Supporting e-Learning Students and Teachers in Small, Rural Schools – #ecoo13

A picture of a pond on the side of Highway 17, north of Sault Ste. Marie.

A stop on my way north to meet with some e-Learning teachers.

I gave a presentation at #ecoo13 last week. My slides were minimalist (I did have a map, though), and I felt unreasonably rushed (I like to talk, at 45 minutes isn’t long). So here is a much more lengthy version as a blog post. Enjoy. :)

My board

I’m the e-Learning Contact for the Algoma District School Board, centred in Sault Ste. Marie (you can see a map of our board here). And here’s a Google Map showing our board office and it’s position in the province.

We have about 10,000 students, of whom 4000 are in high school. These high school students are distributed among 10 schools: 4 in the Sault and 6 in “the district”. Many of these district schools are rural.

Did I mention that the board is 70,000 square kilometres? That’s pretty big. Driving across it takes about 8 hours, and that wouldn’t even get you to every community. Tack on several more hours (oh, 5 or so) for that kind of trip.

We need e-Learning

We have two “large” schools (more than 800 students), and the rest are much smaller. We have two under 100, two more under 200, and then some mid-300s and 400s.

As a result, it’s very, very hard to offer complete pathways for all students. I mean, pretty impossible. But consolidating schools further to increase school populations isn’t really feasible either – there are already 200km between most district schools (sometimes more). Putting kids on the bus for six hours a day falls into the “unfeasible” category for me.

So, we look to put some courses online for a few reasons:

  1. Students from all around the board (and more) can access more complete programming.
  2. Students who are not taking e-Learning can access more complete programming (i.e. we don’t have to cut a Grade 11 “elective” just to run Grade 12 Calculus for three students).
  3. It’s good to learn online – these are important skills!

Rural e-Learning happens at school, not at home

It turns out, though, that rural students often have poor (or no!) connectivity at home. In fact, sometimes the options are just dial-up and satellite. For many of the rest, the cellular network is the only other choice available, with is quite costly. Because of the poor access to the Internet, families may choose to not purchase Internet-enabled devices (computers, tablets, etc.).

So, for most rural students, “the school has the best Internet in town” (quote from a northern student), and maybe the only computers they can access. This mean they can’t reasonably work on their e-Learning courses exclusively at night or on weekends, so they must complete much of their coursework during the school day (or at the very least, they have to plan out their evening’s work carefully in advance, and post to their dicussions, etc., the next day).

We provide devices for e-Learning students

Rural schools have to provide devices for e-Learning students. In ADSB, each school was allocated 6 laptops specifically earmarked for use by e-Learning students. These computers are signed out a period at a time, and are available for other students or teachers if they are unused. The laptops stay at school; they don’t go home with students.

Having these laptops helps to reduce the load on the other school computers, which might be used by face-to-face students. Since there is WiFi everywhere in ADSB schools, the portability of the machines makes it much easier to manage and support the students.

We have BYOD everywhere

With all that said, many students have their own laptops which they prefer to use. The school WiFi is available to all students and for all device types, so e-Learning students are well-supported in this way. The Mac users in particular like to stay with their own platform (most of ADSB is PC-only).

Students are permitted (and in some schools encouraged) to bring their own personal mobile devices (e.g. cell phones, tablets) to school, but for many courses the tiny screens or limited interfaces make the devices unsuitable for e-Learning. These devices tend to be better for consumption rather than composition. The main exception is for media-based products, like video or photos. One great use of the ubiquitous cameras is to take photos of handwritten (often math) work instead of trying to type symbols all of the time.

We have e-Learning teachers everywhere

Every high school has at least one e-Learning teacher, and some of these teachers are now “veterans”. They are able to support students and other teachers in the school to a much greater extent than other teachers with fewer online experiences can. This support is currently not formalized in our board (that is, it’s not a formal role).

Example: Student Support “course”

In one school (which accesses and supports e-Learning a lot), all of the students taking e-Learning courses are enrolled in Student Support course in the virtual Learning Environment (vLE). One on-site teacher is also enrolled, and he helps students with technical difficulties, questions about their work, and so on. It’s not a heavily-used system, but it’s great that it’s there to provide news and a bit more oversight for students who might otherwise feel less connected.

Example: e-Learning “rooms”

In another school, there are e-Learning rooms with scheduled teachers. Since the school has a large number of e-Learning students, the kids all work on their online courses while being supervised by an experienced e-Learning teacher. This is not a teaching period for the supervising teacher, although they can knock off a couple of emails if the students in the room don’t require a lot of assistance on a particular day.

Professional Learning for e-Learning teachers

All e-Learning teachers engage in a full day of face-to-face professional learning in the Sault. I personally feel the F2F opportunity is invaluable in connecting teachers from across the board, and for having quick, “resolvable” discussions about policy, procedures, and practice. These things could be done online, but they can be done very quickly in person, for a cost.

e-Learning teachers also get priority access to me, for what that’s worth. A Blended Learning teacher (using the vLE F2F) who has a technical or other problem can fall back on a F2F plan; an e-Learning teacher doesn’t have that luxury. So I try hard to be responsive, although that’s increasingly difficult.

Planning Course Offerings (2013-14)

Our decision-making around which courses to offer online has been evolving for several years, and it will evolve some more this year. I might have to write a separate post about how we do things.

It matters which courses are offered. We want a variety of great, online courses for students to pick from. We want to satisfy every pathway. We want rural students in a school of 150 to have the same great opportunities as an urban student in a school of 800.

For the current year’s offerings, schools suggested courses and the board (superintendent) suggested courses. There was a little negotiation about it, and then the tentative list was included on all schools’ option selection sheets/materials.

That last statement might seem innocuous, but the practice of sometimes dramatically changing the course offerings for a school likely caused some heart palpitations. The known, sure-thing e-Learning courses were also listed in the Common Course Calender, a document that lists courses for our entire board. Modifying the options available to students is complex, but it was in the best interests of students everywhere. Oh, did I mention that schools were not to identify the e-Learning courses individually, but were just to indicate that some courses could run online? Yup, definitely a separate blog post coming…

As a result of the option selection process, things changed. Some courses were cancelled. Others were “unsplit” into separate sections. Many went just as expected, which is a testament to how well the folks involved knew their work. In the end, we have nearly 40 courses online this year, which is an order of magnitude more than a few years ago.

What’s next

There are three big things next:

  1. Improve awareness about e-Learning. Administrators, guidance counselors, teachers, students, parents — each person has a perception about e-Learning which is usually only partly based in fact. It’s important to be clear about what e-Learning is and what it’s not so that everyone can make good choices.
  2. Increase collaboration between boards. ADSB is part of the Northern e-Learning Consortium (NeLC), a group of boards who have agreed to share e-Learning seats at no cost for the benefit of students across the north. The challenge of collaboration is to have 15 boards (each with their own circumstances) agree to offer certain courses in an effort to reduce duplication and increase program opportunities.
  3. Develop leadership in schools. As I so eloquently put recently, there is only one of me, so it’s becoming less and less feasible for e-Learning teachers to come to me for one-on-one help. Instead, it’ll be important that the work of nurturing e-Learning teachers and improving online pedagogy will have to move into each school so that everyone has the support they need to be awesome in their online teaching.
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