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[Educator Interview] Virtual Learning Day Success in Random Lake, Wisconsin

[Educator Interview] Virtual Learning Day Success in Random Lake, Wisconsin

So far, 2019 has included serious blizzards, snow, and downright frigid temperatures that have closed school doors across the country. Fortunately, having to make up that lost learning time at the end of the year isn’t the only solution anymore. To ensure continuous learning, even during inclement weather days, more and more districts across the country are turning to virtual learning options.

Random Lake School District in Random Lake, Wisconsin, is one such site that is putting the concept of virtual learning days to the test this year. I recently had the opportunity to connect with Random Lake Elementary School Principal Sandy Mountain to find how the school prepared and executed two such days this past January and what it learned from its experience to date.

A lot more schools seem to be turning the concept of virtual learning days into a reality this year. Why do you think that’s the case?

Sandy Mountain: There’s a lot more school districts, like ours, that have gone to 1:1 devices. Every one of our students K–12 has got a device. Although, our elementary kids don’t bring theirs home. We would like to keep them intact! Our teachers send home a folder that has all their usernames and logins so that the caregivers have an idea of what program they’re going to and how to get there.

We also did some surveys before we decided to even pilot this and found that well over 90 percent of our families had [Internet] access somehow, whether that was through a smartphone, whether that was through a tablet, whether that was Wi-Fi in their home, whether that was a laptop, so we were pretty confident that we wouldn’t have absences any more than a typical school day. I can probably name about six kids out of the elementary population that simply didn’t have access, and we were able to compensate for those students that literally didn’t have access by sending home paperwork. But, you know, that’s just an accommodation, a slight modification for access to the learning.

Planning for virtual learning days requires thinking through a lot of moving parts. What did your planning process look like?

Sandy Mountain: We started planning for this about four years ago when the state of Wisconsin was toying around with the idea of looking for districts to pilot a “build it as you fly it” situation. They put up some parameters for us: we had to make sure, for example, at the elementary level that caregivers, not just parents, but whomever would be with the child during a virtual learning day would know how to access the things that we use. We wanted to use as many of the programs, apps, routines, [used in school]. We wanted to stick as close to that as possible on a virtual day, and since we use Exact Path in class, it therefore became a part of what happens during our virtual day as well.

Edmentum Exact Path is a K–8 online program that uses adaptive assessments to support students with individualized learning experiences in reading, language arts, and math. Can you describe how you’re using Exact Path as a component of your virtual learning day?

Sandy Mountain: We use Exact Path with kindergarten through 8th grade. We went live on Halloween [of 2018], so the teachers have been playing and learning since November. As we are new to Exact Path, we have begun to examine the diagnostic data results and help direct classroom instruction, including interventions, to the specific areas of need. Additionally, teachers being able to look at student progress on their individual learning paths allows our teachers to group students for interventions, as well as address specific students needs on an individual basis. 

We know to use it about 30 minutes a week per subject. So, it’s not like, “Hey, open up Exact Path, and go!” That was not the intention of it at all. But, we had two virtual days – Monday, January 28,, and Wednesday, January 30. You cannot tell looking at the usage numbers that we were not in the building those days. We had just as many logins as we did on a very typical school day.

Recognizing that Exact Path is just one component of a successful digital learning day, what other programs or tools does your district use to support the success of a digital learning day?

Sandy Mountain: Some of the other things we had to do—we had to make sure the teachers were available for discussions, questions, troubleshooting. We did that through a variety of means. I had some teachers that did it on their class Facebook channels—they kind of flipped the classroom, where the teacher did a video, and the students watched along and then did their work and submitted it electronically to their teacher.

I had some [teachers] that used a program called Seesaw (a schoolwide digital portfolio). In grades 3–12, we have a learning management system, Schoology, so things can be assigned and turned in and discussed and flipped using Schoology quite easily. So, it was real natural to say, “You know, here’s what your task is.”

Together, all of these programs and tools make up a comprehensive digital learning experience. So, what do you think the benefits are to taking this approach?

Sandy Mountain: Quite honestly, it keeps the learning going rather than having to start/stop, start/stop, start/stop. In our case, we missed three days of school [in January]. We did virtual two of those days, so we had a four-day week, and there were four days of learning right at the spot that [students] were. You know, they were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing in math had they been in the classroom, but you know they were at home in front of a hot cocoa. It was a continuation of the classroom rather than an “instead of” situation, and so we didn’t have to start/stop, start/stop. We could just let the learning continue, which obviously is going to be better for the kids.

With two of these days now under your belt, how would you say things are going?

Sandy Mountain: We have a survey out right now to parents, teachers, and students. Ninety percent of parents responding to the survey are telling us that they feel our virtual learning day is a favorable option as our district moves forward. The feedback that we received on our district Facebook page and just anecdotal communications with parents as they’ve come through the office since has been pretty positive, [including:] “Wow, that’s a really cool idea” [and] “That’s innovative.”

We continue to debrief and get better. Our theme here in the district is that we provide the RL (Random Lake) Advantage, and we do think that this innovative approach to keeping instruction continuous is one of our advantages.

What lessons have you learned so far? What would you pass along to others giving digital learning days a try?

Sandy Mountain: You have to plan ahead. You know, taking some real common-sense steps ahead of time [and asking:] What tools do we have to communicate? What tools do we have to instruct? What tools do we have for students to communicate back? How can we make learning continuous? This isn’t just, “There’s a folder with some worksheets in it in case we don’t come to school one day. Just sit there and do those worksheets.” That’s not the goal.

[Instead, it’s,] “How do you make that learning continuous? Here’s where we left off in the class on Tuesday, now Wednesday you’re at home. Here we go.” You really have to examine your tools, and they have to be tools that the kids are familiar with.

I’m really glad that we had the chance to try it finally! All of the data that we’re getting back so far, as far as the usage in Schoology, the usage in Exact Path, the number of students that logged in and participated, our Department of Public Instruction is allowing us to count every one of those minutes as an instruction minute, so we are right on track, and our virtual days are good to go. We planned ahead!

 Looking for more ways to keep your students engaged, even on bad weather days? Check out our OnDemand webinar for 10 quick engagement tips!

madison.michell's picture
Madison Michell

Madison Michell has been a member of the Edmentum team since 2014 and currently serves as a Marketing Manager. As a former Kindergarten and 3rd grade teacher during her time as a Teach For America corps member, she believes education truly has the power to transform lives. She is passionate about connecting educators with online programs, best practices, and research that improve teaching and learning for today's students.