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How Can We Improve eLearning For Underserved Students? NIU Researchers are working to find out.

Spencer Tritt

Schools across Illinois have shifted to eLearning. But making that dramatic change can be very complicated, especially with schools that serve under-resourced minority populations disproportionately affected by the virus.

Students at Youth Connection Charter Schools in Chicago are often from those groups. Some are homeless or young parents, and many work in essential positions that put their health at risk during the COVID-19 crisis.

They’re also expected to continue their education. Laura Ruth Johnson is an associate professor at the Northern Illinois University College of Education and a YCCS board member. She’s leading researchers who are learning how they can help these students.

“YCCS said at the beginning of this, only about 30% of their students were engaged,” she said. “And for many of them, this really is their last chance to complete high school.”

Kristine Webster is one of the doctoral candidates. Her work has been on engaging students with remote learning. That includes creating a 24-hour hotline.

“Families and students can call to get assistance if they need food, medical attention, someplace even to get social-emotional support if they're struggling, if there's some type of mental health crisis,” said Webster.

Webster says it can be difficult to reach students over the phone or through email due to limited technology access. Schools have hand-delivered flyers to some students’ residences. They’re also sending out devices and hotspots to many.

Because eLearning content can be rigid, Webster and her colleagues are also working on making the curriculum more culturally relevant.

Students at YCCS often didn’t succeed in traditional public schools. Webster says she and her fellow researchers hope their specialized e-learning plans can help give students some stability in a chaotic time.