NMCC English instructor Jennifer Graham, Ph.D., left, and EMCC instructor Lynne Nelson Manion, Ph.D., display their online learning survival guide for students. The authors hosted a free webinar for parents of learners on April 22 to offer insights and tips to successfully complete this semester from home. Credit: Courtesy of Northern Maine Commu | Star-Herald

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PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When Maine community college instructors Jennifer Graham and Lynne Nelson Manion began researching online student retention efforts, neither had any idea their findings would become useful to parents and students during a nationwide pandemic.

But that is exactly what happened when schools across Maine began switching to online learning in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Graham, an English and communications instructor at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, and her former colleague Manion, who now teaches for Eastern Maine Community College’s social sciences program, recently held an online webinar designed for parents who are balancing their children’s school work with much-needed family time and their own work responsibilities.

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Graham and Manion shared tips Wednesday from their soon-to-be published guidebook, “Online Survival Guide: Navigating the Terrain of Online Education.”

Although they wrote the book with college students in mind, the instructors said they have realized the tips can be useful to parents who are overseeing their children’s schoolwork as well.

“When this pandemic began, we realized that students weren’t the only ones who have felt overwhelmed. Parents are also in a bind because a lot of them have never experienced online education,” Graham said. “With the timing of the book’s publication, we thought we could really be helping parents of K-12 and college students.”

The webinar covered four basic areas of online learning: expectations, time management, motivation and communication.

Both the webinar and book draw upon three years of research that Graham and Manion conducted on student retention in online learning environments. The instructors have a combined 30 years of experience with online teaching.

Graham suggested to parents that they set realistic expectations for themselves as facilitators of their children’s learning.

For example, instead of trying to completely fill the role as teacher, they should see themselves more like a coach — someone who advocates for and encourages their children’s success. With online learning being new for many people, she noted, parents should not judge themselves too harshly.

“This is an important time to not be too hard on yourselves,” Graham said. “If school feels like it’s over after two or three hours each day, that’s okay. Involve your children in setting up expectations that are the most realistic for them.”

Despite the quick, unexpected changes in parents’ and students’ schedules, the stay-at-home situation can give parents opportunities to teach children about time management skills. Setting realistic daily routines and schedules can provide students a greater balance of school and home life, the instructors said.

“It might be helpful to tell your kids to treat school like it’s a job. Just like with a job, not everyone feels like going to work every day even though we have to,” Graham said. “Involve your family in weekly planning so that there isn’t this constant question of ‘What are we going to do today?’”

With students now unable to interact with fellow classmates and teachers in person, many could be struggling to stay motivated about coursework. Manion recommended that parents find creative ways to help their children learn while also having fun and pursuing their interests.

“They can write a letter to someone in isolation to work on their English skills. They can create a written or video diary of what they’re going through,” Manion said. “One parent told me that they and their child go for a walk outside each day to get some exercise.”

If parents feel overwhelmed with their new responsibilities or want to share feedback about their children’s progress and challenges, Manion suggested they establish regular communication with their children’s teachers.

High school students can use distance learning as an opportunity to reach out to teachers if they are struggling with certain subjects, a skill they will need in college.

Keeping in touch with fellow parents is also important for parents who no longer are involved with extracurricular activities at their children’s schools.

“We can’t see each other in person anymore, but with social media we can still stay connected,” Manion said. “In these times we need to remember to take care of ourselves first and not become too overwhelmed.”

Graham and Manion encouraged parents to reach out to them through the email address onlinegurus19@gmail.com with questions about online learning and to check out resources, including printable PDF tip sheets and short videos, on the website for their book publisher, Kendell Hunt.

Watch: Nirav Shah thanks everyday Mainers for staying inside

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