Our public high school has been open for both in person instruction and eLearning since August, as we are in Florida and in person instruction was mandated by the governor’s executive order. In this model, students have chosen to either come to school traditionally, with the assurance of sanitization, distancing, and hygiene protocols, as well as the worry of occasional quarantine.
For our students who chose eLearning, they are still a part of our school and campus, taught by teachers from our school who may be teaching from home or from campus, following the same bell schedule as our on campus students. They log into our learning management system to check for attendance, live classes, or possibly guided instruction through virtual learning platforms.
Just as we have been observing our on campus teachers to give them support and feedback in their instruction, we also have the expectation that eLearning teachers have observations as well. I was honored to be able to observe eleven different teachers this year who have delivered their instruction live through eLearning, and these are the five truths I’ve found as I’ve learned along with them.
#1 Live instruction can be engaging
There’s a big assumption out there that our eLearning students are struggling due to lower quality instruction or standards in eLearning. Nothing could be further from the truth. It does take a teacher, a skilled professional, to make that instruction engaging, and I saw it repeatedly in my observations.
Every eLearning observation that I joined had students actively participating in discussion, sometimes verbally, but must often through non-verbal strategies. They were using strategies in the video chat feature, like waterfall, where students wait for a teachers cue to all simultaneously post, to get responses from all students, and then drawing out discussion from there. Lessons and activities were chunked, paced, and scaffolded, and often fun greetings awaited learners to arrive. Lessons ended on a rigorous note, with either a writing activity, a reflection, or some appropriate ending at the standard.
The larger issue I heard from the teachers was just getting students to attend. In the spring for the emergency eLearning, most students could just submit an assignment or two per week at their own leisure, with no live lessons or attendance expected. Since students now have to attend on the bell schedule, many of the failures in eLearning are students not attending, whether that has been due to a lack of communication about expectations.
Some students have even appeared on their class video chats from their day jobs, whether from the belief that eLearning would not have as rigorous of participation expectation, or whether out of genuine economic need for families during this crisis. As we have just started the second semester, a new executive order from the governor has gone into place where we need written communication from families to keep a failing student in eLearning. At this point, most of our students have returned, with mostly our successful eLearners left in these engaging environments to learn.
#2 Student-Teacher relationships are deeper than ever
This is an interesting observation as I’ve been in classes: though you’d expect only seeing a person on a screen to be detaching, it has actually given an incredible opportunity for students. Students now communicate with teachers using the tools and on the terms that they are used to communicating with their peers, so they seem to be able to convey themselves more openly and honestly to their teachers. They can essentially text their teachers via the learning management system anytime of day or night and be more open in their interactions through the virtual platform.
One teacher told me that 10 students have come out to her as LGBTQ so far this year, where they don’t often say so in person. She also told me that others have opened up to her about their medical conditions and struggles, as that teacher was eLearning due to her medical needs and has been open about it to her students. Others have opened up with deep struggles too, that have led to referrals to student service, and some to community mental health services. I am grateful for a team with strong protocols and support in these cases.
Many teachers open their classes with music and greetings in a way that connect with kids. One sees herself as an Effie Trinket, a hostess of learning adventures in the eLearning environment, wearing various wigs that her students have given unique names over the year. Clever background, themed to the lesson, catch student attention. One teacher has dedicated social-emotional learning and mindfulness spaces on the homepage of her class to help connect to kids.
Another teacher has pointed out the value of private messaging within the video chat. Students aren’t embarrassed by corrections, or afraid to ask questions because of the fact that other students can’t see the private chat with the teacher. For this teacher, bilingualism and the ability to provide Spanish assistance has been enhanced through the eLearning platform has helped learners too, and increased connections with students.
#3 It’s never just one digital tool
In every eLearning class that I attended, all teachers blended multiple tech tools together to create an engaging learning environment. Though using a video chat platform was the central tool all teachers used in their live instruction with students, every teacher added at least another tech tool with their video instruction.
For math teachers, each used a document camera to project their work to students for notes and to see their work. One had multiple levels in one session, so students were able to copy a problem and work, while he erased the whiteboard and presented a new problem for the other course. He flipped back and forth between the courses, giving each the time to solve a problem, while working with the group that had just finished.
A world language teacher used a video from YouTube sharing a unique conjugation to pace out instruction, pausing to break it down with students, and giving time and means to assess and discuss. A science teacher used a Nearpod to assess students in a variety of ways throughout the lesson, particularly noting the usefulness of the whiteboard functionality. With the whiteboard, she could tell whether students where just getting their answers from web searching, or whether they were actually working it out themselves.
An access points exceptional needs educator, teaching intellectually disabled students, took them through images on the screen, including the worksheets he’s able to provide to them as hard copies. He also took them through a virtual reality tour of a bee hive, and had them experience videos of bee behavior, experiences they likely wouldn’t have had in person.
English, reading, and social studies teachers used creative combinations of engaging students in texts. Often they had audio books, or had students read together. One annotated texts in Word with students, and another had deep, engaging conversations using the discussion function in the learning management system. Another had students complete an analysis card through Nearpod, keeping the graphic organizer function, but paced with tools to keep it chunked and manageable. Text went hand in hand with discussion, using the best of the tool and the live video chat, especially in deep conversations about civil rights in a social studies class.
#4 Teachers will be forever changed in formative assessment
There’s that classic saying about the rubber band that has been stretched and won’t go back again, and that’s how the minds of eLearning teachers will be after this experience. Last year, my husband’s school had a schoolwide focus on formative assessment and how to include it in their classrooms while in person, before the pandemic hit. Now that these eLearning teachers have had access to nearly endless streams of data, they will truly be the champions on our campus for formative assessment.
Our eLearning teachers have more data on students, and have to know how to use it wisely. For example, in a traditional classroom, if a teacher does a turn and talk, those voices may get lost into the room, with the teacher hearing a few, or the teacher trying to call on a few to capture the thoughts of the room. In a digital learning platform, you have documented everything every student says, whether its in the video chat, in a discussion board, or in a collaboration tool.
This data is constantly coming in, particularly as teachers turn to non-verbal communication strategies. Several teachers found Nearpod useful for its variety in assessment, and its capture of student information. Math and science teachers particularly were concerned about looking for process in student work, using whiteboard tools, either in Nearpod or Whiteboard.fi, to capture student thinking. Even in the ESE class, students held their work up to the cameras regularly for the teacher to make sure everyone was where they needed to be.
With the wisdom of data, comes the ability to reteach. Teachers said they were able to privately message students to hang out after class for further instruction. One reading teacher gave the invitation as an invitation to collaborate with peers, and was able to create small group learning opportunities after whole group instruction that way. As some of these teachers started to come back to some sections in person, this was a difficult adjustment in person for those teacher, having them long for more technology to be able to capture continuous assessment points.
#5 Administrators are connectors in eLearning
By my nature and leadership, I’m a maximizer at heart. I look for the strengths in my teachers and employees, and try to build off of those to enhance their impact on our students. We had our veteran teachers, all with some medical reason that limited their exposure to students, teaching eLearning students.
They had a learning community led by a teacher leader on campus. He facilitated weekly lunch and learns, where they could discuss their issues and share technology tips. However, the one thing they hadn’t yet done was gone to observe each other’s classrooms, the same as we would have a demo classroom, or just walk into a peer’s classroom. This was where I found my opportunity to truly showcase the strengths of our eLearning teachers.
In reflection, each teachers was fairly candid about what their need or desire was, what they’d like to improve on. And for most, I was easily able to highlight the work of one of their peers and suggest they either learn about that tool from a peer, or observe that peer in action. In my role, being a maximizer for the talent of my teachers meant being a connector, bringing them together as a professional community with expertise to share.
What I also realized is that I had some of the longest conversations with teachers I’ve had since I was a new teacher mentor. Many of the teachers, particularly the ones teaching from home, don’t get a break to talk with an adult peer throughout the day, or on a regular basis. In my role as an administrator, listening and letting teachers be heard was important too, as I found valuable feedback to improve our systems to make eLearning students and teachers feel included as members of our school.
We didn’t expect eLearning to continue as a choice into the second semester, but I am grateful that it has been an engaging, rigorous option for our students who want it. I am grateful for our teachers who have led and pioneering this way or work, and what they have taught me about about instruction and leadership along the way.