Responses from Chris Lazartic, middle school STEAM coach, student leadership and enterpreneurship coach, Aspen Academy.
Are you moving to e-learning platforms? Which vendors are you partnering with to deliver these solutions?
On March 16th, Aspen Academy transitioned to a virtual learning platform. Luckily, most teachers, students and parents were already familiar with their learning management system (LMS): Canvas. This online tool allows teachers to communicate grades, assignments, and much more to students and parents. Aspen has also purchased Zoom Education host accounts for every teacher, which allows them to teach live classes and record those lessons if needed.
Additionally, all students in grades two and above are provided with Google accounts, which allow them to use Google apps, such as Docs, Classroom and Slides. Students can also continue to use nearly all of their texts and academic learning tools because they are available online. In some grades, students were issued iPads or loaned computers.
Are your IT and service teams able to meet the need in the new era or have you been caught flat footed?
Two weeks prior to this transition, Aspen Academy began proactively communicating, training and preparing for virtual learning and created a Virtual Learning Hub with FAQs for parents. Although the technologies and systems did not work perfectly the first week, teachers were flexible and quickly adapted to this new style of teaching. The middle school, lower school and programs directors, along with the school’s technology manager, were available around the clock to help all users.
In the event of a significant technology issue, Aspen also supported by an outside IT company, Alerio Technology Group. We’ve received more than 90 testimonials from parents who felt the technology and teaching exceeded their expectations, like this one:
“It went surprisingly SO much smoother than I anticipated for the first day! There were no technical difficulties, you all had your lesson plans organized and were able to clearly explain the work the kids needed to do! THANK YOU for your dedication and hard work to all of our kiddos – you are so greatly appreciated!” — parent of third-grade student
Any and all perspectives wanted. Good and bad, lessons learned, best practices and guidance for others.
Our teachers host online office hours, and one thing we’ve noticed is that students are wanting more connection and support during this social distancing. In some cases, teachers are Google Hangouts with students until 7 p.m. For the teachers, it can also be a balancing act if they’re teaching from home and have their own children at home. Many are working longer hours than anticipated to create lessons and provide the personalized experience they pride themselves on. The school sent our faculty GrubHub certificates after the first week as a way of saying, “thank you,” for teachers’ Herculean efforts to go live over the weekend.
We have been in a race to respond to coronavirus and its impact on our colleges.
We were seeing the virus spread in other countries and watching their response, so we knew it was only a matter of time before the U.S. took social distancing measures and issue stay at home orders.
Given that reality, we focused our efforts on the following items:
Ordering laptops and other equipment to support a remote workforce
Reviewing/ordering necessary licenses to support a remote workforce
Reviewing bandwidth requirements and networking devices to support increase VPN demands
Developing and scheduling necessary technology training for all employees to prepare them for first day at home
Reviewing security practices to respond to new attack vectors
Meeting with academic leaders to develop a plan to transition all students to distance education using new tools
To assist with the transition, we trained the organization on Microsoft Teams. This is the primary tool we use to manage remote employees and departmental teams. We also use two additional video conferencing solutions to help with meetings and delivering synchronous distance education, they are GoToMeeting and Zoom. All students, faculty, and staff have a license for GTM.
Our e-leaning platform is Canvas. We have implemented new ways of using Canvas to support on-ground programs to assist with the transition to online. We are exploring other learning tools to help with the transition, like Respondus, depending on the department or programmatic requirements. We are still exploring new solutions; however, we have seen our colleges adjust curriculum rather than try and solve every problem with technology.
The community has been exceptionally patient throughout this process. They understand the tremendous challenge everyone is facing through this transition, including the strains on the IT department. Many of the challenges have been outside of our control, such as outages with Zoom, Teams, GTM, and home internet providers. These outages are a result of millions of new remote workers using these platforms for the first time, causing unprecedented traffic on the platforms. Most employees have been very understanding of this reality.
Our organization did not anticipate this pandemic, as our business continuity plans did not account for a remote workforce transition that would be nationwide. This provided unique challenges for everyone, including our technology team. However, we have been able to respond quickly to the crisis and keep the organization operating and able to serve our students and faculty.
Like many people, we’ve been asked to shift our face-to-face (FTF) classes to an online format. Generally, teaching an online class is something you approach thoughtfully. It’s not a matter of just uploading a few documents and calling it a day. Not all approaches that work well in a FTF format work well online. Plus, we’re asking students to adapt to a format they didn’t sign up for.
Prior to teaching a class online, there’s generally a checklist of technology provided in the syllabus. So, students know from the beginning what type of technology they’ll need and they can opt to either not take the class or get access to the technology. With switching midway through the semester, there may be issues of access to computers and reliable internet service for some students, all against a backdrop of a global pandemic and the fear and anxiety that inspires. So, there need to be alternatives and contingencies provided to students who may have more difficulty with making the switch.
There are a number of platforms that can support the switch to online instruction. Many textbook companies sell books that can be bundled with online platforms. While you generally must pay an additional fee to access the platforms in light of the pandemic some textbook companies are offering free access to their online platforms for those students who already purchased hard copies of books for their classes. This is a great option for faculty that are already using these books and need supplementation.
The website platforms are designed to integrate with the existing texts and can be used to switch learning online, similar to what happens in a flipped classroom (where content is learned online and then applied or integrated in the classroom). So, for example, McGraw-Hill has a system called Connect, which has interactive learning modules — kind of like flashcards — that walk students through material. They also have interactive activities that can be used to supplement course content.
For instance, in developmental psychology courses they can play a “game” where they make choices for animated characters and get to see the consequences of those choices. Similar options are available in other fields. For faculty that have used a traditional FTF format, this might provide a way to supplement course materials.
Discussion postings are frequently used, but unless you are very careful with how you structure them, they tend not to be very interactive or substantial. You get a lot of “I agree with so-and-so” type of comments which aren’t very intellectually stimulating. A different option I’ve used that works much better is online annotations. I use a platform called Perusall. It’s set up like social media, so students highlight a passage, and can then comment, ask and answer questions on, use emojis, link material, and “like” other students’ comments.
Generally, I find the discussions that result in that format are far more natural and complex than most discussion boards, I think in part because the format is familar to students. You can upload your own content for free, or Perusall has paired with textbook companies and students can purchase their e-books directly off there. Because of the pandemic, textbook companies have agreed that if you are already using their books (either electronic or hard copies) for a course, they will pair the books with Perusall for no added cost.
Another alternative to discussion postings is Flipgrid videos. With Flipgrid, you can ask a discussion question, but rather than answering in writing, students are asked to upload a video. It’s easy to do with a smart phone, which almost all students have. The videos can be set up in a grid, and you can provide options for length, and whether or not students can respond to each other in a sort of delayed conversation.
Zoom, of course, is also a great option. The free version allows you to hold a video meeting for up to 100 people for up to 40 minutes, and there are various pricing plans for other options. While actual conversations are hard if too many people are on a Zoom meeting, you can provide an online synchronous lecture, and even record if if someone can’t make the meeting time and wants to watch it later. You can also provide a chat bar on the side for students to make comments on as you speak. That can be more effective than just having everyone chime in with verbal questions.