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Keep remote students connected through virtual learning experiences

By Pam Lloyd
April 5, 2017
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Most of us can probably remember facing a few challenges in middle and high school — both academic and social. But can you imagine how it would be if you lived in a remote, rural location, hundreds of miles away from the nearest student your age? Or how difficult it would be to stay at grade level if the instruction offered in your geographic area were severely limited?

This is the reality for students in the Kodiak Island Borough School District (KIBSD). The district includes Kodiak Island — the second largest island in the United States — and a small strip of coastline on the western part of the Alaska Peninsula. It serves 2,500 students in 13 schools, including seven rural schools, spread across an area nearly the same size as the entire state of Hawaii.  

Given the great distances between its schools, it’s not uncommon for a school to serve only one child in a given age range. This means that students might not have the opportunity to connect with his or her peers, which greatly influences motivation to attend class and engage in learning.

This was not acceptable to district leaders. “No matter how big or small your school is or whether it is urban, rural or remote, there is a basic need for kids to engage and connect,” said Stewart McDonald, KIBSD’s superintendent. “Our vision for education in the 21st century is a blended digital approach that connects students across the globe.”

This is how KIBSD did just that.

Making connections

After securing a grant to partner with other Alaskan districts, KIBSD tasked AKTEACH, its statewide K-12 home and correspondence school, with expanding its digital collaboration to connect communities across the state to deliver high-quality content.

“The reality is that in many locations throughout Alaska, providing a highly qualified classroom teacher in all content areas isn’t realistic,” says Phillip Johnson, director of AKTEACH and KIBSD’s Digital Teaching Initiative. “So we are stepping in with our virtual learning alternative. Our goal is to provide authentic, rigorous, synchronous and blended course offerings to students throughout the state of Alaska and, in doing so, genuinely bridge geographic barriers.”

In many rural areas, lack of internet access is a major barrier. KIBSD decided to guarantee that all of its students could connect to each other, their lessons, and all the tools and information the web has to offer via broadband connectivity through satellite to its rural schools and terrestrial connection to its urban schools. They use SchoolAccess, which also manages the district’s network. By connecting the entire school district to high-speed internet, it opens up access to video conferencing tools that require high bandwidth speeds and other digital tools like iPads.

Now all students in the district, regardless of location, have access to the same high-quality instruction. For example, many of Kodiak’s rural students receive Algebra I instruction from an excellent math teacher who happens to be based at Kodiak High School, while others receive Geometry and Algebra II from teachers based at Chiniak School.

What’s more, students who would have had to attend school alone because they are the only high school student in a district can now connect to other students and form peer-to-peer relationships. This “culture of connectedness” has helped build relationships, expanded students’ worldviews and facilitated the learning process.

Instant challenges

Of course, virtual collaboration can also create its own barrier. Initially, students are often reluctant to “broadcast themselves to the world.” To overcome this reluctance, AKTEACH has been facilitating “instant challenges” and content sharing.

These virtual events are intended to give students opportunities to develop collaboration skills in an environment that is engaging, challenging and safe. So far the results have been promising. Students who in the past wouldn’t engage are now willing and able to interact via digital tools. And these new collaborative capabilities are preparing them to enter a workforce that often uses videoconferencing to connect coworkers across continents.

Instant challenges are STEM-based activities that give students the chance to collaborate with other students. Once the challenge begins, students form teams and receive instructions and materials to complete a task as a group. For example, in the AKTEACH paper airplane instant challenge, 166 students statewide had an hour and a list of materials to create a plane that flies within their team. At the end, team members shared their plane and explained what they did to the entire group, which helps them with their presentation skills. It also encourages learning from other students.  

Content sharing

Content sharing is a virtual event that connects multiple districts with a teacher or expert.

During one content-sharing session, Kodiak partnered with Alaska’s SeaLife Center, located in Seward, on a virtual squid dissection lesson. KIBSD scheduled the event with the SeaLife Center and invited partnering districts to participate. Johnson and his team purchased squid and sent them across the state to districts that signed up.

In the end, AKTEACH facilitated connectivity among six partnering schools. Through digital learning and videoconferencing, 102 students statewide were able to participate in a synchronous dissection without the need for any student to make the trek to Seward.

These synchronous events are giving kids across the state the opportunity to engage virtually with content in ways they might never have imagined before. “At this point, we knew we had something unique,” Johnson says. “Students were completely engaged in the dissection, yet they didn’t have to leave their rural community to experience the opportunity.”
The beauty of virtual learning is that students are not even limited to collaborative experiences within the state of Alaska. Kodiak’s vision is to continue to expand this program outward, and AKTEACH is starting to connect with schools and organizations across the country. If you are interested in becoming a partner districts, you just need access to a videoconferencing service, an internet connection and a laptop.

ISTE member Pam Lloyd, Ph.D., believes that access to information is fundamental to providing quality education for students. She has served as a teacher, district technology coordinator and is currently senior director at GCI SchoolAccess. She has also been a college instructor on the use of educational technology and literacy and co-published The 1:1 Guide Book for Leaders.

This is an updated version of a post that originally posted on Feb. 9, 2016.

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