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Virtual education; a brave new world
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By Ernest Gurulé
As the month of May begins to slip away and June comes into focus, students are experiencing an end of their school year unlike any other time in modern history. Summer vacation---the thing they’ve looked forward to---is somewhat anti-climactic. The pandemic---COVID-19---cleared classrooms months ago, but it didn’t end school. It did, however, change teaching in the most dramatic way.

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district with more than 93,000 students, cancelled classes in mid-March expecting them to open again three weeks later. But the coronavirus was still peaking, and schools remained closed just as they are today. Since then, on-line teaching has filled the gap. It’s an imperfect method but one that’s improving by the day through trial and error.

“We did not have a plan for this,” said DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova. Few districts did. But Cordova and her team huddled and came up with one. Using an extended spring break, Cordova’s team devised a way to “pivot from instruction in our buildings to remote learning.”

The district’s plan included ordering and distributing 45,000 laptop computers to students without one at home. It also provided mobile hotspots for those students without home internet connections. DPS also “trained all of our teachers in new remote learning tools that allow them to host virtual classrooms,” said Cordova. In just three weeks, DPS broke the mold for traditional teaching and came up with a whole new method.

The district has found useful a number of internet tools, including Google Meet, Schoology and Seesaw. Each allows teacher and student to have “face-to-face” teaching moments. Also, part of the new toolbox is Google voice “which is a way to communicate by telephone using your computer,” said Cordova.

The DPS on-line plan also required that it address the unique educational needs of students speaking a language other than English. Cordova said the district has also worked with faculty charged with teaching English as a second language. “We have provided lessons and training for this remote learning time,” for them, she said.

No one could have imagined a germ, the COVID-19 bug, wreaking havoc in the way it has. But it has done just that. In almost every facet of life, it has forced Americans to readjust on the fly.

For students, COVID-19 not only disrupted their education but also their very health. Millions of young people get many if not most of their meals at school each day. DPS has adjusted to meet their nutritional needs, as well. “We also created a new grab-and-go food distribution system,” said Cordova. The program allows students and their families access to 24 school sites and a dozen distribution routes with 36 drop off locations.

The virus also forced colleges to adjust. “We held faculty-student town halls on March 11th,” said Dr. Matt Griswold, Associate Vice President of on-line learning at Denver’s Metropolitan State University. Griswold calls it Active Remote Teaching and says it seems to be working amazingly well. “Ninety-seven percent of our students remains successful with on-line classes.”

But because not all students are engaged in the same way, Griswold says instructors have to adjust. “In a classroom, you might have five students that are participating,” he said. “On-line you may have more activity.” Introverted or quieter students might not normally speak up in class. On-line they can “think through their thoughts, feel more comfortable with their ideas,” he said.

On-line teaching is also forcing instructors to find new ways to engage. “It’s really important that instructors work to create an informal, comfortable environment,” he said. “In a classroom, a faculty member can adjust in a moment,” but that’s a luxury in this new on-line world. “It takes a little more time,” said Griswold. “The immediate response can have a little bit of a lag.”

Just as DPS has done in providing students with the electronic tools to be part of a virtual classroom, so too, has Metropolitan State. “We’re providing laptops and tablets,” he said. “We also have a number of software packages,” that students loaded before classes were moved into the ether world.

Some classes will naturally be easier to teach in a virtual world, classes like math, English and literature. Others, “the hands-on courses, arts, theater and painting…those that require physical activity,” said Griswold, will continue to present a challenge. But for now, the whole concept of teaching on-line what forever has been face-to-face will also be a learning process. In this process, there will be some things that go smoothly while others are beset with fits and starts, big and small.

“We have also heard from some families that students who struggled in a traditional classroom have appreciated the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with teachers during office hours,” said the DPS chief. “On the flip side, some students have really struggled with staying engaged.” Part of that was attributed to delays in getting the hardware into students’ hands.

On-line teaching on such a large scale is something of a real-time experiment with real-time successes as well as shortcomings. Things, say Cordova and Griswold, will improve. No one planned for or saw a virus that would force the creation of a new teaching paradigm. But adjusting to this heretofore unimaginable reality has given educators an unplanned peek at both the heights and limitations of this new delivery system. It is here to stay.

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