Schools have learned a few things to improve distance learning
Teachers all over Oregon are learning new technologies and teaching techniques to improve the distance learning experience for students. (Photo courtesy of American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)
When schools suddenly shifted to distance learning in March, no one was ready. Teachers, parents and students weren’t happy with the results.
With a summer to think about it, Oregon school leaders say they have a better distance learning plan for the fall, with consistent systems and more rigorous academics.
Jennifer Patterson of the Oregon Department of Education said the coronavirus pandemic’s unpredictability makes flexibility with distance learning key.
“There will likely be pivots and shifts, and so we are encouraging schools to pick a design that can be nimble,” said Patterson, the Office of Teaching, Learning and Assessment assistant superintendent.
Schools must show operational blueprints for the fall by Monday, Aug. 17, to their school boards, communities and ODE. That need for flexibility is already being put to the test.
Many schools started out planning hybrid models, with a mix of in-person classes and distance learning. On July 28, Gov. Kate Brown announced coronavirus-case metrics for offering in-person classes, forcing many schools to shift to comprehensive distance learning plans. Exceptions released Aug. 11 allow schools to again consider in-person teaching.
Whether schools are using hybrid or comprehensive distance learning models, ODE set new standards in its “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance that should improve the experience for students and families.
For starters, ODE requires daily real-time check-ins between a staff member and students and daily peer interaction for students. The new rules mandate daily teacher-facilitated learning, which didn’t happen in every school district in the spring. At least 50% of instructional time must be planned and guided by a licensed teacher.
The total instructional hours requirements are the same, but ODE has tripled the hours allowed for professional development and parent-teacher interactions as well as requiring more meetings with parents, at least seven family engagements a year. Schools can count up to 90 hours of professional learning and up to 90 hours of family training, support and communication.
ODE requires more learning in real time, but Patterson points out well-supported recorded lessons or assignments offer benefits as well. Recorded lessons allow students to review and practice curriculum as much as they need.
Schools will also require more accountability from students. Schools must take daily attendance in grades K-5 and attendance in every class for grades 6-12, regardless of the instruction model.
ODE returned control of grading policies to local leaders. Many students and parents were not happy with the spring’s pass/incomplete grades.
Some improvements will be purely technical. Schools have had time to get as many students as possible connected online and to train families in online learning. Schools have added software and learning management systems to better present lessons. One system for all classes eases navigation for students and parents.
Like a lot of school districts, Beaverton School District pushed back the start of its school year a week to ready families and train educators.
The Beaverton School District year starts Sept. 14, and students will be learning from home until at least Nov. 13.
Students can enroll in Beaverton’s all-online FLEX school for the year, or they can take the hybrid option. With the hybrid model, students will start online but have the option of learning in the classroom when in-person teaching is allowed. Parents can also choose to keep their kids at home in the hybrid model if they don’t feel safe sending them to school.
Many school districts have set up similar choices.
Spring learning was inadequate mostly because schools closed unexpectedly, thinking they would open again soon, said Kayla Bell, the Beaverton administrator for Early Learning and Elementary Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment.
“Nobody had on the calendar, ‘Plan for pandemic,’” she said. “The biggest difference this time is we are having some time to plan.”
Beaverton surveyed staff, students and parents to find out what worked and what was needed.
Bell said a reliable daily schedule for families is key, with a definite beginning and stop time. Students will start the day with a community-building type activity to foster student relationships as well as setting guidelines and expectations for the day. Every class will include teaching portions with students expected to be present.
Bell said that in the spring, the school districts’ primary concern was the health and wellness of the students. Schools will still focus on caring for students but there will be a lot more energy devoted to academics, she said.
Bell said they plan to put textbooks into students’ hands and not just use online resources. Teachers will be able to differentiate instruction more. Students will have classes such as physical education and music that were not available in the spring, she said.
Bell is enthusiastic about Beaverton’s plan but also realistic.
“We acknowledge that even in the best of circumstances, whatever we do is not going to be the same as if we were in person,” Bell said.
Gaston School District is on the opposite end of Washington County from Beaverton. At 535 students, it is the county’s smallest district but has been going through much the same process.
“We have had time to actually collaborate, survey parents and be more thoughtful about decisions,” said Superintendent Susan McKenzie. “Last spring, we were in crisis mode.”
Gaston will be offering only distance learning for at least the first nine weeks.
The district’s families told Gaston they wanted consistency in the online experience across classes, as well as across grade levels for families with multiple children. Gaston added an online curriculum and a learning system and is preparing a handbook.
McKenzie said they also learned that smaller groups worked better in the virtual classrooms than larger groups. Gaston’s cohort sizes for online and hybrid learning will range from eight to 13 students.
Like a lot of districts, students in the upper grades will be taking fewer classes. Parents and students found a full class load of six or seven classes during the spring too overwhelming. Gaston students will take three to five classes a quarter, completing a semester’s credit in nine weeks so the total credits by the end of the year work out the same.
“We’re trying to get creative,” McKenzie said. “This is going to be a real opportunity for us to personalize learning, to really dig in and work individually with students and families.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA