Bringing online learning to the school classroom

More and more schools are venturing into online learning so as to expand their choice of courses for students. Especially for rural and/or smaller schools, online courses help expand an otherwise limited selection of electives, advanced placement courses or foreign language courses that would not otherwise be economically feasible for the school.

There are some benefits to this model of schooling:

  • It offers students the opportunity to explore unusual interests and personal learning goals.
  • It allows students to take charge of their own learning.
  • It allows students to use various technological skills that will benefit them for years.
  • It allows students to access a greater repository of knowledge, information and resources than can be found in a traditional classroom.
  • It may help students achieve college credit in high school.
  • Overall, it helps build learning skills for more self-regulated, independent learning later in life.

I have learned that there are numerous online vendors who are ready to provide either stand-alone courses or complete curriculum series online. Smaller schools on a limited budget need to review student course requests and carefully consider staffing and scheduling when vendors are considered. There are some important questions to consider when consulting with vendors:

  • Is the course designed with the high school student in mind?
  • Is there a syllabus that can be previewed of the course?
  • Is the course semester- or year-long?
  • What is the availability of the virtual instructor?
  • To what extent will the on-campus facilitator/supervisor be required to assist in the teaching of the course? Is content knowledge assumed in this individual?
  • What type of assignment requirements will be required of the students?
  • Is there a final project?
  • Is there anyway for the school to track student progress in the particular course?
  • What monitoring tools are available for the on-campus teacher/facilitator/supervisor?
  • How will the student be graded in the course?
  • Can the course be used to fulfill the school’s graduation requirements?
  • Can college-level credit be awarded upon completion of the course?
  • Is there a voluntary withdrawal period without cost if the course is not what was expected?

Caruso (2008) recommends the following from a couple of hard lessons that were learned through her school’s own experience with online learning:

  • Schools are encouraged to develop a contract that outlines the financial responsibility for courses if they are dropped past a vendor’s voluntary drop date. Since withdrawing from a course after such a date usually entails some sort of financial commitment by the school, the contract specifies that the student and parent will agree to reimburse the school for the cost of the course. Such a contract should be signed by the student, parent, student advisor, and perhaps another teacher from the discipline area of the course, if possible.
  • Schools are encouraged to develop a policy for the use of class time on campus for any online classes. If a student prefers to work at home on an online course, how is the scheduled time on campus to be used?
  • Schools should determine if any grading responsibility for the course can be assigned to the on-campus facilitator who monitors the students while on campus. Should points for participation be included in the course grade?
  • Schools should establish a course completion policy and outline how students are to account for their time if they finish a course ahead of schedule. This acknowledges that some students work quickly, while others progress at a slower pace.

Reference:

Caruso, C. (2008, May). Bringing online learning to life. Educational Leadership 65(8); 70-72.

Accreditation site visit

I had the opportunity to participate in the Christian Schools International (CSI) accreditation site visit of Monroe Christian School last week. In preparation for this visit, I learned about the CSI accreditation standards including the “essential standards” which all CSI schools must meet, and the “general standards” towards which CSI schools work. I felt that the standards were quite rigorous and definitely challenged a school to affirm its basis, purpose and work as a Christian institution schooling.  This experience provided me with very valuable insights into the organization, teaching and activities of the school.

Numerous documents and other artifacts of evidence were provided for us to review, and we were given the opportunity to interview teachers, staff and students with regards to the different standards. For each standard the team shared commendations and blessings, expressed necessary concerns, and provided recommendations to address as the school continues to work towards fulfilling its mission.

Until this visit, I was not aware how well developed and focused the school was as a community and institution dedicated to glorifying God. I discovered the dedication of the entire staff to the students, to teaching and to the greater mission of the school. I learned about the breadth of curriculum and services that the school offers. I gleaned new insights into the management of a private Christian school.

Talking with students and staff about learning, attending chapel, and sensing the positive energy in the building were meaningful side benefits of the visit for me. Celebrating the school-wide “Thanksgiving Feast” as part of their community was heart-felt.

Overall, I feel that the school performed very well for the visit. It revealed a focus and dedication to Christian schooling. The visit energized me to be of service to them as we continue to explore God’s whisper for Christian schooling beyond K-8 to include 9-12 as a Christian high school in Monroe.

Lessons from different high school models

Different public school initiatives and charter schools in the US have worked at reinventing the high school experience by just ‘starting over.’ Whether it is for the purpose of assisting our students to “develop the broad knowledge of the world that would help them succeed in the 21st-century global environment” (Jackson, 2008, p. 58), or simply to “reclaim our students” (Forbes & Richelieu Saunders, 2008, p. 42), unique models of high schools are being considered for learning in the 21st century.

There are some common lessons being learned from these models:

1. Learning needs to be relevant for students. This is not a new idea, but one that appears to be stressed more in the current dialogue on high school reform. High school students learn best when they see their education as relevant to their lives and the world around them. Work-based learning components, internships, partnerships with industry and commerce, and school-based enterprises also help provide real-world connections.

2. The need for a strongly developed curriculum. Such a curriculum needs to be purposeful, yet not sacrifice academic rigor for relevancy. Traditional courses need to integrate knowledge and skills about the world and how the world works. The in-depth study of disciplines such as math, science, English and social studies, is applied to authentic problems and applications. The study of a foreign, global language helps expose students to other cultures. Overall, international content and perspectives should be included in engaging coursework that is often project-based.

3. Project-based learning. The curriculum briefly described above should lead to engaging project-based learning for students. This requires a shift from teacher-directed, whole class lessons to personalized, student-directed projects. In this approach, students study necessary content as well as essential skills to research and problem solve. Students are encouraged to develop their strengths and reflect on their weaknesses so as to improve themselves. Projects then culminate in presentations where students share their findings, demonstrate their content understanding, and talk about the learning strategies and processes they followed in front of teachers, their peers, parents, and even panels of community members and other guests.

4. Learning in community. As part of this process, group work is essential to help students collaborate with others and communicate with each other about how they learn and how they overcome challenges they are facing as they learn. Group work should include problem-solving and support for each other’s learning.

5. Technology. In all models, learning and instruction capitalize the use of various technologies to such an extent that technology is a seamless part of the teaching and learning process. Such use of appropriate technology helps underscore the fact that we live in an interconnected and interdependent world. Related to this, teachers are proactive in guiding and encouraging students towards a positive digital citizenship and a professional and ethical use of technology for learning’s sake.

6. Adequate time for teacher preparation. The positive impact of qualified, prepared and motivated teachers cannot be understated. These various models are consistent in their need for a core group of teachers who share a vision for the model of high school and are committed to personalizing the learning experience for their students. As a result, a common feature of the models is sufficient time for teachers to collaborate together to develop curriculum and plan for instruction. Teachers need to be ready with advising, appropriate counseling, and additional instruction as necessary. For these reasons, the provision for adequate, site-based professional development to better serve the students is important, too.

References:

Forbes, J. D., & Richelieu Saunders, C. (2008, May). How we reinvented the high school experience. Educational Leadership 65(8); 42-46.

Hoachlander, G. (2008, May). Bringing industry to the classroom. Educational Leadership 65(8); 22-27.

Jackson, A. (2008, May). High schools in the global age. Educational Leadership 65(8); 58-62.

Quint, J. (2008, May). Lessons from leading models. Educational Leadership 65(8); 64-68.

Being small is not enough

A high school that is small in size is not enough to ensure student learning and post-high-school success. Ancess (2008) suggests that the four following characteristics are essential in an effective small school:

1. Caring Relationships – appear essential for student achievement. This includes relationships between students and teachers, as well as relationships among teachers. Students need unwavering teacher access, support and appropriately, teacher-imposed pressure for the learning process. Teachers and students need to get to know each other and have ongoing conversations that encourage learning. These conversations can be both formal, focused on learning, and informal, where the topics may be centered on a student’s life, problems, successes, or aspirations. As the bond between teacher and student develop, teachers can leverage the relationship to further encourage and persuade student growth. This can help students transcend their own perceived limitations.

Caring relationships among teachers, who need to work together in support of their students’ learning, should also develop as teachers share planning times, collaborate, and problem solve together. Teachers feel a sense of collective responsibility for their students’ learning. These caring relationships are characterized by interdependence, respect, and trust.

2. Unified School Community – The school needs to be a community where learning and relationships are valued. There should be shared educational beliefs, goals, rituals, commitments and norms. Professional development for teachers includes a focus on these further. The community works together to support students academically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. All adults are mentors and advisors in this process.

3. Strong Safety Net – Multiple systems can be set in place to safeguard student development. Through an advisory program, every student is assigned to an adult who takes responsibility for the student. This includes close communication with parents, access to community- and church-based support organizations, and a four-year sequence of activities that help prepare students for necessary post-high school decisions. Grade-level teams meet to share information and monitor student progress. Professional development opportunities help teachers strengthen this safety net by offering necessary guidance strategies in their work.

4. Intellectually Transformative Experiences – As students encounter success in school and produce high-quality, intellectually focused work, they gain a greater appreciation for their ability and future. They develop an interest in learning, which fosters, in turn, greater motivation for using their minds. Using their minds means “getting [students] to analyze, reason, mount a logical argument and defend it, solve problems, conduct research, negotiate conflicting perspectives, imagine possibilities, question their own and others’ assumptions, and use the power of their ideas to persuade others to change their opinions” (Ancess, 2008, p. 51). Teachers need to provide school tasks that are worthy of their engagement.

Reference:

Ancess, J. (2008, May). Small alone is not enough. Educational Leadership 65(8); 48-53.

Recommendations for successful high school reform

A few more thoughts from the same articles on high school reform:

National high school reform efforts have merely “propped up an antiquated system instead of rethinking and repairing it” (Wise, 2008, p. 10).

What preliminary recommendations have emerged from those reform efforts of the high school experience that appear to be successful?

1. Align what schools expect of students with the demands of college and the workforce. Research by ACT (American College Testing) suggests that the skills needed for work readiness mirrors those needed for college readiness.  As a result, we need to set common, high expectations and a common set of standards for students to acquire the knowledge and skills that will lead to post high-school success whether they attend college or enter the workplace.

2. Offer a rigorous, option-rich curriculum in order to personalize learning. As we set high standards for learning and share our expectations that our students can attain them, we need to develop and offer a rich curricular experience that allows students to personalize their own learning in response. Such an experience should be option-rich so that students can explore and learn across disciplines.

3. Support learning. Schools, then, need to provide the necessary advising and support programs to ensure student success. This includes offering smaller learning environments, fostering long-term relationships among faculty and students, and creating advisory systems to ensure needed academic and personal support for the student, the family and other teachers that the student encounters. This will require smaller class sizes and providing teachers with more time to teach their students by tailoring instruction to their strengths, needs, background, experience and interest.

4. Improve instruction by mining data and using digital technologies. In order for teachers to better serve their students, they need to know how to inquire and reflect on their instructional effectiveness as it positively impacts student learning. Teachers need to know how to make informed pedagogical decisions based on data as they help personalize the learning experience of their students. Teachers need to know how to support classroom instruction through the use of appropriate technologies and best practices.

5. Professional and Collaborative Learning. In order for teachers to better serve their students, they need considerable time to plan, collaborate and learn from each other. This time should be allocated on an at least weekly, if not daily, basis and also include sufficient learning in-service days during the year. Teachers should meet regularly in grade-level groups and in discipline-specific groups to engage in focused inquiry on problems of practice.

References:

Darling-Hammond, L. & Friedlaender, D. (2008). Creating excellent and equitable schools. Educational Leadership, 65(8); 14-21.

Wise, B. (2008, May). High schools at the tipping point. Educational Leadership, 65(8); 8-13.

Going to high school: A moral and economic imperative

A few thoughts as I reviewed some articles on high school reform:

As a society we need to acknowledge that all students have a right to a high-quality secondary school education that will prepare them to meet the challenges they will face upon graduation. This is especially important in today’s knowledge-based economy where essential 21st century skills for success need to be developed in school. I admit that I still need to fully understand what most educators would agree regarding this set of skills, and I look forward to learning more. In any case, high school students should feel equipped and confident for either continued study in college or entering the workforce after grade 12.

Unfortunately, it is becoming evident to me that today’s high schools are not necessarily designed with this in mind.  Most high school experiences have been designed for a different era. They follow what has been coined as “the 20th century factory model” (Darling-Hammond & Friedlaender, 2008, p. 14). At the beginning of the 20th century approximately 10% of high school-aged students actually went to school. This was a luxury for a choice few. Today, attendance laws require all high school-aged students be in the classroom or be held accountable for their time. As a result, the high school has developed in a manner that typically processes as many students as possible. This model favors size and efficiency over relationship (Darling-Hammond & Friedlaender, 2008). Students are gathered in relatively large class sizes, they attend multiple classes in a day and are taught by multiple teachers, many of whom rarely have the opportunity to collaborate effectively with their colleagues over instructional improvement and best practices. To me, the typical US high school is too large and impersonal.  My opportunities to visit high schools in the Puget Sound have left me thinking that they are detached communities filled with many students who are not necessarily engaged and interested in learning.

In the light of greater global economic competition and any related demands from the workplace, our schools need to help students meet the new requirements of the 21st century. Wise (2008) rightly describes this as a “moral and economic imperative” (p. 9) for us to address. I believe that society expects our students to be ready for the challenges they will face upon graduation. They want students to be well-prepared to be active contributors in the global community. Parents expect more from our high schools  for their children. They want to know that their children are prepared and able to lead productive lives. Students want to be engaged and can be motivated to learn more. Perhaps the current model of high school needs to change in order to meet these expectations in light of this new reality.

References:

Darling-Hammond, L. & Friedlaender, D. (2008). Creating excellent and equitable schools. Educational Leadership, 65(8); 14-21.

Wise, B. (2008, May). High schools at the tipping point. Educational Leadership, 65(8); 8-13.

Reshaping High Schools

I went through my files of  Educational Leadership and picked up this thematic issue on “Reshaping High Schools” (May 2008, vol. 65, #8). It offered numerous articles that stimulated my thinking and helped me to better understand the complexity of designing a high school experience in response to current demands. I am going to use this blog to make some notes and share some of my thoughts, too.