October 22, 2021

Education conference to help bridge digital gap

Logo provided by SUNY Cortland

Nance Wilson had planned a sabbatical this year away from college classrooms to travel to school districts and work with teachers in the field.

Then the coronavirus pandemic spread to the United States, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo to close schools in the spring and send students home to continue their education online.

Wilson, a professor and chairwoman of the SUNY Cortland literacy department, saw the shortfalls in remote education, and an idea began to form to address the problems suddenly confronting teachers, students and families across the nation and beyond.

The result is an online teaching conference, Beyond the App, which began Thursday and continues through Saturday. She developed the conference and is coordinating it with a former colleague at SUNY Cortland.

Egypt’s minister of education and technology, Tarek Shawki, will welcome attendees with a speech today.

Beyond the App is geared for students in third through ninth grades, but the principles are applicable for all grade levels, Wilson said Thursday.

More than 400 educators from around the world are participating in the event co-hosted by SUNY Cortland and the Graduate School of Education at American University in Cairo in Egypt, where former SUNY Cortland Professor Thomas DeVere Wolsey works.

More than 50 sessions are being offered by international experts from Egypt, the United States and Mauritius. The conference will also raise money for under-resourced Egyptian and Guatemalan libraries.

The conference is showing educators how to adjust their teaching style to best work with students online, Wilson said, noting teachers have been trained to work face to face and technology has traditionally been an enhancement.

“Now technology is the delivery tool,” she said. “How does that context change how they teach? The truth is, it changes everything.”

“I learned so much,” said Christine Bailey, a teacher at George F. Johnson Elementary School in Endicott. “I was amazed to see how many teachers they had from around the world. I wanted to get resources and strategies that would engage and support all of my learners.”

About 360 people had registered for the conference by 4 a.m. Thursday, when Wilson woke up. It increased to 380 by 10:30 a.m. and she expects it to peak above 400 and includes participants from Ghana, Kenya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

Teaching reading and writing online is very different from teaching in a classroom, and educators have to adjust their styles, Wilson said.

The conference illustrates the challenges and outlines ways to make the process more successful.

Bailey, who received her bachelor’s degree in education in 2017 from SUNY Cortland and is working toward a master’s degree in literacy education at the college, said she works to engage her students.

“A lot of virtual learning is thinking outside of the box, trying to find new ways to get the students’ attention,” she said, noting she dresses in silly costumes, leads the class in dance parties and does sit-ups.

The topics of the conference include motivating students, online research, fostering comprehension and critical thinking, encouraging interaction among students, how to conduct teacher conferences online and techniques for getting kids involved in their education from afar.

“We learn more when we interact more with others, when we get to share and be hands on,” Wilson said.