The why, the what, and the how
The COVID-19 pandemic called teachers and leaders to do something that has never been done before on this grand a scale. Yet virtual learning, or e-learning, is not a new concept to some schools and districts. In fact, in some parts of the country, e-learning is a common practice. The pandemic may have lengthened e-learning in those districts, but the premise of delivery of instruction and student learning continued.
As leaders, before venturing into any change, we must answer the question of “why.” E-learning is a way for learning to continue outside the brick-and-mortar school. Qualified teachers plan lessons and make those lessons available on student devices. Teachers are then available for assistance on the actual e-learning day. When we look at e-learning, our “why” and purpose of e-learning is to reach more students. In the state of Indiana, e-learning has been around for some time; we have been using e-learning days in our district for three years. The state approved of districts utilizing e-learning days for inclement weather and professional development days.
After our school district moved to a 1:1 Chromebook environment, our district began planning how to make e-learning happen for our students. This planning did not happen overnight, as in the pandemic, and has taken us a few years to perfect it. We have many layers in place to ensure that all students have equal access to quality lessons when they are not able to be in the actual school building.
With COVID-19, if the students couldn’t come to the school building, we needed to bring the school to their homes. With this clear response to “why,” the next questions we needed to answer were “what” and “how.”
What Do We Teach?
The “what” question is the most straightforward question to answer. What teachers will teach their students with e-learning is the same thing they would teach students if they were at school. This sounds simple enough; however, every educational leader will have teachers who struggle with the simplicity of this idea. Teachers feel comfortable in their classroom and at school. All the resources that a teacher needs are in the classroom. If a student comes to school without the needed resources, a teacher and school can provide for the student. However, with e-learning, teachers need to think more creatively about how they will educate students without those resources.
Take physical education, music, or science classes, for example. A student may not have access to a gym, a musical instrument, or a lab station. Teachers must think of ways they can still teach the standards with what a student may have at home. Students could record and videotape them-selves doing pushups and situps at home, practice breathing exercises and instrument fingering, or watch a lab being performed and record the results. Again, as school leaders, we need to reinforce that what teachers teach in e-learning is the same as if the student were at school, but it may look different.
At the secondary level, besides building on concepts already taught during the school year, teachers utilize the gradual release of the responsi-bility model, “I do, we do, you do,” to continue the curriculum map and teach new concepts. For example, a new concept may be presented through video, reading, or another interactive activity during the e-learning day, and then it is discussed in class when we return to school. This is the essence of a flipped lesson.
How Do We Implement E-learning?
How we implement e-learning is a more challenging question to answer. Let’s assume that all the back-end questions have been answered—what device the students will have, policies and procedures for damage or improper use of the school device, distribution and collection for the device, financial obligation for the devices, maintenance/upkeep/updates, and any other managerial questions about student devices. District staff will also want to explore the answers to attendance and grading, timelines for completion of materials, and how to handle issues of no internet access. As a school leader, you will spend a fair amount of your time answering various questions about school devices once you implement e-learning. The more policies and procedures you have in place before-hand, the less time you will take addressing future issues.
Training Staff and Students
Once we figured out the specifics for our students regarding the devices and procedures, our technology specialist worked with teachers, providing multiple professional development opportunities for staff to learn how to put together lessons for e-learning days. He created a basic template for all teachers to use in Google Slides and instructed them on how to use the various Google tools for instructional delivery and communication. We did not purchase different tech tools but used what we knew to deliver the instruction on e-learning days, either within the Google domain or with other tools and resources used daily in the classroom. Teachers and students do not need a different platform for e-learning as long as the delivery is clear, concise, and focused on the essential content. We also used district collaboration time to discuss e-learning lesson strategies and address questions. Teachers shared some of the lessons they created with their colleagues. Some of our teachers even started using this model when they were absent from school for substitute teachers.
When we looked at implementing e-learning at all levels, we took a coach’s approach. To prepare our students and teachers for an e-learning day, we set up a practice e-learning day. For high school students, we had students go to their homerooms, running a two-hour delay schedule. Teachers developed e-learning lesson plans that were about 10 to 15 minutes long per subject, and students worked on these lessons in their homerooms, mimicking an e-learning day. Students could communicate with their teacher only via email, voice calls, or texts. (So, yes, students were allowed to use their cellphones for the practice. The same was true for teachers.) Students practiced working independently on their devices for an assignment, and they learned how to communicate as if their teacher were not physically present.
Not only was it essential for teachers to know how to put together a quality e-learning lesson, but we also had to ensure that our teachers had various communication methods for students and parents. Our Google domain has served in this capacity as well, through Google Classroom and Google Meet. Additionally, many teachers use the communication tool Remind to text or call parents. These are tools we use daily, whether on an e-learning day or not, so when the e-learning day is called, those communication methods are not foreign to any of our students or families.
Feedback has been critical to perfecting our communication with families. Our district created an FAQ with important e-learning procedures, and all teachers have become well versed in sharing their expectations. Schools have held parent nights to answer questions regarding expectations for e-learning days. Each year, we find out how many of our families have the internet in their homes and begin open communication before an e-learning day can be called and demonstrate the process to follow if they do not have internet access. We have also conducted parent and student surveys to gather feedback on how we can improve our practices.
Student voice became another critical component of the effective implementation of e-learning. Our staff realized the students had great ideas to share to make learning better for all, and so as students voiced their ideas and concerns, teachers were flexible and open to changing their practices.
While the COVID-19 pandemic forced school leaders to look at different ways to continue instruction, it has also provided schools with ways to better meet students’ needs throughout the school year in this remote learning environment. We can use these lessons to springboard conversations for the future, reimagining school for the next generation.
Amy Heavin is the principal of Ryan Park Elementary School in Angola, IN. Travis Heavin is the principal of Angola High School in Angola.
Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections
Encouraging the use of technology. You can actively seek new and different technology resources that may bolster student learning. Technology is often a source of connection to a broader world, a way to personalize learning for students, and a tool to find interconnections between concepts. Technology can also be a source of support for initiatives that indirectly support student learning, such as a building management and operations. Furthermore, technology can open doors to individuals previously locked out of learning and, in turn, can make learning more inclusive.
Innovation is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.