When Nettie Johnson fired up her first online class for her fifth graders in Topeka, Kansas last March, she knew they were flying by the seat of their pants. She had her laptop and Wi-Fi “but it was really difficult because if I was sharing my screen, I couldn’t really see the kids. So it was hard to interact or see if they were engaged.”
Her fellow teachers commiserated. “We talked about Zoom problems and the lack of being able to see the kids,” Johnson recalls. “But we didn’t really talk about how to fix this.”
That challenge—how to connect with students—quickly became one of the most frustrating aspects of teaching online for most teachers.
Big, audacious problems often seem ripe for big complex solutions. Yet many fields have found relief in low-cost remedies that may not solve the underlying problem but still make a huge difference: Placing newborns on their backs cuts sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by half. In Africa, widespread use of bed nets treated with insecticide has dramatically reduced the risk of malaria. Worldwide, wearing a face mask, combined with other measures such as social distancing, slows the spread of the coronavirus.
And improving how teachers interact with students in online learning? One simple remedy seems, well, almost too simple.
Give teachers two screens.
A former student of another Topeka teacher offered to send a few teachers a second monitor and the right cord to connect to their computers. “It was a game-changer,” Johnson recalls. “It brought a little piece of the classroom onto the screen. Their smiles! I could see their faces on the larger monitor and interact through the laptop. It brought some of the ‘personal’ back into teaching,” she says.
Now, that former student-turned-benefactor, Matt Lerner, is running an ambitious effort to provide a second screen to as many public school educators as possible. Called Two Screens for Teachers, the effort has already delivered almost 22,000 screens to public school K-12 teachers across the U.S. since September. The nonprofit has raised $3.25 million to pay for them. And it has a waiting list of 180,000 teachers who could use a second screen to connect to their classes. (U.S. public K-12 teachers can request one here.)
“Having a second monitor is the number one thing on the must-have list,” says Jessica Valera, a district instructional technology coordinator at San Mateo Union High School District in California, who spent years as a high school biology teacher. Everything else, she says, is a “nice to have.”
Prior to the pandemic, many people who worked extensively with technology often took multiple screens for granted. Lerner, a long-time entrepreneur based in Seattle, says he’s been using two or three screens ever since leaving college. When a friend, Carlos, mentioned that he had made a huge difference in a teacher’s life just by buying her a second monitor, Lerner’s jaw dropped.
He started asking teachers he knew in Seattle about their work setups. “I interviewed about 20 teachers,” Lerner says. “Two of the younger ones had a second monitor. No one else had thought about getting one.” The teachers had plenty of questions for him: What would they have to buy? Wouldn’t it be expensive?
The answers were shockingly simple: A new screen costs about $115. The only other thing most teachers need is the right cable to connect it to their computers. That was it.
Some tech-oriented teachers and administrators figured out the two-screen solution immediately. “Honestly, I’m so nerdy that just as our school went virtual in March, I ordered all teachers a second 27-inch monitor for home use,” says Scott Holcomb, director of technology at Crosstown High in Memphis, Tenn. “Some were like, ‘Ughhh, why? I have no need. I have no room.’ But lo and behold!”
Rob McHugh, who teaches math at San Mateo Union High School and previously worked as a technology product manager, juggles three screens. One large monitor lets him divide the screen between his students and the current work; a laptop keeps all his “teacher tools,” from attendance trackers to lesson plans, agendas and so on, handy. And he uses a tablet logged into Zoom as a student so he can see what his students are seeing.
Pro tip: McHugh has lined up his second monitor physically above his laptop to keep his big picture view of his students eye-level—that way, they feel he’s looking straight at them. “I feel like this gives me control over what the students see and yet it’s not just me FaceTiming,” he adds.
Researchers from the University of Washington’s College of Education recently reported that teachers who began using a second monitor from Two Screens felt “nearly twice as connected” to their students, based on the results of a survey of over 3,800 teachers. Students “appreciated not having to wait for me to move the gallery out of my way or have to tell me that they couldn’t see something because I was off the screen and didn’t know,” wrote one teacher. “It keeps me better organized with less downtime, so it’s a better experience for the students,” another said.
To get free screens to teachers, Lerner and a former colleague, Mike Mathieu, gathered a team of friends, relatives and other acquaintances. Engineers built a program to source and buy the lowest priced new screens and the right cables. They also built a simple signup flow in which teachers could pick what kind of external monitor display port is supported by their computers.
Shipping is handled by the manufacturers or by Amazon. (Lerner says the logistics of cleaning and shipping older monitors was daunting). Other Two Screen team members are raising money or applying for grants. Lerner’s father won a couple of community grants in Kansas to fund monitors for teachers there. Mathieu covers other expenses (including paying a modest support team), ensuring that any donations to the organization goes straight to pay the monitor bill.
Demand keeps growing, and Lerner is trying to deliver monitors within a month. That’s increasingly a tall order: Two Screens has amassed 180,000 requests, which translates into needing another $20 million. The nonprofit only fulfills requests from teachers with a school address from U.S. public K-12 schools. It has partnered with DonorsChoose to broaden its fundraising efforts, but it needs every donation it can get. (You can donate here.)
“As a techie, I understood the productivity improvements of using multiple screens,” Lerner says. “What I didn’t get was the power of the human connection.”