that. And you go to the little Google waffle in the corner to get the little apps and it just works. When Google came out and said that they were making Meet available for schools, it was like, "Here, this is free. We know we're having this problem. Schools, go for it." I said, "Great, let's try this." Zoom came out and they did theirs as well saying, "Okay, we have the free version of Zoom now everyone can use."

At first it was the Early Childhood Center. The lady who's in charge over there, she liked Zoom, so she told her teachers, "Let's use Zoom when we have our meetings." Great. Everybody else is using Google Meet. It was just that much easier to because it worked well in the ecosystem that we already had in place. The fact that you could schedule a meeting using the Google Calendar and then bang, it was just right there, and invite the students. Bang. It's just right there. It's in their email; they just click on a link and there it is--just like Zoom does, but it just integrates so much easier.

At that time I really wasn't too worried about the differences. It just like, "Okay, we're using Google Meet, you wanna, use Zoom, go use Zoom. I don't care. Enjoy yourself, there you go." But then there was an issue with Google Meet where students were getting into these meetings and Google Meet was designed for professional use--not necessarily for school use. So you had students going in there and removing other students from the meeting and blocking everybody's mic and just being kids, and that was a problem. A number of people complained, and I asked Google, "Is there anything you can do about it?" And they said, "Just wait one minute." And within a week that fix was in place.

Now, when teachers start a meeting, they're the ones who have control over muting a mic or blocking a student from the classroom if they're being disruptive, which is fantastic. So that solved the problem. And I love the fact that Google was on the ball saying, "Let me help." Now we are really concentrating on Google rather than Zoom because of some of the other issues that I'm sure other people have heard about that Zoom is having, with unwanted people joining a meeting without being invited, which is kind of strange. At least with Google Meet, you have to be within our Christ Episcopal School domain to join a Meet, or the meeting leader has to physically allow someone to enter the meeting.

We did have an issue with Meet as well where you had only the person who was speaking was full screen. You didn't have a grid view. Kind of like what we're looking at with Zoom right now, we have the two of us on here. One of the other tech directors in the area who teaches in a school down in New Orleans found some code and packaged it up and put it online as a Chrome extension--the Google Grid View--and he called it the Brady Bunch Look. As people join, the grid forms, and each person stays on camera. That grew like wildfire. There was a Google education group on Facebook, and all of a sudden I see that posted on there, and everybody's using it. So the community got together and solved the problem, which was fantastic. And Ryan is sitting back saying, "Well, I didn't really create it, I just packaged it. I just kind of put it out there." But it was a wonderful thing. And then he added some more functionality to it where, as a speaker speaking and on that grid, you'll see a little highlight on there. You can include yourself or not in there, you can pin yourself or not--it's just all these different things that Google Meet didn't quite have, but the extension allowed it to work.

That's one of the things I see in this whole area with the shutdown, is that people are working together, and to get these things to work, making something do it really wasn't intended to do, to do what they need to do so that people can teach the way they need to teach.

I also teach a filmmaking class, and that took a big hit, because we were going to be working on narrative films. Everybody was shooting a short film and working with a bunch of other kids to get together as actors and crew and everything else. But with the shutdown, you can't go out and meet anybody. So what are we gonna do? Well, we're actually turning things around a little bit. We've decided on a concept: We're gonna make one film and everyone is broken up into groups and those groups are going to do something along the lines of the movie Unfriended, where everything has to be done via webcam or social media and recorded through that interaction. But it's not a horror movie. It's going to be more about how do kids date during this time? What they decided on is more light, more fun, more upbeat, I guess you could say.

They all rewrote their scripts, and they're actually working on recording their segments now. We're going to put it together and edit it. I was planning on using Adobe Premiere, and everyone had a copy of it. We're not gonna do it that way now. We want to try to collaborate on this from everyone's home. There's an online editor called WeVideo that is platform-independent. It doesn't matter whether they're on Chromebook, Mac, or PC; it'll work because everything's uploaded to the cloud. It's not gonna be 4K, it's not gonna be 1080p. It's gonna be just 720, but that's fine. This way, everyone can take a look at the different edits and put it together, and then we can collaborate together on the one final film. Hopefully, we're going to have an online screening before the end of school. At least that's the plan. We'll see how it all works out.

This is the silver lining I was talking about. Yes, we're all stuck at home. We can't shake each other's hands or give each other a hug, but we're learning new techniques and learning these new technologies. We're using them in ways they were never intended, but ways that just make us advance and help us continue advancing toward the end goal. That part is wonderful. So let's not overlook the good that actually comes with the bad.

It was like this after Katrina. When we had that lovely little storm a few years ago, people were wringing their hands and crying, and they were usually the people who weren't in New Orleans or weren't in this area. But we all pulled together. We helped everybody out. We came together as a community and learned new ways of doing things, new ways of making things work. It's like, tighten your belt and roll up your sleeves and start throwing out the trash and we're going to continue.

That's what I see in this crisis happening right now around here, at least in the education community. People, you tightening their belts, rolling up their sleeves, digging into the work, and doing what needs to be done with a smile on their face. Because it's not like we have to use chalkboard and chalk anymore. We have these technologies. The internet works, this stuff works, let's use it, and let's use it to the best of our ability. People are doing things with it that I never thought was possible.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: Thanks so much, Bob, and keep doing what you're doing.

Bob Krieger: I'm trying. Okay. Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

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