8 Things You Don't Want to Forget for Virtual Learning Success
8 Things You Don't Want to Forget for Virtual Learning Success
Principal Tara Campbell is just a couple of months into year one of serving 450-plus K–12 students via the Flexible Learning for Educational Excellence (FLEX) Academy, a virtual school option for Douglas County School System students in the Appalachian Piedmont region of Georgia. As one might expect, opening a long-term virtual school during a pandemic is not without its challenges. In our recent conversation, Dr. Campbell offered a transparent look at her experience, sharing many lessons she learned and best practices for successful instruction in the virtual setting.
1. Do not expect perfection.
Dr. Campbell was quick to say, “We’re making constant adjustments as we go. I’m not shy about telling students, parents, anyone, ‘We know we’re building the plane while we’re flying it.’” When confronted with needs to recalibrate, Dr. Campbell and her teachers are finding success by leading with flexibility. “We are willing to adapt and make changes every step of the way,” she said.
2. Clarify the characteristics of a successful virtual learner.
In July and August, FLEX Academy educators defined a list of characteristics for successful online learners to help families and students alike gauge their interest and aptitude for the program before applying. For forthcoming admission windows, educators have plans to take that a step further.
“In the future, let’s describe what that learner really looks like in day-to-day life,” shared Dr. Campbell. “I want to get some students who’ve done well in the program to talk about what they do so that a parent can hear from the student [directly]. When the student’s saying, ‘Well, I get up at this time, and I work on this for a certain amount of time,’ the parent can be thinking, ‘Is my child really going to do that?’ or they might be thinking, ‘OK, my child will do that!’ But I think hearing it painted by an actual student would be helpful.”
3. Balance synchronous and asynchronous learning.
“The virtual learning environment has the potential to be a very personalized learning experience for the students, and that’s what my vision is [for FLEX Academy], and that’s what we’re working towards,” stated Dr. Campbell. “We’re trying to find the right balance of scheduled meetings that are going to help [students] be successful and then an ample amount of flexible [independent learning time].”
That just-right balance means that a typical day might include a mix of Google Meet sessions led by FLEX Academy teachers and adequate work time in online curriculum. At FLEX Academy, K–5 students use Edmentum’s Calvert Learning, which offers project-based curriculum, while 6–8 students use Edmentum Courseware’s robust curriculum options. Striking a healthy balance also includes one-to-one or small-group sessions with a student’s teacher for additional support and enrichment.
4. Preview concepts for upcoming units.
At FLEX Academy, teachers offer weekly Google Meet sessions that are optional for students to preview upcoming learning concepts.
In the words of Dr. Campbell, “We talk about previewing a lot—and really that the research shows that it’s more effective than reviewing anyway, so we’re trying to build toward that.”
The Marzano Compendium of Instructional Strategies from Marzano Research describes previewing as engaging students in “activities that help them link what they already know to the new content about to be addressed,” and also states that it “can boost achievement for all students but is particularly vital for students with low background knowledge.”
5. Provide targeted tutoring opportunities.
The teachers at FLEX Academy are designing targeted, teacher-directed intervention based on a series of assessment and performance data points. As the school enters its second grading period, Dr. Campbell described her teachers’ plans to “[combine] all these data points to create some small groups and invite students into targeted sessions that are really for their needs.” Additionally, students do have the ability to sign up for tutoring so that they will always have access to human connection in the form of an expert teacher who understands their learning needs.
6. Incentivize what matters.
As part of offering a flexible, self-paced learning experience, students can choose which learning options to take advantage of and when they want to complete them. Teachers support this self-directed process but also incentivize specific activities that lead to success.
“We offer incentives for attending the [teacher-directed instructional] sessions in terms of points,” noted Dr. Campbell. “The currency in education is grades, so we use that leverage to try to encourage things.”
Dr. Campbell is quick to add, however, that these points are only attached to actions that have real benefits to the learning process. She offers the example of middle school teachers who believe in the value of completing guided notes in the Courseware platform as a mode of retaining key information—particularly for those who are not optimal test takers.
“It’s not actually about the points,” reported Dr. Campbell. “It’s about learning and the belief that you have learned more if you’ve done this.”
7. Make sure that every student has a wingman.
The FLEX Falcons love a good flight metaphor. So much so that advisors are known as “wingmen,” and they play a special role in supporting students during a weekly class known as “Take Off.” Here, wingmen offer get-to-know-you opportunities, social-emotional learning instruction, and support with study skills. They also evaluate how students are doing in each one of their classes and provide one-on-one advisement.
“Those nonacademic pieces are just as important, if not more important, sometimes, than the academic pieces,” shared Dr. Campbell. “The wingman is pushing each child on an individual basis and learning where they are [by monitoring progress] more globally.”
8. Create a strategy for fostering a home-to-school connection.
Parents, families, and caregivers play an irreplaceable role in the learning journey, especially for virtual students. It is not only important that they’re ready to serve as an active learning guide (particularly for lower grade levels) but also that they receive the support they need from their child’s school in order to be successful. FLEX Academy is exploring many different strategies to engage families, including weekly videos, question-and-answer sessions, and extended open houses. Check back for an upcoming blog post digging into seven ways FLEX Academy is winning with families.