DAILY INSIGHT: Virtual learning days and the winter of '14

How to keep teaching on snow days. 
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How to keep teaching on snow days. 

By Jennifer LaMaster, CIO Advisor

1. Edline as Home base
a. Only for classes that would meet the day of Virtual Learning
b. Announce Virtual Learning objectives by 8:30am the day of school closure via Edline News item on your class page.
c. Link any videos, handouts, readings, planned Twitter chats, Google Hangouts, etc. to that News announcement with clear directions of what student is responsible to complete/prepare/produce.
d. Our future weather closure notice will include directions for parents and students to check Edline for Virtual Learning instructions.
2. Secondary sites such as Twitter or G+ Community are fine but make sure the News item on Edline is posted first. This will clearly articulate learning goals to students and parents AND make it easy for me to collect evidence to submit to IDOE.
3. Be prepared to send me a sample of student work after the Virtual Learning Day. The IDOE will request evidence of “time on task or learning growth.”

On a cold day in mid-February, The Indiana Department of Education opened applications for its Distance Virtual Learning program. The application qualifies schools to request Virtual Learning Days to cover closures due to inclement weather. On February 26, I received the official word that Brebeuf Jesuit was approved for the IDOE Inclement Weather Virtual Learning Option. In plain words—if we had to close due to snow we could officially take school online and it would count for our mandated 180 days.

In my ideal world, we were going to have at least 9-10 months of dialogue, reflection and pilot lessons with the idea of hosting a Virtual Learning Day. I am most comfortable working in collaborative process which takes a little time. For better or worse, Mother Nature appeared to have great confidence that we did not need that much time…. Weather predictions for a major snow event began even as I read our approval email.

Brebeuf Jesuit is well-positioned to hit the ground on a Virtual Learning Day. Our faculty have been 1:1 with tablet-based PCs since 2006. We've been cloud-based with an LMS since the same time. Two years ago we went 1:1 across the whole learning community with our Bring Your Own Technology initiative (see any previous post). We are a Google Apps for Education school. Teachers and students are very comfortable in cloud-based environments. And as you might have read in my previous post, we had experimented most of this brutal winter with keeping the learning moving forward in virtual environments.

But a five-day turnaround was going to put us to the test on how flexible we really are. So what happened?

Experience – A Timeline
Wednesday, Feb 26th….
Receive notice from IDOE that we are approved for Virtual Learning Days.

I sent out message to faculty and staff announcing our participation in the program. In consult with principal, we come up with an outline of expectations. This was all done by email.

The email read in part:
If we would need to take a Virtual Learning Day yet this year, the IDOE is well aware of our infrastructure, access processes and teacher talents in online learning activities. However, I will need to submit evidence of student virtual learning. I am requesting the following:

Reflection: Email is less than ideal… especially in this case as the winter storm was already being heavily discussed. On reflection, my excitement to share information took over. More face-to-face conversation, even in the hallway, was needed.

Here’s the thing though… almost immediately the brainstorming started to fly.

Thursday, Feb 27- Friday, Feb 28
Utilizing YouTube video, online discussion forums, readings, flip videos, Twitter, Edmodo, Google Docs and many other resources… I spent the 27th and 28th reading lesson plans, talking on the phone and in the hallway…faculty collaborated...ideas were thrown around...

An Ed Tech Newsletter was created to give further samples to clarify expectations.

Saturday, March 1- Sunday, March 2I watch as News items were posted on class pages in the LMS as requested….we were ready…

Monday, March 3rd
It failed to snow.

Credit: Bill Watterson

Okay, to be fair, Indianapolis received 2.7 inches of snow. Which is not nearly enough to cancel school. Feeling a little let down, but grateful for a day of face-to-face interaction, we had a normal instructional day on Monday.

What I learned

Still, I learned a lot about Virtual Learning Days (beside how wicked awesome the faculty and students are at Brebeuf).

Clear expectations are key.

  • Consider recommended “office hours” to narrow time online expectations for teachers. This also gives students the security that they will receive prompt attention for their questions.
  • Consider how much is enough. The idea of a Virtual Learning Day is not to dump 12 hours of busy work in the lap of the students. Reflect realistically on would occur during face-to-face class time.
  • And yes, students are responsible for the work. You can hold them to the usual standards of assignment completion.

Communicate to the entire community

  • We were on a time crunch but still communicated out via our Learning Management System, weekly online newsletter, email and face-to-face. Now that we have some time, we’ll be even better.
  • Ed Tech Newsletter (follow this link to entire newsletter)

Look at other school’s sites
Special shout out to Yorktown Schools who have great examples of parent communication, teacher expectations and student accountability regarding a planned Virtual Learning Day on their website.

Has your school tried a Virtual Learning Day? Add your reflections below in the comments... what worked? what didn't? The idea of the Snow Day has changed forever with the Winter of '14. No longer are schools going to consider weather the end of learning. But let's do it intentionally, with clear expectations, clear purpose, in right relationship ... and safe at home.

Jen LaMaster is director of faculty development for Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis. This blog is cross posted on her blog, Ed Tech Reflections.