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From Online Learning to Classroom Practice. Why not?

This has been sitting in my draft folder at Blogger for over a year. I had been thinking I'd circulate it for publication in an education journal or magazine but hey, what's a blog for anyway? It's for sharing. Let's share:


Virtual Lessons Learned: From Online Learning to the Classroom
By Scott Merrick,
vLearning Support Specialist, Academy Coach, All-Stars Lead Learner, and v-Lead Teacher
At the end of this summer, the small but mighty team at MNPS Virtual School will have been re-inventing and facilitating Tennessee pre-K through 12th grade public school online learning for  four years. True, online learning for high schoolers and younger students has been popping up in various guises in pockets around the state, but it is a verifiable fact that Metro Nashville Public Schools Virtual School is and will always be the first public virtual school recognized as such by the State of Tennessee. That is a story in and of itself, but the purpose if this story is to take note of some lessons we have learned and to pass them on to teachers and administrators who may not be involved in online learning. As our public school district intentionally moves to a fully blended model of individualized learning, it's my belief that many of our practices at our fully online school could be modified to be essential elements of that practice.
In the course of building our school, we have benefited by researching procedures other distance learning entities have put in place; and we continue to research, refine, and invent ways to achieve our mission, which is stated as follows:
To provide Tennessee students with an individualized, dynamic, and empowering virtual education while developing graduates who are college, career, and community ready.
Incorporating some of the habits of duty (I think I just coined that term) that we have developed in this distance learning environment into the “regular classroom” would seem to make all the sense in the world. Florida Virtual School, in particular, has long incorporated the first feature I will discuss, the Pacing Guide, into its Florida online schools and for its clients through its Global School. Most of their courses, many of which we have purchased through Pearson Learning and some of which we lease through Pearson from Global School, have devices built in at an introductory assignment for students to construct these. We go one better and prepare them ourselves. At the outset of each semester, every student is given access to a schedule of assignments for the entire semester. These essays, quizzes, tests, and projects are broken down into discreet sequential sets of assignments due by 11:59 pm every Saturday night.
The Pacing Guide sets clear, concrete expectations of performance, and as we shall see (and as we all should know intuitively anyway), performance is a key element of learning. Regular submission of work product demonstrates understanding. Its evaluation is often termed in the education game as “formative assessment,” and it is essential in the online environment mainly because our students do not fulfill their state-mandated compulsory education requirement by “attending” classes in a school building. In order to comply with the traditional attendance requirement, our students have to perform: “Performance” equals “Attendance.”
This equation has its ramifications. First, it sets every student up with understandable and readily re-accessible expectations. Second, it both challenges them and frees them: It doesn’t matter if a student works all day Monday from 8am to 6pm and does not login the rest of the week, as long as she submits all the required weekly assignments by 6pm. That is amazingly freeing. A young mother then has all week to spend with her child without having to be away from him for seven hours Monday through Friday. If she would rather spend two hours each day working in one class daily, that is up to her. She has control--unless, that is, she chooses to relinquish it by falling "off pace."
A requirement of performance further arms every online teacher with a constantly refreshing and empowering awareness of where each student stands in his or her learning path. At MNPS Virtual School, every one of our teachers is fitted with a constantly evolving measuring stick that allows them to see where each individual student is either progressing, stalling, or failing. A system we call Performance Concerns gives teeth to this measurement tool and helps us support every student. (Note: this procedure has changed since the original writing of this post--I now download the Concerns and pass them along to our v-Enrollment Specialist and v-School Counselor, who analyze them and pass a version revised according to knowledge of individual student circumstances along to our v-Secretary, who creates and mails the snail-mail letters noted in policy below. Our v-School Counselor now communicates via email to School Counselors for Part-Time students throughout the district).
Here is the policy:
Five (5) Percent:
When the student is five (5) percent of the course off pace, the Virtual Teacher will communicate directly with the student and parent(s)/guardian(s) that the learner is off pace in the virtual course.


Ten (10) Percent:
When the student is ten (10) percent of the course off pace, the Executive Principal will send an official notification to the student and parent(s)/guardian(s) that the learner is off pace. Such notification will include the Virtual Truancy policy and ramifications for violating Tennessee’s Compulsory School Attendance Law. Additionally, the Executive Principal will notify the appropriate Attendance Officer who will require a truancy intervention meeting with the student, MNPS Virtual School administration, and the parent(s)/guardian(s). When a part time student, the School Counselor and the Executive Principal from the student’s school of primary enrollment will receive a copy of the notification and participate in the intervention meeting. For full-time students, district officials may also require the student to report to MNPS Virtual School’s Student Center until the learner is back on pace.


Fifteen (15) Percent:
When the student is fifteen (15) percent off pace, the Executive Principal will send an official notification to the student and parent(s)/guardian(s) notifying all parties that the student is truant and in violation of Tennessee’s Compulsory School Attendance Law. Additionally, the Executive Principal will notify the appropriate district Attendance Officer who will initiate the issuance of legal notifications and juvenile court intervention.  When the student is a part-time Virtual School student, the Executive Principal of MNPS Virtual School will also route a copy of the notification to the student’s School Counselor and Executive Principal at the student’s primary school of enrollment.


Twenty (20) or More Percent Off-Pace:
When the student is twenty (20) or more percent off-pace and the student and parent(s)/guardian(s) are not responding to the interventions outlined in this policy, MNPS Virtual School reserves the right to administratively drop the student from the virtual course(s). If the student is full-time, MNPS Virtual School reserves the right to withdraw the student from the Virtual School. When the student is a part-time Virtual School student, the Executive Principal of MNPS Virtual School will also inform the student’s School Counselor and Executive Principal at the student’s primary school of enrollment that the student has been administratively dropped from the course.
http://vlearn.mnps.org/AssetFactory.aspx?did=85991


So, performance equals attendance. What does that mean in practice? In a brick and mortar classroom, a student can, theoretically, come to school, sit in the back of the classroom, and not turn in a single assignment all semester, all without being truant. Not so in Virtual School. Performance equals attendance. We have a process we call Performance Concerns Reportage which tracks, reports, and supports students throughout the district who may be taking one online course during the school day. The same process supports our full-timers.
Nearly every Monday morning (holiday weeks nothing is due and some weeks the reportage is current grade--for mid-quarter progress reports or semester report cards) I download the privately shared Google spreadsheet document our teachers use to report Performance Concerns (this shared document also serves as our current online roster) and I sort it in various ways to create school specific reports. Typically I create an email each for 20-25 School Counselors--copying their Principals, my Principal, and any in-school facilitators a school has established in that role. My report is channeled to our staff who create truancy letters according to each student’s percentage off-pace according to policy. My questions are these: Why can't a classroom teacher report out  similarly? Why, ever again, does a parent need to be blind-sided by their child's failing grade?
Full disclosure: I have a personal motivation for asking these questions. In the fall of 2012, my 16 year old son failed four of his six 10th grade semester courses. Prior to that, he had experienced some academic ups and downs, but he had never failed a class. Aside from one telephone call from a concerned math teacher early in the semester, and a substandard but not bleak 9 weeks report card, there was absolutely no communication from any teacher until we received the final report card with the failing grades. I cannot imagine this experience is highly unique.
In our virtual setting, partly due to the predominantly asynchronous nature of our part-time (though Certified and Highly Qualified) Adjunct Teachers and their students, Communication is a required element of pay period “deliverables” (items of work completion of which are required for a paycheck).Teachers make a Welcome Call (via telephone, Skype, Google Chat or any other synchronous voice or video tool) and are required to document this important communication with student and parent,. They also carry out periodic one-to-one Discussion Based Assessments (DBAs) and mid-semester Progress Report calls. In courses requiring pre-tests for state mandated End of Course tests, we further require one-on-one Data Communication conversations dissecting the results of the student's pre-test and a plan to address learning gaps in preparation for the final test.
While all that may seem like a lot of communication, each piece of it is essential. More to the point, teachers in brick and mortar classrooms, who in many cases are relying on quizzes and tests for formative assessments, could think about holding DBAs instead of or in addition to those quizzes. Currently, in worst cases, what are supposed to be formative assessments driving re-teaching in the classroom are only letter grades in a spiral bound grade book, not informing remediation or helping craft an individualized learning pathway at all.
In order to streamline scheduling DBAs, we utilize an online tool called Appointlet. Each teacher sets up a free account and establishes parameters for meeting times and it is the student's responsibility to schedule an appointment and then to call or Skype at the appointed time. This really helps reduce email glut, speeds up the process, and creates a running record of communication; and our teachers report that they love it. It also syncs to a teacher's Google calendar and if they have that tool set up to do so, it can message their smart phones whenever a DBA is scheduled.
Our teachers regularly comment that they feel they are able to get to know their virtual students better than they are able to establish relationships with the students in their traditional classrooms. Any guesses why?    
Twice each semester, we require another kind of deliverable of our teachers. At each 9 weeks periods, every teacher must post online and make available to his or her students a Digital Learning Object designed to provide review information for upcoming exams. This is one of my favorite innovations that our team has brought to the table, because it requires teachers to creatively and engagingly address and reframe course content. We define DLOs as any course review tool residing online in a digital format which is by design readily accessible and reusable. We further require that each Digital Learning Object is designed specifically toward supporting success in the course’s final examination.
So far our growing collection of these objects includes PowerPoint slide shows, Quizlet stacks, Prezis, Padlet (formerly Wallwisher) “walls,” goanimate.com videos, YouTube videos, wikis, and more. With the proliferation of new content creation apps and presentation technologies, we look forward to engaging not only students, but their teachers, in expressing what they know and have learned in evermore exciting ways. I know of many classroom teachers who are already creating this kind of review content for their students, but I share it here because if you are not, you certainly should be. Hint: The printed textbook is dead.
The final piece I want to offer in this discussion is our after-school Learning Labs. We believe that the asynchronous online environment can be particularly challenging for students in math and science courses. To address this need, we schedule weekly science, language, and math sessions in our recently redesigned Student Center. With netbooks available and Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) encouraged, these support struggling students in personalized ways, often with a teacher who is not their primary Virtual Teacher. We are finding that, in many cases, this extra bit of direct "just in time" instruction can shore up the asynchronous course content in ways that can make all the difference for a student.
For students in courses for which there is a state-mandated End Of Course (EOC) examination, we require pretesting followed by Data Conversations and face to face EOC Labs to address areas where learning has not been accomplished.
With Google Hangouts allowing up to 10 simultaneous video connections with desktop and application sharing, even more synchronous support will be rolled out in the form of topic-specific small group help sessions, often spontaneously motivated by topics arising through DBAs or assignments. Why couldn't a classroom teacher adopt this tool and run with it for after-school sessions in the same vein? For that matter, mightn't a tweetchat serve a similar function in some circumstances? There I go, asking questions again.
At MNPS Virtual School, we will stop at nothing to ensure learning success for each and every student, in each and every online class. As we continue to improve and to refine our procedures, our policies, and our people, we will leave no learning tool untested and no efficacious learning tool unused.Literally the only thing we will not do to support our students is to do the work for them.
Hopefully, some of the lessons we have learned thus far can translate into increased success for your own students. Keep up with developments as they develop by connecting via our Facebook page, our Twitter feed, or our website.
We don’t know it all. We continue to learn. That's why we're here, after all.

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