5 lessons for virtual learning and teaching from an online K-12 school

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5 lessons for virtual learning and teaching from an online K-12 school

Facing the reality of partially or fully virtual instruction this fall, many District Leadership Forum partners are asking a common question: How do we do virtual teaching and learning better than we did in the spring?

To answer that question, we spoke with Texas Tech University (TTU) K-12—a fully online, public K-12 school that has served over 400,000 students since 1993. TTU K-12 operates completely asynchronous (i.e., self-paced) programs.

We spoke with the interim superintendent, Dr. Justin Louder, and senior director of academics and curriculum, Dr. Lisa Leach, who shared five tips for virtual learning success.

Create modules with specific learning objectives and multi-modal tasks

Rather than experiment with new learning platforms and software during this time, teachers should prioritize the “basics”—the foundation of instruction—with three questions: What are the key learning objectives? How will students learn the objectives? How will I know that students have mastered the objectives?  

For example, TTU K-12 leaders used these questions to create a science unit module on the periodic table:

The module’s learning objectives focus on the organization and functioning of the periodic table.

Students complete a series of activities linked with readings and videos.

Students conduct lab experiments, complete text-based and video-based questions, and participate in online discussion boards.

Teachers should replace end-of-unit assessments with performance tasks. TTU K-12 leaders agree—teachers should explore projects, videos, and presentations as alternatives to traditional exams.

Build strong student-teacher bonds to increase student engagement  

Teachers should connect regularly with students through videoconference, email, phone, or other communication channels to gauge academic progress and social-emotional well-being. At TTU K-12:

  • Teachers hold optional, bi-weekly office hours to tutor students. Teachers also use this time to conduct informal student wellness checks.
  • Starting this fall, teachers will hold mandatory homeroom meetings on a weekly basis, during which students connect informally with their teachers and peers.
  • Lead teachers, who oversee a specific grade or content area, provide additional academic support for students.

EAB’s report Increasing Retention in Online High Schools discusses additional ways to cultivate strong student-teacher relationships. For example, students may set up “live” appointments with teachers outside of regular office hours and teachers may hold regular (e.g., monthly) student progress meetings with families.

In addition to fostering student-teacher relationships, districts can increase student engagement by bringing in-person school traditions into the virtual environment. At the online high schools profiled in the above EAB report, students participate in “live” lunches with their peers, attend whole-school spirit rallies every month, and join clubs (e.g., student government, Model United Nations, debate) via videoconference. At TTU K-12, administrators recently set up a national honor society and student council.

Program your learning management system to send early warnings of student disengagement

At TTU K-12, administrators set up Blackboard to send alerts to teachers, advisors, and counselors when a student has not logged into Blackboard in the last three days, fails to submit assignments, attains low test grades, and/or demonstrates an overall drop in grades. Upon receiving these alerts, teachers, advisors, and/or counselors reach out to students to diagnose challenges and offer support.

TTU K-12 teachers provide extra support for struggling students through individualized learning plans and 1:1 tutoring. In addition, EAB’s webinar “What K-12 ‘Return to Learn’ Plans Are Getting Wrong” suggests skills-based grouping to address students’ skill gaps. Grouping students by skill deficit, as opposed to broad and general grouping measures, can refocus interventions on the underlying skill gap that may have been hindering a student’s progress.

Parent involvement is essential for grades K-3

At TTU K-12, teachers gear K-3 virtual instruction towards parents, rather than expecting students to independently navigate asynchronous learning on a device. For these grades, the parent is expected to deliver instruction by using TTU K-12 resources. For example, parents print out learning activities from Blackboard and upload their children’s completed work for teacher feedback. Teachers connect with parents to ensure they understand how to navigate Blackboard.

Provide teacher professional development on technical skills and cybersecurity

TTU K-12 leaders emphasize that administrators should not expect teachers to become online learning experts over the summer. However, administrators should help teachers become more comfortable with online instruction. This starts with professional development on technical skills related to navigating the district’s online platforms, tools, and software.

Next, administrators should train teachers on how to maintain student privacy in a virtual setting. For example, teachers should:

  • Use only secure platforms that require a username and password for entry. At TTU K-12, teachers exclusively use Blackboard to post assignments, proctor tests, and house students’ grades.
  • Set up a password for Zoom meetings and share this password only with students in the class.
  • Refrain from posting photos of students on personal social media accounts (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter).
  • Avoid sharing personal phone numbers with students. For example, at TTU K-12, teachers exclusively use Skype for Business to chat live with students.

TTU K-12 leaders recommend that district administrators structure trainings as short, single-topic sessions (e.g., 30 minutes) to maximize engagement. Administrators should also upload recorded sessions so that teachers may access them at any time.  

While virtual learning this fall will introduce new challenges for most districts, TTU K-12 serves as a model and source for best practices. These five tips from their 17 years of experience can help guide your fall planning and support student success.

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