University of Michigan combines tech and Twilio to support a continuous learning environment for thousands of low-income students

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At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, schools across Michigan and much of the U.S. closed to ensure student and teacher safety, interrupting a deep sense of normalcy that going to school provides for children, families, and communities. Schools scrambled to find distance learning solutions that would support students, teachers, and parents during a time when no one knew how long this transition period would last. Luckily, researchers at the University of Michigan were already working on a solution that had the potential to relieve the stress of the transition.

Michigan’s challenge, at that time, was to figure out how schools would make the transition from learning in an in-person classroom to effective, individualized instruction at home.

The University’s Center for Digital Curricula developed a solution that combined the best of distance learning with Twilio’s Programmable Voice API to provide a digital curricula solution that services more than 4,000 students across urban and rural public schools in Michigan. All the participating schools are Title 1 schools in low SES (socio-economic status) areas; a number of schools have almost 100% of their students participating in the free and reduced lunch programs.

Elliot Soloway, co-director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Digital Curricula, said, “The problem here isn’t [Michigan] schools or the teachers. But, they simply don’t have the digital tools needed to support seamless learning – learning in the classroom or learning at home.”

And that’s exactly what Soloway witnessed across classrooms at the start of the pandemic.

Thick packets of paper were sent home—or delivered by their teachers—containing worksheets copied from textbooks to be filled out via pencil and pen as a means of providing student instruction. In some instances, the packets referenced a YouTube video to illustrate a point. That, though, isn’t what the center calls a “deeply digital curricula.”

An accessible way for K-12 students to communicate

The University of Michigan’s Center for Digital Curricula developed the Collabrify Roadmaps Platform, an online learning environment as well as deeply-digital curricula that provides teachers with a standards-aligned, vetted, digital curricula that enables students to work individually or in small groups. The platform supports synchronous collaboration where teachers and students can work together in real-time without being in the same physical location.

Roadmaps, offered as free open education resources, are digital lessons that include web resources, games, and simulations. They even include resources for parents to help their children with their children’s homework. Hundreds of Roadmaps have been created for each core subject in K-5: science, math, English, and social studies.

So how do the online Roadmaps work in cooperation with Twilio Voice? Students use a computing device to log into their assigned Roadmap and can work together on the same learning activity—while each student is sitting at their kitchen table.

A blue phone icon appears at the top of the screen, each student clicks on the blue phone icon, and the students are instantly joined in a voice conversation. All calls are downloaded to the nearest data center with lightning speed to ensure smooth call quality. The platform, using Twilio Voice, eliminates the need for students to have a cell phone. Everything the students need to talk with each other and work together is available within the platform with the click of a button.

“It’s been night and day. We have videos of students exclaiming that they love the phone feature, and teachers have been able to see how communicating with their peers has really enhanced the learning in the classroom—especially when children are isolated at home,” Soloway said.

Teachers implement best practices in classroom learning

According to a recent report, students are hungry for an online learning platform that features increased interaction between teachers and fellow students since shifting to learning online due to the pandemic.

Teachers love the phone functionality because it gives them a greater amount of flexibility over the techniques they use to enrich the learning process. Michigan K-12 classroom instructor Monique Coulman frequently uses discussion between students to help them think deeper about the lesson: she does what she calls a “turn and talk,” where students have conversations in real-time about the lesson, supporting best practices that say discussion is key to learning and motivation.

Dawn Michalak, an instructor at a Michigan elementary school, recalls how the feature has helped students bridge the gap between in-person and distance learning: “I had a student quarantined but was able to work with a classmate who was at school via Roadmap and the phone feature. I felt it kept him connected and engaged.”

Leading discussions where each student can contribute meaningfully to the lesson requires preparation and creativity on the part of the teacher. There is little space for teachers to interrupt the student’s learning flow by fumbling around with how to join phone lines to create a breakout discussion group or implement a separate digital collaboration tool.

“The feature also gives the teacher the ability to listen in and feel like they are more in control as they can understand what the kids are doing, and how they can help,” Soloway said.

Once classroom learning time is over, teachers use the same voice API technology in the platform to meet with other teachers to talk about what’s working and how to make improvements to their Roadmaps.

Collaborative online learning beyond the pandemic

The University of Michigan’s application of Twilio Voice in the Collabrify Roadmap Platform offers numerous benefits for students and teachers. The system is simple enough for even the youngest students to master. Students in kindergarten are adept at using the technology and feel comfortable enough to be an active participant in the online learning environment. The phone feature is built right into the platform. It’s not just another complicated add-on or after-thought that requires teachers to have a deep knowledge of computer coding.

Educators are working with researchers in Michigan’s Center for Digital Curricula to figure out what learning will look like beyond the pandemic. In fall 2021, the center will roll out the capability for connecting after-school tutors to students using the phone feature. Also, parents will be able to talk to their children’s teachers, as well as support personnel, through the phone feature.

“The overarching goal is to use technology, especially Twilio’s Voice technology, to provide a better learning environment for children,” Soloway said.

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