Virtual Instruction Extends Learning Opportunities Beyond the Classroom

Virtual Instruction Extends Learning Opportunities Beyond the Classroom

By Tyler Dahlgren

Forecasters called for an eventful winter, but nobody foresaw a bomb cyclone.

There were predictions of a snowy season, sure. But a bomb cyclone? The harsh, late-round uppercut from winter coupled with an extreme drop in air pressure triggered historic flooding and record-setting snowfall. 

Consequently, as school leaders across the state kept the safety of their students and families at the top of the priority list, districts tried to navigate their way through a drastic wave of cancellations and postponements. 

“More than anything, it’s disruptive,” said Dr. Jon Cerny, Superintendent of Bancroft-Rosalie Public Schools. “It’s hard to have continuation of instruction occurring when students and teachers have to remember what was done in the classroom three or four days ago.”

Instructional disruption due to weather throws a wrench in the educational growth of a student, and, no matter how much it snows, standardized testing dates don’t fluctuate.

“There is just a consistency that is necessary in order to have good instructional flow,” said Dr. Heather Phipps, Associate Superintendent of Educational Services for Millard Public Schools. “There are instructional objectives we have for our students, and we want to meet them. When instruction is constantly interrupted by snow days, that can be challenging.”

Nebraska’s schools, as they so often do, set their sights on a student-centered solution. They needed to dodge the uppercut, if you will.

“We want to move education forward, without having these disruptive gaps,” said Dr. Cerny.

Enter virtual instruction, an online extension of education into the homes of students. Bancroft-Rosalie started the implementation process of E-Learning Days in 2016.

“The first thing we did was to get everybody on the same learning management system,” explained Dr. Cerny. “At that time, we had adopted Canvas. All of our teachers learned Canvas, and the first year one of our expectations for them was to have one course posted on Canvas.”

Bancroft-Rosalie is 1-to-1, kindergarten through 12th-grade. When students reach eighth-grade, they are assigned a MacBook Pro, while elementary students use iPads. Seventh-graders are using Chromebooks on a trial basis.

“The motivation was ‘Hey, guess what guys? We all get on Canvas, we all get proficient in using that platform, so when there is a snow day, we won’t have to make it up. We will have a virtual learning day instead,’” said Dr. Cerny. “This has brought us into the 21st-Century with education, but it has also given them the motivation to want to do it.”

While students don’t hide their affection for snow days, they love their summers even more.

Millard Public Schools had been kicking around the idea of E-Learning Days for a couple of years, said superintendent Dr. Jim Sutfin, before four snow days and the likelihood of two more forced their hand. Along with the exploration of two-hour late starts, virtual instruction has given the district safe alternatives to cancellations. 

“Before, the only arrow we had in our quiver was to cancel school,” said Dr. Sutfin. “We asked ourselves, ‘Can we come up with additional tools we can use during inclement weather, including the two-hour late start day and E-Learning Days, which would allow the roads to clear without wiping out a day of instruction?’”

The third largest district in Nebraska, MPS is in the process of fulfilling a strategic planning objective to create blended learning classes, which will be rolled out in the fall.

“We are many years into professional development with our teachers as for how you use a device to enhance the instruction going on in your classroom,” said Dr. Phipps. “Almost all of our secondary teachers have a Google Classroom, an online platform they use as a communication tool, for videos and writing assignments.”

MPS teachers were already interacting with their students via Google Classroom on a daily basis, so there wasn’t a major adjustment period for students on their first E-Learning Day. MPS is 1-to-1 6th-grade through 12th, while 5th-graders have iPads.

For both districts, communication proved to be key. Students, staff and families needed to stay on the same page for virtual instruction to prove sufficient. Online learning, contrary to reputation, requires open lines of communication.

“Sometimes, there’s an assumption that the more technology-driven we are, the less communication there might be,” said Dr. Phipps. “In fact, it’s just the opposite. How our students are used to interacting with their teachers, for example, just shifts on E-Learning Days.”

Students are accustomed to contacting their instructors with questions through emails and their online management systems. Teachers, likewise, are always available on E-Learning Days.

“We train the kids, too,” Dr. Cerny said. “They all have a practice virtual learning day. With the lower elementary, their assignments are very simplistic.”

For rural districts like Bancroft-Rosalie, who conducted a survey with its families regarding the issue in 2016, equity as far as internet access has provided some challenges. The survey revealed that most students, whether they lived in town or on a farm, have reliable internet. For some, however, the signal isn’t reliable given location.

“We have had to work case-by-case to make sure they are not at a disadvantage to complete the work,” said Dr. Cerny. “Through the Spark Grant, our school and our public library are connected so now kids can go down there and work any time the library is open.”

If substantial work is completed, the students are counted as present. Students with adequate internet access who fail to complete their work face the same consequences they would on a normal school day, following the district’s policy on homework completion.

“If they get their stuff done, then they’re counted as being at school that day,” said Dr. Cerny, noting the district’s policy is not aligned with the policy of the Nebraska Department of Education. 

Not yet, that is. Bancroft-Rosalie submitted a waiver request to NDE in an attempt to start the conversation regarding accredited virtual learning days. The waiver calls for the availability of five virtual learning days to use when school is not in session due to inclement weather or staff professional development.

“The waiver calls for the instruction to move education forward in the classroom,” said Dr. Cerny. “It can’t just be a day of busy work, but rather instruction similar to what would be provided if the kids were in school. Our teachers have been very creative.”

That conversation will be had. Commissioner of Education Dr. Matt Blomstedt said the department has been working on potential revisions to Rule 10 and accreditation requirements.

“Virtual learning is a type of example of how we can extend learning and learning opportunities,” said Dr. Blomstedt. “Over time, we want to make sure it’s recognized within rules and processes at the department.”

Not only does virtual instruction keep young drivers off roads in dangerous conditions, but its utilization can also better prepare students for their next step in life, whether it be post-secondary education or the work-force. 

“We say college and career readiness, that’s our focus as a state and here at MPS,” said Dr. Phipps. “The world is virtual in many ways. It is unlikely that a student would enter a certification program, a two-year program or a four-year program and not complete some portion of their course work online.”

Students have embraced the extra responsibility, added Phipps. Dr. Sutfin assembled separate parent and student advisory groups, both of which have provided satisfactory feedback. Students don’t want to attend school into the summer, but that’s not the only reason they’ve taken to E-Learning Days in such an enthusiastic manner.

“They want to be adequately prepared, and that warms my heart as the teaching and learning administrator for the district,” said Dr. Phipps. “They want to do well on an AP exam and on the ACT and on course exams. If they are in the middle of an important project, they don’t want to skip a beat.”

Dr. Sutfin ends the discussion with a hypothetical. Take a student from 50 years ago and drop them into a classroom in 2019. Similar subjects, he said. Similar number of kids in the room and similar blocks of time, too.

“Technology, however, is allowing us to evolve for our kids,” Dr. Sutfin explained. “Our kids live in a different technological world than what we had when we were children, or what children had 50 or 60 years ago. Something like virtual instruction can help with the evolution of personalized learning for a child.”

Anytime. Anywhere.

*This article was originally published in the Summer Edition of the NCSA Today magazine.