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Online learning helps schools overcome distance, weather, war and pandemics

By Jennifer Snelling
June 14, 2017
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ISTE members are familiar with online learning. After all, various combinations of online learning, mobile learning and traditional classroom learning – known as blended learning – are found in almost every school these days, if not every classroom.

Whether it involves using Khan Academy to explain a mathematical concept while the teacher walks around offering individual support, having a class work on Starfall for online reading instruction while small groups work directly with the teacher, or sharing a recorded lesson with athletes who will miss class for the big game, online learning has become commonplace.

There are many reasons online learning has become so integrated into our classrooms. In one study, 59 percent of teachers who use blended learning say their students are more motivated to learn, and 32 percent say they take more ownership of their own learning. Three in four districts that implement blended learning cite increased student engagement as their primary goal.

Some districts employ online learning as a way to serve students who would otherwise not be able to attend school. In rural areas, in schools where resources are scarce, in the event of weather-related school closures, and even during war when it’s unsafe for students to attend school, these districts use online learning to make the impossible, possible. 

It’s a matter of leveraging the nimble nature of online learning to overcome obstacles, rather than let learning languish.

Getting creative to solve a problem

In rural east Texas 10 years ago, Arp Independent School District had 10 Apple 2E computers. The district wanted to update the computers and get online access, but was unable to get a contractor from Houston or Dallas to install the needed underground infrastructure. The district formed a consortium with 27 other rural districts, SUPERNet, and applied for a $250,000 grant to update its infrastructure. Now Arp has more than 1,500 devices and high bandwidth for a population of just more than 800 students.

“We didn’t accept the fact that we were small, poor and insignificant,” says Arp’s IT Director Joy Rousseau.

The innovation has allowed for collaboration across districts, including a Virtual High School that allows students from within the consortium access to a wider variety of classes, including Spanish, sign language, psychology, business management courses and many AP courses. All of this became possible because Rousseau and the district made a decision to support online learning.

In a small district, Rousseau says, you only have one English teacher who may teach English I, II, III and IV. If there isn’t room for a student in that class, the student is out of luck. Or the student has to take that class instead of taking an elective that may only be offered once.

Rousseau noticed that much of teaching effort was being wasted because the kids weren’t ready to learn what was being taught. In this part of Texas, being able to remediate or accelerate the lesson was important. Rousseau started putting her lessons online so that kids could review the lesson or skip ahead to the next one at their own pace. Eventually, she got everyone to do the same.

And there are other benefits. Athletes who must skip classes for games can easily find the missed lecture online. Parents don’t have to call a friend to ask for the week’s spelling words or an assignment because it all lives online. If a student needs help with math homework, it’s there, too, for review by the students as well as the parents.

Of course, getting an entire course prepped for online access requires some work. Rousseau advises teachers to keep it short, 3- to 4-minute videos on a single concept. Show the steps, add the resources and provide lots of hands-on practice. While students watch, walk around and help address any issues that arise.

Also, keep in mind that the teacher doesn’t have to be the only source of information. Ask students to add resources they find, incorporate feedback from students and update regularly. Much like students, teachers and administrators should expect to keep growing when it comes to technology.

“There is no comfort zone in technology. It is truly lifelong learning. Rural schools have an awful time getting outside their norm,” says Rousseau. “But if you have a team to help you negotiate change, you’re not standing at the bottom of the mountain all by yourself.”

Outsmarting the weather

This year was a particularly harsh winter in much of the country – just the kind of challenge that gets people to problem-solve creatively. That’s what happened three years ago when Pascack Hills Valley Regional High School District in Montvale, New Jersey, decided it was time to give virtual school a try.

In February 2014, a snowstorm blanketed New Jersey and the district directed its 2,000 students to log on to their laptops and receive instruction online. While the state education department did not count it as one of the official 180 instruction days because state law requires school facilities to be open, the district considered the experiment worth repeating.

While working on legislation that would count virtual school days as official instruction days, Pascack practiced by holding two more virtual school days, for a total of three. The district opened the school buildings on a non-inclement weather day, but gave teachers and students the option of coming in or working from home. Most of the students stayed home, but in total the attendance was 97 percent, better than a normal school day.

The schools operated the schedule as it would on a regular day. Teachers were given the option of running a videoconference at the scheduled time or giving kids an assignment to do from home on their own time. Physical education teachers sent kids outside to shovel snow and measure their heart rate. Social studies teachers used the time to have a live debate on student rights in China.

If the district wants the board to count the virtual days as part of their 180 required days, the district will have to prove it can provide meaningful instruction outside the confines of the brick-and-mortar school.

“It was a mix of innovative and tradi-tional,” says Barry Bachenheimer, curriculum director for the district and an ISTE  member. “One thing that was helpful is that teachers were already using these skills in the classroom, so they didn’t have to do much different for the virtual day.”

For the time being, Pascack has no more virtual days planned unless New Jersey changes the law to count them as part of the 180-day requirement. For districts considering virtual days as a way to avoid missed school due to weather, Bachenheimer has some advice. First, check with your Legislature to find out what the law is. If you already have permission, you will want to set up your plan of action and institute a trial run first. This can even be done on a regular school day. Use devices in the classroom and run the day as if the students were at home.

He suggests “blizzard bags” with resources and supplies students might need if they’re unable to attend school the next day. Every student in the Pascack district is issued a MacBook Air and 99 percent of the district’s students have internet access at home, important to the success of such a project.

The state’s requirement that the building be open during virtual days is to accommodate the 1 percent without access. Going forward, says Bachenheimer, the district would consider loaning students WiFi dongles to enable cell services on their school-issued computers. The district also didn’t have to contend with power outages on any of its virtual days. If it had, says Bachenheimer, students would have been allowed extra time to complete learning activities.

Students may rather be sledding and building snowmen, but when the snow days start to pile up and the school year is extended into mid-summer, virtual school starts to seem like a good opportunity. Virtual days could also come in handy when there’s an outbreak of illness at the school or an issue with a building.

“I see it as a continuum,” Bachenheimer told the NJ Spotlight. “I wouldn’t want it all the time, but when there is an extenuating circumstance like this, it can really work.”

In times of war

A few years ago when the U.S. was preparing to strike and remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, the students at International College in Beirut, Lebanon, were told it was unsafe to attend school and to participate from home through the school’s learning management system, Moodle, instead.

ISTE member Mahmud Shihab, head of educational technology at International College in Beirut, says staff were prepared for the disruption because school had been called off before due to unsafe conditions. During the Arab Spring, there were widespread demonstrations and the government disconnected the internet for the whole country, he says. Many international schools in the Middle East, including International College, started hosting their learning management systems in the cloud with a domain name that was not country related so they would have access no matter where they were.

“Since 2010, everyone is on Moodle because we don’t know when the disruption can happen,” says Shihab. “It’s an emergency plan, but we use it on a daily basis so we are always ready.”

The school holds regular practice days, known as “fire drills,” where the kids stay at home and the teachers come to school. Teachers are also required to have their class information on Moodle. The school provides laptops for teachers, and all the students and parents at the International College have smartphones and connectivity at home. Provided there is electricity and an internet connection, they will have access.

“Sometimes in war, you forget about learning, the first thing you think about is surviving,” says Shihab. “I’m all for readiness, but sometimes it’s an issue of survival.”

The potential applications abound

Marissa Young, fourth grade teacher at Pontiac Elementary School in South Carolina and winner of ISTE’s Emerging Leader Award in 2016, points out that online learning can be a real benefit to homebound students or those who are traveling extensively during the school year.

Young cites one student from a military family who had to miss a week of school. She connected with him through Google Docs so he could access his station work and she could see his assessments and provide feedback. When he came back, he was right where everyone else was.

Like Rousseau, Young warns that teachers have to be prepared to do bulk planning upfront. She recommends find a buddy to do it with you or splitting it with a team of other teachers.

Young especially appreciates the differentiation that online learning provides. “Those high-flyers may need a project like making a video to teach another student,” she says.

There is so much available with technology, she says, the problem is not what is possible, it’s making sure they have access. “Across the nation and globally, that’s the piece we have to figure out – how to make this possible for everyone,” she says. “As long as you have access to a device and have a connection, technology can definitely transform.”

Online learning is a spectrum and there are many different ways to make it effective. The applications are as numerous as the students who use them and, while we can all learn from each other, it’s best not to try to replicate exactly what another school is doing.

The place to start, says ISTE member Michele Eaton, director of virtual and blended learning at MSD of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, is to start with the learning objective.

“Teachers need to think about what role a student should have in a classroom, the student agency, what it is students should be autonomous over. How does that change the role of the teacher?” she says. “At that point, find or create the online content to achieve those goals.”

It’s especially important that the curriculum director and the technology director have mutual respect and a good working relationship.

“There’s this fear that curriculum people have with nerdy technology people and tech people don’t understand the curriculum vocabulary,” she says. “More than a device, technology is a means to an end to a learning objective that prepares kids for whatever is to come.”

In these cases, technology can ensure students have access to school, no matter the situation.

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Jennifer Snelling is a freelancer who writes for a variety of publications and institutions, including the University of Oregon. As a mother to two school-aged children, she’s a frequent classroom volunteer and is active in Oregon schools.