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10/21/2018 5:56:00 PM
Indiana schools finding success with eLearning days when school is canceled

Sue Loughlin, Tribune-Star

Nathan Mock stayed home from school Sept. 19, but it wasn’t a Ferris Bueller kind of day off.

The South Vermillion High School freshman had plenty of assignments, which he completed using his school-issued iPad. 

He wasn’t alone. Districtwide, students stayed home as part of South Vermillion’s practice eLearning day, the first of three approved by the state and school board. The next practice day is Wednesday and the last will be Nov. 28. 

One of the goals is to be able to use eLearning days if inclement weather forces students and staff to stay home, said South Vermillion superintendent Dave Chapman.

Mock believes the eLearning days “are going to be a good alternative to snow days” and it will help schools stay on schedule.

Conducting practice sessions enables the district to work out any bugs, and there were a few. 

”I think the teachers might not have been totally aware of how much work they assigned,” Mock said. “I heard that from many classmates.”  

He also heard there were some issues with the technology. “I’m sure it will get better over time,” he said.

While it’s more comfortable having school at home, it’s not something he would want to do every day, Mock said.

”I think there are a lot of things that can’t be done outside of class” that involve personal interaction, including class discussion or group work, Mock said.

Some students gathered at the Clinton McDonald’s or public library, which have wifi, to do their work. Meanwhile, South Vermillion teachers were at school Sept. 19, available to respond to students’ questions or problems but also participating in their own professional development.

eLearning growing statewide

The use of eLearning days is growing in Indiana. Currently, 278 school districts or schools — including  101 nonpublic schools and 177 public — are approved for using eLearning days, said Candice Dodson, director of eLearning with the Indiana Department of Education.

Last year, 229 schools or districts were approved. 

The program can be used on a day of inclement weather, on a make-up day for poor weather or on a planned day for other reasons including teacher training. 

It has been around for about seven years and, over that time, schools’ ability to provide learning away from a brick and mortar facility has increased, Dodson said. More than half of all school corporations have brought their student/device ratio up to one device per student at either all or some grade levels, according to the IDOE website. 

More and more districts each day are using blended learning that includes applications and other online resources, “so it becomes much easier to do that away from the building,” Dodson said

”eLearning days have been a really positive catalyst in Indiana,” she said. “It has really helped families, teachers and students see how we really can use technology to broaden what we think of in terms of teaching and learning.”

It’s enabling students to learn “really good skills” needed in today’s world, she said. “It really has been an exciting program for Indiana.”

Schools must meet several requirements to participate:

•They must demonstrate access to the internet for students and teachers away from school buildings.

•Parents and students can reach teachers directly to support e-instruction.

•Students will be informed of their learning targets for the day by 9 a.m.

•Students work will cover content that would have been addressed if school were in session in a traditional setting.

•All students who have accommodations for instruction will be provided with or have access to those accommodations, which includes those with disabilities and limited English proficient students.

To be successful, schools must communicate with families and communities so they are prepared, Dodson said. They need to know what the expectations are and also be familiar with the tools.

Also, students and teachers must be comfortable using the digital tools in school to be successful outside of the traditional setting.

Some of the challenges districts report include teachers initially assigning too much work, or not enough work; they need to find the right balance. Also, accessibility can be an issue because not everyone has access to internet away from school, Dodson said.

There are ways around that lack of accessibility, she said. Assignments can be downloaded onto devices prior to the eLearning day, with the work done offline then uploaded when they return to school. On planned eLearning days, some schools may provide opportunities for those without access to come into a school setting that is supervised.

”Some districts to a wonderful job of enlisting community partners ... to make sure they are aware eLearning days are happening and they may see kids in their buildings,” especially on planned days, Dodson said. Those partners might include Boys and Girls Clubs, churches, libraries, or businesses that have wifi.

While some students might be tempted to “goof off” on stay-at-home eLearning days, there are ways to document student activity. For schools using online learning management systems, students need to log in and schools can keep track of how much time students “were engaged in learning,” Dodson said. 

Wabash Valley districts among those approved

Wabash Valley districts using, or practicing, eLearning days include South Vermillion Community School Corp., Southwest Parke Community Schools, North Vermillion Community School Corp. and Southwest Sullivan School Corp.

”We learned a lot from the first one [Sept. 19] and made some adjustments,” said Chapman, South Vermillion superintendent. Future practice days are Wednesday and Nov. 28 and the goal is to have any bugs worked out so that eLearning days could potentially be used if inclement weather forces students and staff to stay home this winter season.

The Sept. 19 practice session “went better than expected,” Chapman said. “We had hotlines set up for connectivity issues or other issues that students and/or parents might have.”

One of the issues involved students logging in for attendance. In some cases, there may have been connectivity or software issues. “We got a number of calls in the morning, but by mid-day, there were no calls coming in,” Chapman said. 

Some students don’t have Internet connection at home and had to make adjustments. “Some kids got together at the local McDonalds” and did their and assignments there. Others gathered at the Clinton Public Library.

The next day, teachers talked to each other about what worked and what didn’t. They also talked to students about any problems.

”It was a learning experience,” Chapman said. 

This year, the district is using a new, cloud-based learning management system, Canvas, that connects digital tools and resources teachers use in one place. It replaced Google classroom.

The district is taking into account that some students lack connectivity at home, and those students will have extra time to complete assignments, if needed, Chapman said. The district also will work with students who have disabilities to ensure they have necessary accommodations.

More than 80 percent of South Vermillion students have some type of internet connectivity or access, Chapman has said. 

Use of eLearning days will work best if the district knows at least a day ahead of time that classes may have to be canceled because of bad weather. Students will know to take iPads home, and teachers would have adequate time to prepare and post assignments.

If bad weather “sneaks up on us” and school has to be canceled at the last minute, those are more likely to be snow days with no eLearning. 

”We don’t want to put undue pressure on students and staff,” Chapman said.

In the event of a harsh winter, eLearning days help ensure the district won’t have to have an extended school year beyond what’s scheduled.

Southwest Parke Community Schools uses one eLearning day in the spring for its Southwest Parke Awakening & Redefining Curriculum Conference [SPARC], which is for district staff and surrounding districts. Meanwhile, students stay home and participate in eLearning projects.

The district has chosen to use eLearning days just for teacher training at this time, said Phil Harrison, Southwest Parke superintendent.  “The way we do eLearning for our students is a very involved process.”

For students that don’t have internet access at home, “We open schools buildings and have computer labs staffed for the eLearning day. That’s harder to do on emergency snow days,” he said. The district also provides transportation for those students as well as lunch.

”Because we go to such lengths to make sure students are cared for, we use them only for professional development. It gives teachers plenty of time to plan for a high-quality experience,” Harrison said. 

Rachel Porter, Southwest Parke digital curriculum integration specialist, said eLearning lessons “look very different in primary grades, with more audio support for online components and more work offline.” 

As far as challenges, “We’ve learned we have to cut back on our content as it seems to take students far longer to do things independently at home than it would take in class. We are committed to making sure our eLearning lessons are truly lessons. There must be a teaching or review component. It cannot just be assignments given or busy work. This aspect is what takes the most time for teachers to prepare.”

The district uses iPads in kindergarten classrooms but has transitioned to Chromebooks in grades 1-6.  Riverton Parke Junior/Senior High School is BYOD [bring your own device], with classroom sets of Chromebooks available. 

The North Vermillion school district uses eLearning days for weather-related cancellations, said Superintendent Dan Nelson. “We are also looking at incorporating eLearning days for staff professional development during the 2019-2020 school year as well.”

Southwest Sullivan schools have used eLearning days for both professional development and inclement weather make-up days, according to Superintendent Chris Stitzle.

At one student’s home

Jennifer Mock, Nathan’s mother, is a South Vermillion School Corp. substitute teacher and was home on the Sept. 19 eLearning day.

”I think it’s a great substitute for snow days,” she said. “I think they have a few bugs to work out, but that is true with anything new. I think each practice will get a little better.”

The day out of traditional classes also gave them an opportunity to take Nathan to a doctor’s appointment.

Her son spoke with the school staff about his experiences on the first eLearning day.

”It wasn’t bad by any means. Nathan had a lot of work to do. He is in honors classes, so a lot of work was expected. But it was a lot more than he thought there would be,” she said.

She added, “It wasn’t by any means a free day.”

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