Jul 14 2022

Districts Bet on Tech and Physical Classrooms to Boost Online Learning Quality

With permanent, full-time virtual schools on the rise, K–12 districts are creating high-tech instructional spaces in buildings to support remote teaching.

Today, as districts get back to in-person classes after a pandemic that saw online learning thrust upon teachers and students, K–12 schools are again taking up the virtual mantle, establishing full-time programs designed as a permanent alternative to in-person learning. They are also outfitting dedicated physical spaces with technology to facilitate high-quality and engaging online education.

One-fourth of districts surveyed by RAND in 2021 planned to run a virtual school in the most recent academic year, up ninefold from before the pandemic. Another quarter were exploring a virtual school program. To be clear, these programs are not, as RAND researchers point out, temporary remote instruction or online courses to supplement in-person class, but rather “virtual schools that typically have no physical location and offer only virtual instruction.”

“What we’re seeing driving this growth in online learning is districts choosing to provide an online learning option for students,” says Cindy Hamblin, director of the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance, an association of state virtual schools and participants in the National Standards for Quality Online Learning.

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But to provide quality online learning, schools need to do more than simply equip remote students with Chromebooks and a login for a learning management system. That’s what many did during the pandemic lockdown. But, as Hamblin says, “there is a distinction between ‘emergency’ or unplanned remote learning and quality online learning designed to engage students in a rich learning experience. The latter is what we are promoting.”

While it’s true that many K–12 schools are working to figure out how best to deliver virtual education on par with in-class instruction, that’s not to say that they have “no physical location,” as RAND observes.

School Districts Create Physical Classrooms for Online Learning

Pandemic or not, educators have long known that some students learn better outside traditional classrooms. The physical classroom, however, does offer resources that help teachers engage students — think electronic document cameras, digital whiteboards and even nontech materials used to illustrate complex concepts.

Increasingly, K–12 districts are designing virtual schools where teachers provide instruction from tech-enabled classrooms while students learn remotely.

Green Bay Area Public School District launched its virtual school last fall, taking space at an underutilized elementary school to create a series of modular, instructional studios — classrooms for teachers, not students. Instead of just giving teachers Chromebooks and webcams, the district worked with CDW•G to design and build studios that would enhance the virtual learning experience.


The percentage increase in homeschooling in the first school year of the pandemic (2020-2021)

Source: apnews.com, “Homeschooling surge continues despite schools reopening,” April 14, 2022

“We wanted to make sure we were offering a true virtual school rather than running in emergency mode,” says district COO Joshua Patchak. “Rather than just walk kids through an online program, our goal was to have high-quality teachers delivering our curriculum from purpose-built spaces designed to optimize online instruction.”

Green Bay Area Public School District initially outfitted four studios, but demand for the program led the district to build four more. The virtual school currently serves about 150 students in grades K–5, with plans to add grades in future years.

“The way the studios are designed, it’s easy to add grade levels so kids in the program have that continuity going forward,” Patchak says. “We’re planning to add sixth grade next year.”

Each studio — about one-third the size of a regular classroom — has a pair of 65-inch Newline LED monitors, a Poly Studio X50 videoconferencing camera/soundbar and Zoom Room license, and a HoverCam Solo document camera. A confidence monitor on a desk allows teachers to monitor attendance and other information aside from the actual lesson, and a Draper green screen hung behind the teachers’ chairs lets them whisk students away to different locales using digital backgrounds.

“A lot of districts did the same thing when they had to deal with online learning,” Patchak says. “They set up a webcam and speaker for a wide shot of the classroom from a single vantage point. That’s not a very engaging environment. So, we focused on production value.”

Green Bay Area Public Schools

Green Bay Area Public School District's virtual learning studios in Wisconsin are stocked with tech to boost engagement. Classroom photo courtesy of Green Bay Area Public School District

Teachers who want to move around the studio can control the Poly Studio camera, and the device’s high-quality microphone and speakers ensure students stay engaged.

“It doesn’t matter how good the teacher is — if the virtual environment isn’t engaging to students, they won’t learn,” Patchak says.

LEARN: Minimize video lag with these wireless casting tips.

Technology Ups Interactivity Between Online Teachers and Students

Establishing virtual schools in a physical location is important because there are times when students need in-person support or must take standardized tests that aren’t offered online.

When the pandemic began, St. Mary’s County Public Schools in Maryland had been exploring a virtual school offering for about five years. As school administrators began seeing firsthand how some students benefited from remote learning, the district applied for and received grant money for a new virtual school to be run out of an existing building.

“We’d been doing online learning for a long time, just not in an environment specific to that purpose,” says Maggie Giles, academic dean of the St. Mary’s County Public Schools’ Virtual Academy. “During the pandemic, we found students who were thriving with learning virtually, so we wanted to fund a tech-enabled virtual academy.”

To that end, St. Mary’s County Public Schools established its K–12 virtual academy in part of an existing school. “It’s a very small, historic building, but with large classrooms,” says Heather Wysokinski, district supervisor of accountability and library media. There are 15 modular classrooms (three per regular classroom), each with a Dell Latitude 7420 laptop, Dell 43-inch monitor, Logitech webcam and Jabra Evolve2 65 wireless headset, so teachers can better hear and speak to remote students.

St. Mary’s also outfitted the school’s cafeteria with similar technology, plus a 60-inch smart TV for times when parents or students need to come into the school for tests or presentations best delivered in a collective setting.

DISCOVER: How can educators prepare K–12 students for online testing?

“We also use that cafeteria space for our success coaches, who are para-educators supporting families and students who don’t always show up online,” Wysokinski says.

Danville Public Schools in Virginia is also expanding physical spaces for its virtual classes. Last fall, the district launched the I.W. Taylor Virtual Academy in a decommissioned school building and now reaches about 850 students online in grades K–12. Different hallways serve different grade levels, with multiple instructors teaching from each classroom using Promethean whiteboards, laptops, monitors, document cameras and webcams. The teachers also wear noise-canceling Bose headsets to help them stay focused on their remote students without distracting other teachers.

“If we were to walk into a classroom right now, the only thing you’d hear is teachers talking,” explains Marcus Chaney, the district’s director of information technology. “Teachers love the classroom technology because the interaction it creates is great.”

And for the I.W. Taylor Virtual Academy, like other schools that have established full-time virtual programs, interaction inside and outside the virtual classrooms is what it’s all about. Even their gym classes are virtual and interactive. Teachers go live from the school’s gym and wear GoPro cameras to engage physical education classes.

“Even though the students aren’t in the gym, they’re at home doing calisthenics,” says Chaney. “They can see the gym teacher’s perspective of running laps or shooting baskets.”

According to Cindy Hamblin, a virtual learning experience should incorporate multiple modalities, content types and opportunities for engagement. These high-tech learning studios help instructors do just that. And as technology continues to rapidly expand, and demand for virtual schools continues to grow, online learning will evolve even more.

Illustration by Stuart Bradford/Theispot

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