By | October 10, 2020

NCCE 2020 here in Seattle has just wrapped up. NCCE (Northwest Council For Computer Education) being our regional ISTE sponsored conference with somewhere around 1500 participants coming together each year to share and learn. Being in Seattle and with the COVID-19 spreading throughout my state, Virtual School was a hot topic. 

One of the sessions I ran was titled “Tech Coaches Unite”. This session brought roughly 50 tech coaches together to share and learn from each other I asked how many of them were involved in Virtual School talks at the moment due to COVID-19. Roughly 20 districts raised their hands. 

I have had experience with “Going Virtual School” three times in my career and every time it was similar and yet different due to the technology we had. 

2003 – In Saudi Arabia due to terrorism in the country, I helped my school set up and run Moodle to do Virtual School. 

2005 – In Shanghai I helped to set up, run and train teachers to go Virtual School-though we didn’t end up closing due to SARS.

2009 – In Bangkok, I helped to train, facilitate and oversee Virtual School due to flooding and H1N1 in Bangkok we used WordPress blogs as teacher websites. 

2011 – I worked with Senators and the State Department in Washington DC to help fund a global Virtual School installment for International Schools to use in case of an emergency. 

Each one of these experiences was drastically different due to the technology that was available at the time. For example, the iPhone was only 3 years old and smartphones were just taking off in 2010.

So here are some lessons I’ve learned as well as recommendations I am currently giving schools when they ask me for advice on preparing for Virtual School in an emergency. 

Lessons Learned:

1. You can’t just flip the Virtual School switch. If you did not require that every teacher in the district must use the adopted LMS (Learning Management System a.k.a Classroom, Canvas, Schoology, etc) before now, you’re too late. In most cases, you will not have time to train both staff and students on how the LMS will work or does work before you find yourself in Virtual School. On the other hand, if teachers using an LMS is required in your district and they have been using it and training students on how to use it since the beginning of the school year-congratulations…..you’re gonna rock this!

2. Digital Worksheets uploaded to your LMS for students to do at home are 

  • Boring
  • Frustrating for parents 
  • Frustrating for students 
  • In general, are not good teaching practice
  • Not truly taking advantage of the opportunity you have in front of you

3 . In the two times that I was in Virtual School, we learned that teachers often gave way too much work for students to do at home. Most educators are not trained in online learning, which is different than traditional or even a blended learning format that most teachers find themselves in today. In a fully online learning environment, you must rethink the time you allow students to complete tasks. This was our #1 take away from Virtual School in 2010 in Bangkok. Both parents and students felt they were doing way more “busy work” (see #2 above) and were frustrated….especially at the Middle and High School level. 

Do you assess the process of learning or the product of learning?

4. Every assignment must be rethought. You can’t just take what you were going to do on Monday and do it anyway by just putting it in Google Classroom, Canvas, Schoology or whatever LMS you use. 

5. Last but not least…. seize the moment! Both in Shanghai and in Bangkok we turned a negative into a positive by being able to-shall I say-’require’ teachers to “up their technology skills/usage” for Virtual School. Once Virtual School was over, those skills remained and we saw an increase in the use of those skills back in the traditional blended-learning classroom after Virtual School had ended. 

My Recommendations for Virtual School in 2020 if you did not require every teacher to be using the school adopted LMS.

Video, Video, Video we need to stop thinking in terms of “what can students type” and start thinking in terms of “how can students show me what they know”

Start by training every teacher how to make videos for instruction. Use Screencastify, Screen-o-matic or Flipgrid. I don’t care, just pick the one that best fits your system and train every teacher on how to make good instructional videos. What does a good instructional video look like? Here’s research out of Vanderbilt University on what should and should not be in your video. 

  • No longer than 6 minutes max! (3-5 is perfect)
  • Make it casual, make it you, you’re kids like you, they want to see you, they want to feel like they are in class so be you!

K-2 teachers – All you need is Flipgrid

If I was in a school today and we found ourselves quickly going into Virtual School mode I would make sure every K-2….well, every teacher really…but especially K-2 teachers had a Flipgrid account setup, and that parents had the app downloaded on their phone. During Virtual School teachers could pose questions to students via Flipgrid and students could do some investigation and post video responses back to the teacher. Teachers could read to students and ask comprehension questions. Teachers could pose a math question and students could film themselves solving the math problem with homemade manipulative in their house. Honestly, this one app is all you need. For more ideas check out #flipgridfever on twitter where teachers are constantly sharing ways they are using this incredible app. (If you use Seasaw that will work too!)

3-5 Teachers – One subject a day

Have students focus on just one subject a day in Virtual School. 

For example: 

  • Monday is Reading/Writing 
  • Tuesday is Math
  • Wednesday is Science
  • Thursday is Social Studies
  • Friday Specials/20% time

By having students focus on one subject a day you can support both student learning and parents trying to support their students at home. Again, video instruction will be key and whenever possible set-up lessons that allow students to submit video for their assignment. If I was in a 3-5 classroom, I would only set-up one written question-response sort of activity a week that was focused on learning, it would be my writing activity on Monday where I would ask some sort of prompt and expect students to respond to it and to each other. One a week…that’s it….everything else would be video. 

Micro-Credentials: Taking PD to the next level

Middle and High School: 

During Virtual School we need to remember that we’re in this situation because something else is going on in our lives. Please DO NOT expect students to do the same amount of work they would have done if you would have had them face to face with you in the same amount of time….it just won’t happen. You’ll be frustrated, students will be frustrated, parents will be frustrated and then you’ve lost them. 

Remember learning, even in Virtual School is about relationships. So check in with your students. Ask them how they are doing, what they might need from you for support. Make sure there is space for everyone to talk about how they are feeling and what is going on in their lives. 

Work together with teachers from other departments not to overwhelm students with work. Again, uploading PDF worksheets for students to do is not what Virtual School is about! Powerful learning can still happen if you take advantage of the technology we have available today. 

I would recommend that each subject only assign things two days a week and make those days back to back so students can focus. So a schedule might look like this. 

  • Monday: ELA and Science
  • Tuesday: ELA and Science
  • Wednesday: Math and Social Studies
  • Thursday: Math and Social Studies
  • Friday/Weekend: Elective, Elective, PE

By making the days back to back you allow for longer larger projects. This gives students space and time to finish projects and allows them to chunk their learning into sizable, manageable pieces. It will also give teachers time to prepare lessons they are not used to preparing and time to assess any work that needs grading. 

Again, video is the key! Teachers making 3-5 minute instructional videos for students, and also requiring students to periodically respond in video would be taking full advantage of the technology we have in 2020 and is best practice today! If appropriate, using Google Hangouts, Skype or Zoom video conferencing for real-time interaction would be a huge bonus. Do not make it required, but an optional “Hangout” time with your friends and your teacher would help to make it feel as if school is still really happening. 

Lastly, keep it simple, don’t overthink it-and have fun with your students! Learning can and still will occur. It won’t be perfect, but your classroom is rarely perfect in person, so take advantage of this time with your students. Remember too, that if you are in a Virtual School situation, something serious is going on and kids will be struggling to make sense of things. Be respectful of that, be respectful of families, their time together and their individual circumstances. Just like in the classroom, one size doesn’t fit all.

Good Luck…and let me know if I can be of help or support.

Image: tommypjr

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