By Kevin EatonFinancial education faces a unique challenge in the early days of 2021.
Just as COVID-19 foreclosed the classroom visits that many bankers cherish as financial educators, Americans saw an even bigger gap in financial knowledge.
“With millions of Americans facing economic uncertainty amid the ongoing pandemic, the need for financial knowledge has never been greater,” says ABA Foundation Executive Director Corey Carlisle.
And while most Americans have now become accustomed to video-conferencing and, in the case of students, online learning, attention spans are short, and expectations for excellence have risen. It’s not enough just to show up on a video screen. Every video-conference host is now also the production designer, director and star of their own mini-movie. Successfully teaching financial education virtually takes planning and preparation.
Before the pandemic, Junior Achievement had some resources for teaching remotely, allowing the organization to lean on that expertise when schools went to virtual and hybrid models. “I think there is a real anxiety to sitting down and hitting record. There’s that fear of ‘What am I going to look like on screen?’ and ‘I didn’t say what I wanted to say,’” says Laura Goodman, Junior Achievement’s VP for volunteer engagement. “What that means is JA developing scripts, templates and talking points, so that people are comfortable and they know they can actually talk about this for two to three minutes by answering these questions.”
In pivoting to virtual education, JA launched more self-guided content. Where previously many of the organization’s offices had what JA calls “capstone facilities,” where students would come on-site and run a simulated city or take on a persona to learn how to pay bills based on the money they make, with remote learning, those curricula were adapted into self-guided adventures.
“We have started to open up many new market lines for us, which is very exciting,” says Goodman. “We’ve launched JA Connect Learning Pathways, which is designed for middle and high school students full of self-guided content based on working career readiness. Our in-person competitions have now gone virtual.”
The organization in October 2020 announced the launch of JA Finance Park Advanced. The program is designed to help high school students better understand how to manage money by letting them select simulated life scenarios and challenging them to successfully manage their finances.
“At Junior Achievement, we think of financial literacy as ‘the other literacy,’” Junior Achievement USA President and CEO Jack Kosakowski says. “Like the need to read, we also need to understand how to manage money. We are faced with financial decisions every day, yet very few of us are exposed to financial literacy programs in school. JA Finance Park Advanced will help countless young people have more successful futures because they will have increased financial literacy and capability.”
Other organizations have capitalized on pre-existing suites for online financial education. Software firm Banzai has worked with several banks to make its financial education program available to students. Through partnerships with banks like Gate City Bank in Fargo, North Dakota, and Pinnacle Bank, based in Fort Worth, Texas, the company has been able to provide its online, remote-friendly curriculum available for free to local communities. Banzai’s course work can be completed on any internet-enabled computer or mobile device, and teachers are able to monitor student progress remotely and has been used by more than 60,000 teachers nationwide.
The popularity of educational video-conferences for teaching can mean being able to reach an even larger audience or an audience that may not be physically close. “By going virtual, we’re appealing to a whole new group of volunteers, people who might not have been able to do the in person piece,” says Goodman. “We are now able to offer JA to areas where we might not have had a physical office or might not have had a large volunteer pool. By going virtual, we can now beam somebody in no matter where they live or work.”
This isn’t just an extension of geographic reach—it’s an extension of social reach, too. “We can reach kids who are maybe looking for extra content and parents or caring adults who can find us,” adds Goodman. “Kids who may have had JA during the day in school can now extend their JA learning, and kinds who never had JA can now find our self-guided content and be a part of our virtual competition. I think it’s really going to blow the lid of the impact that we’re able to make.”
Making a good impression
The first step to prepare for teaching virtually is asking questions. Knowing the technical capabilities of the virtual classroom is key. Which video-conferencing tool will be used? Will a login need to be created? Does software need to be downloaded in advance? Will video or audio files be seen and heard on the students’ end? What is the best way to distribute handouts to students—before, during or after the session?
“Virtual audiences are so much more work than in-person audiences,” says online education coach Kate Zabrinskie. “People are doing everything under the sun. I had a class the other day that I was teaching and I had six adults and seven kids that were participating in this class—not because the children were invited, but because some of the people were overseas, some of the people had kids at home because school was canceled, so they were trying to do home school . . . so you are really having to work a lot harder in a virtual environment.”
When it comes to delivering lessons that incorporate an assignment, Banzai advises making sure each assignment has all the info students need to complete it successfully—including examples, due dates and grading criteria, just in case they log in after hours.
The ABA Foundation offers resources and handouts to assist online teaching and provides information to make the process go as smoothly as possible. For example, the foundation’s Get Smart About Credit educational campaign for teens and young adults enables bank participants to use the Foundation’s resources to lead lessons for students in their community on financial topics, including banking careers, budgeting, credit scores, identity theft and paying for college.
The Foundation’s teaching resources reminds future online educators that most schools and organizations have strict guidelines regarding the use of technology when interacting with youth. Volunteers may find that some schools may block access to all but one such tool. “Even though the preferred tool may not be the one you have experience using, you should always use the one recommended or required by the presentation host,” says the Foundation. “If you are unfamiliar with the tool, ask to conduct a practice session in advance so you can become more familiar with it.”
One of the biggest challenges of presenting to students from a distance is the lack of normal face-to-face interaction—and students may be distracted by goings-on in their home or personal devices. Discuss the pros and cons of asking students to turn on their video in advance with the presentation host. Be aware that many schools make this optional for students. If students don’t show their video, don’t take it personally, the Foundation says.
To engage younger students, Banzai recommends instructors prepare icebreaker questions, show-and-tell and games, such as a video scavenger hunt or virtual whiteboard Pictionary. The company reminds volunteer educators to include appropriate personal anecdotes and videos sprinkled throughout interactions—subject to the school’s policies and practices, of course.
Zabriskie recommends making sure the presenter’s environment is conducive to teaching. “You want to think about, ‘What is the message and is there anything that I’m showing that is possibly detracting from the message that I’m trying to convey?’”
Presenters eager to ensure their Zoom studios are up to snuff can learn from the Twitter account @ratemyskyperoom, which became popular for its comments on the rooms TV personalities and commentators use for media appearances—with the titles of books on the shelf, types of art hanging on the wall, lighting and camera angles all ripe for comment. “Love the lighting. Art. Guitar. Pillows. There’s even a lit plant. 10/10.” (for actor Regé-Jean Page) and “One lonely bookend and a large, sad wall. We’ve seen better hostage videos. 2/10” (for Harvard economist Jason Furman) are the types of comments that can come from a well-thought-out or poorly done video setup.
Ultimately, don’t allow your location to become a distraction. “If the dog shows up, just roll with it,” says Zabriskie. “It happens; we’re working in a weird world right now.”
Kevin Eaton is associate editor at the ABA Banking Journal.