Distance Learning: Supporting Education in Uncertain Times

As the pandemic continues, no one knows for certain what the classrooms of 2021 will look like. But robust content offerings and distance learning tools can go a long way toward helping educators feel confident that they are as prepared as possible for a successful new school year.



The COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruption to K–12 education at a magnitude few could have imagined. In a normal year, the New York Times reports, nearly two-thirds of America’s 50 million children are back in class by the third week of August. This back-to- school season, however, many of the nation’s districts are delaying the start of the year, offering a blend of in-person and online learning, or going fully remote to curb COVID-19 community spread.

Administrators, educators, parents, and, of course, students are charting new territory, as they rapidly adapt to a remote learning environment. With distance learning come new challenges, like finding high-quality educational content in an often confusing marketplace; ensuring accessibility of content for students across multiple platforms; or simply asking children to operate at their full academic capacity in a new type of “classroom.” Under these extraordinary circumstances, the potential for disengagement among students is great. It is critical that educators have access to tools and resources that can ease the transition, while making distance learning both fun and engaging.

This fall, publishers, software companies, and content aggregators have found new ways to support school districts with programs and content that can be accessed by children and educators from anywhere. Some companies also stepped up early in the pandemic to offer their programs to schools free of charge or at a reduced cost for a specific period of time. As the pandemic continues, no one knows for certain what the classrooms of 2021 will look like. But robust content offerings and distance learning tools can go a long way toward helping educators feel confident that they are as prepared as possible for a successful new school year.


Mackin has provided educational content for pre-K–12 readers for more than 35 years. A full-service content aggregator, Mackin offers public schools and libraries titles from 18,000 publishers and provides access to over 3.5 million print books and three million digital titles, including ebooks, audiobooks, databases, read-alongs, and videos.

Mackin users access their content through the company’s award-winning digital resource management system, MackinVIA. Now used by over 35,000 schools worldwide, MackinVIA is an open system that integrates with a school’s SIS or LMS. Through this free platform, schools, districts, and libraries with an account can purchase and provide digital content to unlimited numbers of students.

In the earliest days of COVID-19, Mackin recognized that educators were caught off-guard by the speed with which the pandemic took hold and needed vetted content and resources that would enable them to continue the school year remotely. Together with its publisher partners, Mackin responded to the need by building the Distance Learning Essentials solution, which provided 10,000 free ebooks, audiobooks, and databases, along with many other tools. The special program was made available free of charge in April 2020, and it continues through this October.

“Educators needed a solution that could quickly provide digital content with no investment.”
Randal Heise, co-owner

“Educators needed a digital solution quickly, but there was very little out there that would provide all of the content Mackin offers,” says Randal Heise, co-owner of Mackin. “We pride ourselves on the fact that we answered the call. We didn’t do it alone, though; our publisher partners felt the same way and were looking for ways to help.”

The need for this kind of offering for educators and librarians—many of whom were new to remote instruction—was strong. “We went from averaging hundreds of new account signups per week for MackinVIA before COVID-19, to several thousand per day during the first week of the free ebook offer,” Heise says.

With the fall school term starting, Mackin will be offering over 150,000 current and popular digital titles and databases, significantly discounted for schools and libraries whose budgets have been impacted by COVID-19. Its Back to School Essentials solution will also include access to additional free publisher content and nearly 1,000 free Mackin Classics ebooks for K–12 readers on MackinVIA. Additionally, MackinVIA has an Administrator Management feature that enables school administrators to track usage patterns and fine-tune the selection of digital content offered to students. The company has also highlighted titles on Mackin.com that will help children understand and cope with the pandemic.

And finally, Mackin is now featuring additional works by authors from underrepresented groups that deal with issues of race and social justice. A new monthly webinar series, Lifting Voices, also promotes renowned and underrepresented authors and publishers of color, to help bring balance to school and library literature offerings.



Children’s publisher Capstone offers K–12 digital learning content and educational resources in support of literacy and has long supported schools with content for struggling or reluctant readers. The company’s mission has acquired a new urgency during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Educators are under an immense amount of pressure, and the stakes are very high right now,” says Amy Cox, associate vice president of marketing at Capstone. “The thing schools are looking for from partner companies is the ability to help with big, systemic problems. That’s the attitude we take at Capstone, asking, “How can we help?”

“For teachers today, the resources have to be easy to access."
 Angie Kalthoff, product manager of curriculum and instruction

Capstone supported educators and schools in the early days of COVID-19 by offering free access to online learning resources for a limited period of time. Its PebbleGo digital learning database, for example, was offered at no cost from March to the end of June. In that period, it was used more than three million times. At the same time, it also offered free access to Capstone Interactive, its dynamic ebook platform that lets users browse, bundled ebook titles by grade level, and add them to their user library.

The PebbleGo database compartmentalizes content into five subject areas for grades K–3, including Animals, Biographies, Health, Science, and Social Studies. Information is presented via simple articles, with a read-aloud audio button available for English and Spanish, so young students can hear correct pronunciation or translations. Activities, interactive games, printable worksheets, and lab-style experiments accompany the various articles within PebbleGo, for a more immersive learning experience.

For students in grades 3–5, PebbleGo Next offers a deeper dive into subject matter, with more challenging vocabulary, longer articles, and grade-appropriate activities. Activities within the States section, for example, ask students to fill in a detailed map of the state of Maryland and answer critical thinking questions about the state’s geographical location. All content within PebbleGo and PebbleGo Next is Section 508 and WCAG compliant, for individuals with disabilities.

For ease of access, PebbleGo users are not required to enter a log-in, and students can instead access the program directly through a pre-populated icon on their school-issued device. PebbleGo’s simple, no-fuss, and device-agnostic interface has made the program popular with educators. To date, nearly 25 percent of elementary schools nationwide subscribe to PebbleGo.

Capstone has also built a brand-new companion offering for teachers: Capstone Connect, a search engine within the PebbleGo site interface. Teachers can use its simple search functionality to find Capstone content by specific state or national standards, grade level, and subject matter. For example, a search for “Oregon standards,” “science,” and “first grade” would yield a list of curated, standards-approved, and grade-appropriate science content from PebbleGo and from Capstone’s extensive catalog of read-aloud ebooks.

Each artifact on the results list can be previewed, and teachers can share the relevant links with students in their preferred learning management system by using a simple Copy Link feature. Also included in Capstone Connect are teacher support materials for various titles, and over 1,000 lesson plans.

“For teachers doing distance learning, there are so many resources out there, but Capstone Connect helps to narrow it down and saves them time,” says Kalthoff. “We’ve made sure it’s all appropriate, enjoyable, and easy to find.”



In 2013, a large library system approached READsquared to build a software solution that could map its existing book catalogs and offer patrons a more interactive digital reading experience through personalized recommendations. With that, the concept for READsquared’s current software offering was born.

Today, READsquared’s platform is used by public library systems in a dozen states and in school districts around the country. The company’s customer base has grown rapidly since the start of the pandemic, particularly in the education sector as demand for digital learning solutions increased. READsquared’s online reading program is designed to encourage students to practice reading and can be customized to complement school curricula. Features like a leaderboard and simple drag-and-drop functionality make the program easy to use.

The READsquared software allows teachers and librarians to create goal-based reading and activity programs that support lesson plans for K–12 readers. Educators assign virtual activities for students, like “read 20 minutes every day,” “recommend a book to a friend,” or “write a book report.” Students log their activities within the program and are awarded badges on completion of each one. They track their progress on a personal dashboard, giving them the satisfaction of seeing their own accomplishments accumulate.

READsquared also encourages students to expand their personal reading interests. Readers can view age-appropriate book lists uploaded by their teachers and can create their own book lists based on individual preferences. Each book title links to the relevant Download or Place Hold button in their library catalog, where students can see availability and immediately access or reserve a book.

The user experience of READsquared is designed to reinforce good reading habits and encourage the joy of reading. In this age of distance learning, the program’s easy-to-use features offer teachers and librarians new ways to support and motivate young readers.



During the COVID-19 pandemic, many school districts have been left to chart their own paths, often with reduced budgets, and the playing field from one school to another is anything but level. The product offerings described here give robust choices to school districts as they determine how best to use their resources and keep students engaged during this period of uncertainty.



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