Students using essaypop in a classroom in Los Angeles
Did distance learning work? This question has been studied extensively over the past 15 months, and the results are coming in. It should come as no surprise that students have experienced dramatic learning loss as a result of distance learning during the pandemic. According to The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), “Suspension of face-to-face teaching in schools, affecting some 95% of the world’s student population, has resulted in the largest disruption to education in history. Even in the most favorable conditions, we find that students made little or no progress while learning from home. Learning loss was most pronounced among students from disadvantaged homes.”
While learning loss has occurred across all subjects, it is disciplines such as lab science, studio art, physical education, and academic writing that have suffered the most. This is because these skills, more than others, really require live, in-person interaction to flourish. Essay writing is a particularly personal endeavor that requires a one-to-one connection between student and teacher, nuanced feedback, and real-time, give-and-take, all things that are extraordinarily difficult to execute when attempted remotely. During the shutdown, many teachers drastically reduced their writing instruction; some didn’t even try.
According to our own survey of teachers belonging to the National Council of Teachers of English, short essays were assigned 65% less often during the pandemic, and long-form, multiple-paragraph papers were assigned 85% less often. Understandably, many teachers threw their hands up when faced with the prospect of teaching a skill that more than any other task requires in-person instruction.
As a company that specializes in writing instruction, we take this learning loss very seriously. essaypop was introduced just prior our the nationwide shutdown and was designed as a comprehensive, digital, in-class writing solution for all types of learners, and so we were in the business facilitating and enhancing the in-person teaching and learning experience and making it as effective and rewarding as possible.
When the pandemic hit, we, like so many other learning software companies had to pivot to cater to the demands of distance learning. Because we already had the Hive, a social and interactive feature embedded into the platform which allows teachers, students, and peers to communicate about their writing, we were able to make this transition fairly quickly, spurring an extraordinary growth surge for our product that has been exciting and challenging. But we were under no illusions that this paradigm would last, and we knew that we were participating in a triage-like educational environment that would ultimately be deleterious to student learning. Like everyone else, we did what we could.
We certainly learned a tremendous amount from helping teachers and students cope with learning during the pandemic, and we believe these lessons are going to ultimately make essaypop a better product. After all, some elements of distance and hybrid learning are bound to stay around for a while, and it is useful to know what worked and what didn't during these trying times. But as teachers and children return to their classrooms, our current task is clear; we must cope now with the effects of learning loss the best way we know how - by refining our platform and making it widely available so that writers ranging from emerging to proficient can get back on track and begin the education recovery they so dearly need. We're currently putting all of our creativity and resources towards this objective. As a sort of preemptive self-check, we decided to create a list of items that we must make sure to address to be successful in this regard.
So what does a great writing recovery program look like?
It must be simple for students and teachers to use.
It must be a collaborative and interactive space. Students and teachers must be able to communicate in real-time with one another, and substantive feedback and commentary should be exchanged with ease.
The experience must be interactive and enjoyable.
It must provide students with a repeatable method that fosters a structured yet flexible approach to academic writing.
It must include an in-app help system that students can access independently and intuitively.
It must feature user-friendly scaffolding for emerging writers and English language learners
It must have a library of comprehensive, highly-engaging lessons that teachers can access and teach with ease.
It must account for both synchronous and asynchronous student learning schedules (as hybrid and distance learning will no doubt for many learners).
It must do all of the above effectively in traditional, hybrid, and blended classroom settings.
The essaypop writing platform scores high marks in all these categories
As mentioned, essaypop’s impressive growth during the pandemic can be attributed in part to the fact that it was distance-learning-ready when the health crisis broke out. But essaypop was designed for traditional classrooms, and its popularity is also due to the fact that it is a tool that simply makes the job of students, teachers, and even parents so much easier. Let’s look at the parts of the platform that make it so effective and user-friendly.
Frame Writing: The key to effective writing instruction is an easily taught and repeatable writing method.
The essaypop writing method provides the writer with a flexible and structured approach to academic writing. The color-coded writing frames help students quickly learn and internalize the component elements of the essay. These elements are taught and practiced independently, then integrated into organized compositions.
Meanwhile, students have immediate access to a scaffolded, in-app help system that emphasizes easy-to-understand explanations, models, and scaffolded sentence stems. During distance learning or when students are simply writing when the teacher is not available, it is critical that they be able to independently seek answers and advice on their own when they need it.
The writing composed in the frames is converted into an MLA-formatted document, again in real-time.
The Hive is the social, collaborative, and interactive heart of the essaypop system.
Students are easily grouped together and supported in the Hive. Here students and teachers interact and communicate in real-time, and the teacher is able to cluster students into strategically-organized groups. Additional teachers, tutors, and other guests can easily be invited into this environment.
As individual student work shows up, teachers and peers provide immediate feedback. Pressure is taken off of the teacher as feedback becomes crowdsourced, and students benefit from receiving organic commentary from multiple sources.
The essaypop Lesson Library
Teachers, tutors, and coaches have access to a comprehensive library of engaging, challenging, and age-appropriate writing lessons created by some of the best teachers in the business.
The lessons are quite detailed and cover all major writing domains from argument and persuasion to literary analysis – from exposition and research to narrative storytelling. The amount of time teachers and tutors will save by having access to this grab-and-go content cannot be underestimated.
A word on synchronous versus asynchronous activity during distance learning
In the traditional classroom, learning has always been, more or less, synchronous as students engage in the same tasks and learning at the same time. What teachers and tutors have learned across the nation is that students engaged in distance learning tend to begin their work at different times during the day or evening, depending on their work and sleep schedules. And while this was originally a source of frustration for educators and learners who were accustomed to synchronous practice, many have become accustomed to certain aspects of asynchronicity. As we consider how to address learning loss, we'll need to come to terms with this shift and accept the new normal will in some ways be different than what we used to have in place.
The essaypop Hive is uniquely set up to be “open for business” 24/7 so that teachers and students can interact at any time during the day. Additionally, essaypop’s unique calendar system and asynchronous timers allow teachers to create work windows and to assign timed-writing events that students can initiate when they are ready to begin. But, the fact is, the perfect teaching tool for our times must be highly effective regardless of the setting or model of education being practiced.
According to essaypop founder, Michael Hicks, “Essaypop was not originally designed as a distance-learning tool. It just so happens when the health crisis forced us all to stay at home, essaypop happened to have the features and whizbangs to keep kids learning and writing and staying in contact with their teachers and peers. We grew rapidly beginning in March, primarily because of the interactive capabilities of the Hive. Of course, now we’re now building capacity for both types of learning.”
As the health crisis played out, flexibility and responsiveness were key to the survival of educational organizations across the nation. As we return to in-class education, the learning landscape is much changed, and it's time to start thinking seriously about learning loss and education recovery. The creators of essaypop are proud to have created a comprehensive learning tool that can perform substantively under any condition and in any environment, whether it be a building-based model or an anytime, anywhere approach, and they feel they can contribute meaningfully to this recovery.