At Des Moines Public Schools we refer to it as Virtual Learning. The Iowa Department of Education calls it Remote Learning. Other schools have online learning or distance learning.
But maybe it doesn’t need a qualifier. Maybe it should just be called LEARNING?
After all, that is exactly what takes place between teachers and students each and every school day, whether that day happens to be on a computer screen or in a classroom.
Case in point: at Madison Elementary School on Tuesday, Jo Walker’s first grade class was working on a Frosty the Snowman journal project. Miss Walker was leading her class dressed as Frosty; some students even joined the fun, donning snowman attire, just as if they were all together in the same classroom.
About four miles to the west, at Monroe Elementary School, Josalynn Agnew posted a sign on the door to her fifth-grade classroom noting that day’s attendance: 100%! All students present and accounted for – and participating – via Microsoft Teams.
As DMPS continues in our current “virtual learning” model until the Winter break, we want to share a look at some of the upsides of this experience. While online education – call it what you like – is the fastest growing area of teaching and learning, there have been many misperceptions about it in Iowa as some schools use it to keep students and staff safe in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
We reached out to a group of DMPS elementary school principals to get their impressions as well feedback they are receiving from teachers and families about what’s good, and maybe even better, about virtual learning compared to a “normal” school day. This article shares just some of what they feel have are positives during this unusual school year.
BUILDING CLOSER PERSONAL CONNECTIONS
One change for the better, that may seem counter-intuitive, is the connection schools have established with student and their families. Rob Burnett, the principal at The Downtown School, took a break from his office for a walk around the track in the Central Campus gym to discuss this school year.
“Our conferences with parents were great this year,” he noted. “Not only the participation, but the focus everyone brought to the work and progress of students was as good and sometimes better than the usual in-person parent-teacher conferences.”
The improved personal connections were echoed by others. Tiona Sandbulte at Cattell Elementary School shared an observation from one of her school’s Kindergarten teachers: “One advantage for virtual learning is the strong connection with families. Virtual learning lends itself to a strong partnership between families, teachers and students. Parents get a window into the classroom and are able to support their child’s learning much better than in the past.”
Madison’s principal Jenni Krieger had personal connections between teachers and students high on her list of benefits, too: “Through our virtual work and learning through live instruction on Teams we are able to build relationships and get to know our kids and families. We know their pets, their extended families, and know so much more about their lives outside of school.”
IMPROVED CLASSROOM ENGAGEMENT AND COOPERATION
Principals and teachers have found that, for many students, an online learning environment is actually a place where they are more engaged and involved.
“Students who previously struggled with positive peer interaction are finding success within the boundaries virtual learning provide,” noted a fifth-grade teacher at Cattell. “Students who previously struggled with distractions from environmental stimuli at school are now able to focus in their private learning area at home. Students who struggled with tardiness or attendance now are attending class daily.”
“My students are also so comfortable in their homes. This is showing in their participation. Shy students are speaking out more freely,” added another fifth-grade teacher at Wright. “In the regular classroom, many leave the classroom for additional support. Virtually, I’ve been able to build around their schedules. One student said, ‘I don’t have to leave anymore. I’m like everyone else.’ These little things are really uniting my class.”
Madison’s Krieger pointed to issues related to behavior and discipline being much less of a concern at school this year: “Our behavior data is amazing. It’s December and we have had zero office referrals during both our time spent in virtual learning and the weeks we were in the hybrid learning model.”
Some of these changes apply to teachers as well as students. Barb Adams, the principal at Findley Elementary School, pointed to the district’s annual survey of employees on how engaged people are with their work. “Our most recent results are higher than any other year,” she noted.
NEW SUPPORTS FOR STUDENTS AND FAMILIES
Principals and teachers have also found the virtual learning model provides more, not fewer, ways to support both students as well as their parents.
“One advantage of virtual/online learning is that my students are getting more 1:1 and small group instructional time,” said a special education teacher at Cattell. “For example, one of my students has been able to handle the general education classroom in the virtual setting better than they normally do within face-to-face instruction. That student is getting more exposure to grade level content than normal.”
Over at Wright, a fifth-grade teacher adds: “Virtual learning is allowing us to meet safely individually and in small groups. This is something that we can’t quite do within our hybrid model. This was one thing that my students requested. They wanted small groups, so they could participate more freely. Our small groups of 6-7 are allowing me to easily differentiate and structure lessons.”
Just because the learning is taking place online, some of the improved support schools are providing to families do take place in the “real world.”
Teachers at Madison put together packets with books, pencils, and other materials to help students do their school work from home. One Madison teacher created a “Book Mobile” that offers free books to their families. Staff at Monroe conduct “sidewalk” home visits to support with technology, deliver books and supplies, and just to talk to families face to face (safely masked and distance) to listen to their questions and concerns. And at Findley, teachers and staff make multiple home visits each week to connect with families, and have set up a IT help desk in the school’s parking lot where students can bring their computers if they have a technology glitch.
STUDENTS’ INCREASED TECHNOLOGY SAVVY
Technology has been become an increasingly important part of our daily lives over the past several years. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many schools to re-examine how to make the best use of technology to support teaching and learning. Since last March, DMPS has distributed tens of thousands of computers to students while connecting thousands of families to the internet. Principals and teachers are seeing students making good use of these tools.
At Monroe Elementary School, principal Stephanie Flickinger pointed out that “students have increased their knowledge of technology and are becoming independent learners able to troubleshoot sometimes before asking an adult.” Michelle Hurlburt, principal at Wright Elementary School, had a third-grade teacher who shared with her that “many kids are able to be creative in technological ways that they might not have been able to before.”
This increased technology savvy from students has been a direct benefit to learning. Cattell’s Sandbulte pointed out: “One of the greatest things I have noticed is the way the students are using the features in Teams and OneNote to further their learning. Students are still able to collaborate in small groups and provide feedback on their assignments even though they are not together in the physical classroom. The way the students have adapted is incredible. I imagine many teachers will continue to use certain apps, such as One Note, moving forward into normal school years. The technology skills the students are learning this year are invaluable.”
These are skills students will benefit from long after the pandemic is over. As Burnett at DTS noted: “Students are gaining lots of ‘soft skills’ this year, which may not show up on a test or in the data but will serve them well in school and beyond.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Someday things will return to “normal.” While the pandemic will continue to impact our lives through this winter, the coming vaccine should mean that COVID-19 is not a major influence on how we lead our lives and conduct our work at some point later next year.
But, when it comes to education, what can be learned from the experience of the past several months and applied to the future? Virtual (or remote or online or distance) learning is here to stay. The Virtual Campus at DMPS, for example, is the fastest growing high school in Iowa, and online classes will no doubt be a regular option for lower grade levels in the near future.
As the Downtown School’s Burnett was finishing up his walk around the Central Campus track, he asked: “What are we going to take away from this experience to benefit us in a ‘new’ normal? We can’t just ignore some of the good things that have come out of this and go back to the way we were.”
Just because things were done one way for 100+ years doesn’t always mean it’s the best way.