Who ya gonna call? Remote learning helpline for teachers…and parents

Rhode Island’s statewide helpline of experts could be a model to follow for remote learning

By Javeria Salman

Please note: This article was first published on October 7, 2020 on The Hechinger Report website. We are re-posting on the Throughline Learning website now to coincide with our organization's rebrand (formerly Highlander Institute).

Not long after schools closed because of the coronavirus last spring, a Rhode Island nonprofit launched a hotline for teachers who were struggling to launch new technology for remote leaning and trying to figure out how to teach with it. Within a few weeks, hundreds of teachers — and eventually parents, too — were flooding the line with calls for help.

The “dream team” of experts answering calls all had stellar credentials: They were teachers themselves, with training in how to deploy technology for learning and years of classroom experience.

This team of educators was part of the Fuse RI initiative, a fellowship program that teaches educators, administrators and local education agencies in the state how to integrate blended and personalized learning and technology practices into classrooms. The program was launched by the Highlander Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to creating “more equitable, relevant, and effective schools,” and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Gates Foundation is one of Hechinger’s many funders.)

Five-years into the fellowship, the group’s leaders had hoped to launch a restructured model of the program that would train school leaders and teacher teams to design and implement blended and personalized learning initiatives in their in-person classrooms. They never imagined a crisis scenario in which millions of teachers would be plunged into ed tech all at once. Nevertheless, said Highlander’s chief education officer Shawn Rubin, the group “felt like there was a moment and an opportunity” to activate the 104 Fuse RI fellows spread out across the state to help make the transition to remote learning easier for other teachers.

Rubin said the resulting School Support Helpline “would allow any teacher that wasn’t getting the support they needed from their home district or school an opportunity to phone in and talk directly with a fellow who is explicitly trained to be very confident in both the technology and the pedagogy, but also very competent in coaching and supporting teachers who are brand new to this work.”

The hotline launched on March 23 in partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Education. Forty of the 104 Fuse fellows volunteered to field questions. Teachers could call the phone number or visit a website to be matched with a fellow, based on the problem and the fellow’s expertise. By April, the helpline took off.

“People who didn’t know anything about technology and had kind of avoided it in their own classrooms were really seeing this as a lifeline,” said Maeve Murray, the Highlander Institute’s services manager. “Many of them were repeat users of the helpline.”

Fuse fellow Debbie Ramm, the instructional technology coordinator for Johnston Public Schools, was one of the first to begin fielding calls from teachers. Ramm, who was part of the first cohort of Fuse fellows in 2014, was already providing support sessions for teachers and administrators in her district. Up to 300 educators attended the workshops, which ran every day and sometimes on weekends. When Highlander called, Ramm signed up because she knew teachers outside of her district must be struggling, too.

“I can’t imagine not having that support system,” Ramm said. During her Fuse fellowship, she became part of a tribe of teachers, she said. “Before I met people from Highlander, I was an island, I was in a silo.”

Another Fuse fellow, Lisa Leaheey, an English teacher at North Providence High School, was part of the third cohort of the fellowship, which ran from 2016-18. Leaheey began informally offering help to teachers in her school when the pandemic hit. She also helped create a tech integration support website for the high school, providing teachers with resources on blended learning and flipped classrooms, technology integration and student support.

Since she was already fielding Zoom calls and emails from her peers, Leaheey said volunteering for the helpline was an easy transition.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about remote learning help was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.