After this year of new experiences, districts are busy working on plans for next year. Although many plan on returning to in-person instruction, others are addressing their responsibility to serve the families who have decided that online learning is the right fit for their student. This article aims to provide administrators with key points to consider when thinking about implementing a new, virtual program.
Professional development is the first item on the list because it is the most important to the success of any new initiative. Although many teachers have experienced remote teaching this year, there are some important differences between that emergency response and a dedicated, full-time, high-quality online program. Teachers should be provided opportunities to learn about the similarities and differences between traditional and online teaching. They should also receive development and practice in the area of online course design. Course design is different than lesson planning, and a teacher who is equipped with a strong understanding of good online course design will be ready for this new role.
As you consider each of these points, remember that online classrooms are not so different from traditional classrooms. Building the foundation for an online classroom should start with things teachers are already familiar with. For example, to answer a question like “How do we keep students from cheating in their online course?”, you should begin by thinking about the ways that a traditional teacher manages cheating in their classroom. Thinking through these similarities and then planning for the differences can reduce the unknowns for a teacher or administrator new to online learning.
Things to consider:
- A district must decide which standards for quality their instruction and course design will follow. There are nationally accepted standards or a district may choose to write their own internal set of standards.
- Every teacher who uses technology in their classroom or in an online environment must have a working knowledge of web accessibility standards and Universal Design for Learning.
- All teachers and administrators who will be involved with the online program must have a thorough understanding of the district-chosen Learning Management System (LMS).
Before any meaningful work can be done to develop the structure and content for an online program, a district must determine through what platform they will provide instruction. Parents and students will need to have one place to log into in order to understand expectations.
Things to consider:
- Does this LMS share information with the district gradebook?
- Does this LMS provide ways for students to collaborate with each other?
- Does this LMS have a means for students and teachers to communicate with each other?
- Can classroom discussions be facilitated through this LMS?
- Can parents track their student’s progress and assignments through the LMS?
Curriculum in Online Learning
There are several options for a district diving into the virtual learning arena for the first time. Determining which of these models work best for your school or district is a vital step in planning. Trying to mimic what another district has done may not always be the best solution for your district. As an administrator who has had a successful part-time virtual program for several years, I can look back and see that the entry point for each district can be different.
Things to Consider:
- Do we have teaching staff who have the skills and expertise necessary to design and deliver instruction online?
- Do we have any existing digital curricula that can be used for this purpose?
- Would using a third-party instructional service and/or courses be beneficial to get started in this effort?
- Will we want to have our online program mimic the district curriculum?
- What will be our quality review process?
- What is our long-term plan regarding curriculum? Does it fit into the district long-term plan for traditional classrooms?
One of the things I learned as I developed the online learning program in Keller ISD is that if I really want to be able to understand the effectiveness and success of the online students, I need to be comparing their performance on instruments that are the same as those being used to assess success in the traditional classrooms. This meant that if students in a traditional classroom all take a common assessment or complete the same performance task, then those same common assessments and performance tasks need to be included in the online courses. This way, I can compare results from classrooms to the results from the online courses, which allows administrators to get a realistic view of the effectiveness of the online program and locate gaps that may need to be addressed.
Things to consider:
- Although cheating in a traditional classroom is just as likely as cheating in an online classroom, there are ways that technology can assist in reducing these incidents. Explore the options in your chosen LMS such as plagiarism checkers, timers, and browser locks.
- A well-written assessment not only assesses student mastery, it protects itself from cheating. Consider reducing the number of multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank assessments present in an online course and instead assess using open-ended questions, reflections, and projects that result in measurable products to assess mastery.
- Online courses are a natural way for students to be able to prepare for their state-mandated assessments. With the instruction for the year always available at any time, students are able to review those concepts they struggled with or can’t remember. Additionally, absent or homebound students can have the information available to them wherever and whenever they need it.
Evaluation of Online Learning
As an administrator responsible for the evaluation of full-time virtual teachers, I have felt the difficulty in utilizing prescribed evaluation systems that were written for traditional classrooms. After researching the evaluation system in my state, I found that there was an allowance for non-traditional evaluations, as long as the group of teachers as a whole and their administrator agree in writing to what their administrator will be using to evaluate the domains of the evaluation system. If the administrator follows that agreement, the evaluation system can be a useful tool for educators to grow their strengths and identify areas for support.
Things to consider:
- A walkthrough can easily be done in an online course to determine how well the teacher designs instruction, assesses their learners, and how well their students are engaging with the content.
- In lieu of a 45-minute observation, an administrator might take an in-depth view of a unit in the course and be able to see the entire lesson cycle as it was presented, received by the learners, retaught by the instructor, and assessed. This is actually a better, holistic, view of the performance of an online teacher than when we observe only part of a lesson cycle in a traditional classroom.
- If the teacher holds tutorial sessions or synchronous sessions, an administrator should try to observe there as well. The strength of an educator to develop relationships in an online environment through both synchronous and asynchronous means is vital to the success of their students.
- Is the teacher “present” in the course? The culture created in an online classroom (or not created in an online classroom) can easily be seen through these course observations.
Building a quality online learning program from scratch is not something that can be done overnight. Utilizing these points to consider can help a district team to identify the one area they will focus on for the coming year, what their long-range goals are, and the steps that will be necessary for the success of the initiative.