Leading Distance/Virtual Migration- Suggestions from research and experience
Over the past several days, I have been impressed with the work of university, district, and school leaders in moving quickly to ensure that students around the world have access to online education through distance and virtual means. I have also received a lot of vendor communications touting technical solutions that will solve everything.
Over the last three years, I have worked as a university professor teaching in a hybrid format. I have learned a lot about how to teach online. Additionally, my doctoral research that I eventually published as an article in IRODL focused on traditional school districts that started virtual schools. The current forced movement to online learning caused me to reflect on my experience as a professor and to re-read my past research. Here are a few key takeaways that might help educational leaders moving to an online educational format.
Be ready to adapt and pivot
Things will not be perfect, so the models that are employed must be treated as working prototypes or beta models. This means there must some systems put in place to receive feedback from students and parents and strategically timed opportunities to employ changes and improvements. Your launch will not be perfect. Accept that and prepare for evolution.
Change need not be chaotic. A good system develops intentional feedback loops and strategic timetables to make changes. Decide how to collect feedback, how you will understand it, and develop a course of action to implement versions 2.0, 3.0, etc. Be transparent with students and parents about this process and be open to finding out what isn’t working or how students need additional support. If you are upfront with learners about making improvements and share the plan for change, they can feel good about participating in the process and it won’t feel like a knee-jerk reaction or a failure of the initial roll-out. Communicate the change system.
Pedagogy and systems over technology
There are many effective online leaning platforms and curriculum. You can spend hours comparing the differences in the bells and whistles they offer. The bottom line is that each of them has strengths and weaknesses that matter less than how they are used. In the virtual schools we studied, the actual technological platform and curriculum proved to be less important than the pedagogical practices and the systems in place to support student learning.
Whatever technology and curriculum you chose to use is less important than working with teachers in how to teach and promote learning in a virtual setting that differs greatly from the “brick and mortar” world they are accustomed to. Spend time with professional development and learning and developing pedagogical systems that will support instruction instead of looking for the technology that will solve your problems. You won’t find it.
Leverage existing structures
Because schools need to move quickly, there shouldn’t be a lot of time spent creating new task forces or restructuring departments. Yes, you might need to bring in new expertise or received additional training, but you should work through the existing structures in your school or district. In our study, traditional school districts that successfully created new virtual schools leveraged and adapted their existing structures.
Relationships, relationships, relationships
In the cases we studied, relationships between students and teachers and teachers and administrators were perceived as vital to developing strong online programs. Virtual format interactions are different than face to face, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be strong. Many of today's students spend much of their social interaction online. If we are going to help students, we need to find ways to connect and develop relationships with them through these new formats.
Technology can connect us and support us in new ways. It can give us access to information we never dreamed just a few decades ago. But students still need to be motivated and supported by other humans. In my synchronous online classes, students value opportunities to connect with each other and work in small groups. Students in asynchronous courses also value interaction, but they must be real discussions, not mandated posts. I also find ways to connect with students through email, video conferences, and other means. Whatever technology you use, be sure students have opportunities to connect with teachers and with other students. Leaders also need to be sure to connect and give support to teachers.