The pandemic’s effect on education has been disruptive for many children. But some kids are benefitting from the experiment with remote learning. They are finding it easier to focus outside of the classroom, even thriving, thanks to their newfound learning independence. Still others are experiencing less social anxiety in the online space.
What will happen to these students when we move beyond the pandemic? School leaders across the country are grappling with this question. They are trying to figure out how to meet the personalized needs of these children and their families.
One solution is to create virtual academies. A 2020 RAND study found that 20 percent of school districts nationwide have already created virtual academies or plan to do so post-pandemic. Districts that say they’ll offer a remote option next school year include Corona-Norco and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts in California, Jordan School District in Utah, Park Hill School District in Missouri, and Pickens County School District in South Carolina, to name just a few.
High-quality virtual academies allow a cohort of students to learn from home while maintaining excellent instruction. Over the past year, we have learned a tremendous amount about how to craft this model. I’m working with Ritenour School District, in St. Louis, Missouri, to build a virtual academy as an option for students and families. Though all models need continuous improvement, based on research and feedback, it is becoming clear that the success of virtual academies depends on finding solutions to the six areas described below.
Students learning from home have a range of unique needs, but these needs aren’t as visible when students are coming to classes on a screen. Virtual academies have to be proactive and look for ways to connect counselors, social workers, behavioral support specialists, and intervention services to all families. Students in virtual academies need added ways to connect to the school and feel a sense of belonging. As we get better as a society with telemedicine and virtual therapy, we should apply many of the lessons learned in these spaces to the virtual wraparound services that are offered.
Teachers at virtual academies have reported that they are no longer handling traditional classroom behavior issues, but a new set of issues have materialized that are unique to the online space. This includes challenges like ensuring students have cameras on at appropriate times and are actively participating in breakout rooms. Design with these challenges in mind. Craft norms and expectations for students learning in synchronous and asynchronous moments. Leaving this to chance creates tension for teachers and makes it hard for the academic design of the virtual academy to reach its potential.
One of the difficult aspects of running a virtual learning academy is maintaining the inquiry-based and experiential learning that is central to the experience of in-person schooling. These learning approaches are essential to students remaining engaged and joyful, and so they must form the core of the virtual academy’s academic vision. The precise use of digital tools and websites can support this work. Virtual field trips can play a role, but teachers should also look for ways to use the students’ surroundings beyond their homes when possible. The goal of active learning will also alleviate concerns around eye strain and the lack of movement that can come from virtual learning.
One thing we have realized during pandemic learning is that we have a very bloated curriculum. Schools and districts have scrambled to identify priority standards and reduce coverage of the original curriculum. It is clear that virtual learning requires a different way of looking at curriculum. As schools consider the development of a virtual academy, they should begin fresh. This means throwing out the old documents and resources that can often block the thinking needed to right-size the curriculum for a virtual-only environment. Teacher teams should look for areas where two subjects give students the same skill or where a lesson’s aim does not seem critical for a particular group of students.
We have learned a lot about the traits needed for those who facilitate learning in a virtual environment. It begins with a strong sense of resilience. Teaching online isn’t natural for most educators, as this wasn’t the focus of their training. Resilient teachers have moved through this period much more comfortably. In addition, virtual academies need teachers who can build connections and community, goals that are harder to achieve in a virtual-only environment. Finally, we should be looking for learning facilitators who can efficiently gather informal data and use it to inform instruction.
A lack of robust broadband and one-to-one devices remain barriers to the virtual academy for some families, even though this model may meet their child’s needs. And support for families can’t end with a hotspot and a device. Swift tech support must be built in. When a device won’t boot, needs an update, or a learning program won’t open, students need help within hours, not days. The right support can make the difference between an engaged student in rhythm with the demands of a virtual academy, or a student bored at home without guidance.
Some students thrive in the virtual space. That’s a good reason for school leaders to find a way to offer an online learning option going forward. The intentional design of a virtual academy can be another tool for schools and districts to meet the needs of all students and families.
Building a Virtual Academy?
We’d love to hear about your experience with building a virtual academy to meet the needs of students in your district. What challenges have you faced? How are you overcoming them? Email us at Shaped@hmhco.com or tweet us at @HMHCo.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
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