Jul 11 2011

How to Help Students Online When School Is Not an Option

Online and blended learning help ensure continuity for students in times of disruption.

Disruptive events such as Hurricane Katrina, the H1N1 virus, earthquakes and even snowstorms have a growing number of district and state education leaders considering the following questions:

First: How do we ensure that learning continues if we have to close our schools for a prolonged period?

Second: How can we leverage online and blended learning to advance students' educational development when they can't get to school?

Online learning debuted in K-12 schools in the mid-1990s, delivering Advanced Placement courses to students who didn't have access to such college-level coursework in their brick-and-mortar high schools. Today, more than 82 percent of public-school districts in the United States offer at least one online course to students, ranging in level from AP to credit recovery, from core courses to electives. Forty-eight states now have policies enabling K–12 online learning, with more than 2 million enrollments in online courses during the 2009–2010 school year alone.

The International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL), a nonprofit organization with more than 3,700 members, works with global education agencies to give all students access to a world-class education through online and blended learning opportunities, regardless of their location and socioeconomic status.

Two years ago, iNACOL collaborated with the U.S. Department of Education to assemble resources to help states, districts and individual schools sustain learning in the wake of circumstances that necessitate school closures. That effort resulted in iNACOL's Continuity of Learning online resource (inacol.org/col), which includes a Readiness Assessment to help school leaders prepare for a pandemic or natural disaster; resources for states and districts; information on upcoming events related to this topic; and a list of companies that can provide assistance to those who wish to establish a continuity of learning plan.

To better prepare your state, district or school for continuity of learning through online and blended learning, consider these best practices.

Conduct an Access Inventory

The first step is to survey faculty and families to find out who has computers or mobile devices at home. Can they connect to the Internet? If so, can educators develop lessons remotely and teach them online? Do students know how to access these lessons from home?

School leaders must devise a plan to make computing devices and Internet connectivity available to those who lack them. If there's a natural disaster, how will Internet access be provided? During a pandemic, how can quarantined students be given access to computers without risking contamination? These and other questions must be considered and addressed.

Establish Communication

When the worst happens, how will your school leaders reach out to faculty, staff, students, parents and the media? If there's no power after a natural disaster and a school isn't functional, who will inform the community of alternate methods for communicating? How will it be done?

Having a communication plan is key. In past crises, schools were ready to continue learning but didn't think about how they would communicate the new process to stakeholders. For example, many online schools volunteered their courses and teachers to help Hurricane Katrina victims. States and districts posted details about these online courses on their websites. But unless students were made aware of these sites, they didn't know that such courses were available and were unable to take advantage of this opportunity.

Practice the Plan Regularly

Once a plan is in place for knowing and communicating what's available in your district and schools, how will you continue the learning off campus? Who decides when a pandemic or natural disaster starts and ends and, by extension, when your learning continuity plan takes effect?

Every stakeholder should know his or her role in the plan. What's more, the plan should be practiced regularly – not just written and posted somewhere in case of an emergency.

In 2003, Singapore and Hong Kong had to close schools for up to three weeks because of an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (also known as the SARS virus).

Educators in these countries didn't have a plan in place at the time but learned from the experience, digitizing curricula and training teachers to teach in blended environments using the online curriculum that had been established. Singapore schools have gone further by regularly conducting "e-learning weeks," during which teachers and students stay home and do all teaching and learning online. Today, they're fully prepared to sustain learning in the event of a crisis.

School districts in Alabama, Kentucky and Ohio are taking a similar approach. Through "e-days," they are piloting online learning so they can continue the educational process when heavy snowstorms force schools to shut down for days at a time.

Place Instructional Resources Online

Content and curriculum resources should be in place before a continuity of learning plan is implemented. Teachers around the country are starting to put lessons, homework assignments and grades online for parents and students to access from home. Districts can take this to the next level by digitizing curricula and putting learning objects, resources, assessments and even full courses online. Doing so makes a blended learning environment part of the regular school day.

Establishing the infrastructure to host these resources is essential. Be sure the platform you choose can "talk to" your district's student information system and other essential systems that track student data.

Prepare Staff Through Training

The people in your district are essential to the successful implementation of a continuity of learning plan. Everyone must know their role, but they also must be prepared to step into new roles if certain staff members cannot fulfill their duties.

Teachers and students must know how to access the resources you've put in place through your continuity of learning plan.

Professional development is especially important because teaching in an online and blended learning environment requires a new set of pedagogical skills. Help educators learn how to step back and work with each student to meet his or her personalized learning goals.

Evaluate Policy

According to Keeping Pace with K–12 Online Learning, a 2010 review of education policy and practice by the Evergreen Education Group, 48 states (and the District of Columbia) now have policies to allow for online learning in K–12 classrooms. However, some of these policies put restrictions on who can access the courses and how the courses can be accessed.

Among U.S. high school administrators, 82% say at least one student in their school is enrolled in a course conducted entirely online; 38% have at least one student enrolled in a blended or hybrid course.

SOURCE: Class Connections: High School Reform and the Role of Online Learning by Anthony G. Picciano and Jeff Seaman (CUNY–Hunter College and Babson Survey Research Group, August 2010)

As part of your plan development process, work with state and local policymakers to better understand the policies that are in place or that need to be established to allow for online learning. Such policies will affect how your plan is funded, how credits can be earned and accessed, and which qualifications your teachers must hold to teach in this new environment.

Work with Online Schools

The Evergreen Education Group also found that 32 states have state online programs and that eight states have an online learning initiative at the state level. These online learning programs can provide training, content and even teachers to help districts within their states implement online and blended learning programs.

The Bottom Line

Online learning makes it possible to give all students access to advanced courses, foreign-language electives and other hard-to-staff coursework. It not only opens up new opportunities for students, but allows them to tailor their learning to meet their personalized learning goals.


The iNACOL website offers a variety of tools to facilitate quality online teaching and learning: