Podcast Transcript: The Future of Virtual and Remote Learning

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Libby Cohen: With Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Libby Cohen, and this is Intersect Ed.

Welcome back to our podcast series looking at Raise Your hand’s key legislative priorities for the 2021 session. Now, this next issue is one that’s been around, but all of a sudden, this session, became a much bigger deal. And that is virtual education.

For centuries, if not for millennia, we’ve kind of done school a certain way. Learning has looked like a certain thing where students go to a teacher, in person, to have knowledge imparted to them or to pursue knowledge together. But it was something that was a collective and face-to-face experience. Until this year, where what had been a practice for really a small subset of students of online learning or full-time virtual learning, all of a sudden became what everybody was doing. And now, the conversation in the legislature has moved from being one that was more of a niche conversation about how to get the best from, or maximize the impact of, virtual tools. It has all of a sudden become about how to approach this seismic shift in what education could look like.

Let’s listen in.

Michelle Holt: I think that this idea that virtual school is like a one-stop-shop or as a solution for everything– Since when has there been one solution for everything? That’s rare in anything.

I don’t think education is any different. I think it is a great option for some students, and I think it’s an option that’s going to continue to grow and evolve over time. But we’ve got to keep students first.

Victoria Wang: From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Victoria Wang, and this is Intersect Ed, where the stories of Texas public education policy and practice meet.

In this episode, we’re discussing how virtual and remote learning can help Texas school districts meet individual student needs and be more adaptable in times of crisis.

We’ll also be answering the question: what policies – at both the district and state level – are needed to ensure that our virtual schools are high quality?

Victoria: The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed what schooling has looked like over the past year. It has entirely upended instructional models and brought about a myriad of new issues relating to technology and online instruction. I’m sure you’ve heard of the difficulties that students, educators, and caregivers have faced during this strange time of pandemic schooling. Perhaps you’ve even heard about how inequitable and inaccessible virtual education is. But on the other side of the coin, maybe you’ve also heard of some who have thrived off of this model and talk about how great virtual schools can be.

Justin Louder: I think what we will learn after this pandemic is over is that virtual learning really works for some of our students. It does not work for others. We as educators need to provide students the opportunity to thrive in whatever environment they’re in.

Victoria: You’ve already heard from two of our expert educators – Michelle Holt from iUniversity Prep, Grapevine-Colleyville ISD’s virtual school, spoke at the top of the episode. And that voice you just heard was Justin Louder, the interim superintendent of TTU K-12, Texas Tech University’s virtual school.

Victoria: Michelle and Justin both stressed how virtual learning cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach and, consequently, virtual learning policies must center students first. This is something that we heard across the board as we interviewed virtual educators. And to them, being student-centered sometimes means acknowledging that virtual education is not for all students.

Justin: We serve really three or four very distinct populations of students. First group is our supplemental population, which are students that are taking one or two classes with us while they are still enrolled, in their traditional school, wherever it might be.

The other population that we see are our full-time students, and most of them are coming to us because there is some reason why brick and mortar traditional school does not work for them.

We’ve got a number of students that may be working, helping their parents on the farm or something like that and where they need the flexibility to go to school at their own pace virtually, so they come to us.

The last group that we see that we’re serving that are not being served by traditional district are the students that might be either incarcerated or in some type of residential treatment facility.

A couple of different populations, very distinct populations, you know, but those that cannot be served going to school the traditional way because of some of their situations.

Tina Alwin: We’re not a fit for everybody. There are students that we know, “Hey, they might be better if someone was sitting in front of them telling them exactly what to do.” Those students, they still get supported with us, but we’ve got to know that. You have to have a process that tells you that very close to the beginning of the school year.

Victoria: Rather than focus their efforts on recruiting and bringing in as many students and as much money as possible, high quality virtual schools have built-in processes to ensure that, before enrollment, the virtual learning model is actually the right fit for students and families. Tina Alwin, a middle school teacher at iUniversity Prep, has participated in many of these processes.

Tina: Students and parents really get a lot of introductions to our school before they start because there’s a lot of – I guess misinformation would be the best word to use about what being a virtual student is really like …

We’re calling students, and really we’re calling the parents because we want to make sure that the parents are aware of the criteria that– we really want them to understand what they’re getting themselves into, I guess is the best way to say it. We talked to them about, “What do you think the day’s going to be like? How do you visualize the day going for your student? Are they going to be really good on a schedule?” So we kind of just talk them through things that they probably were not thinking about.

Victoria: Enrolling in a high quality virtual school is much more complicated than clicking a button on a screen. There are certain criteria that need to be met – not necessarily in terms of academic grades or accomplishments, but rather, in terms of student motivation, home supports and resources.

Justin: The big thing that I think is both an advantage and a disadvantage is that the TTU high school program, TTU K-12 program is set up on really an anytime anyplace learning model. We admit students 365 days a year, and we give students six months to complete a course. They can work at their own pace through these classes. That can be really really great for some of our kids that have these non-traditional roles or are maybe working and have large blocks of time for work commitments, or medical commitments, or things like that. Then they can do their schoolwork on the side.

That I think is also a disadvantage to some students, because you have to be very self-motivated in our program. A lot of times the way it’s structured, because it’s very unstructured, in a way, is a problem for students. You really have to have a lot of self-discipline, to manage the program and coursework. I think it’s an advantage and a disadvantage.

Tina: If you look at the basic stuff, obviously, we discussed with parents and talk to them about– They got to have a good Wi-Fi, that’s super frustrating if they don’t. So all of those types of things, but also, just the environment that they’re working in.

We devote 40 plus hours at the beginning of the year to calling all these students and just talking through, “Where are you going to work? How are you going to work? Do you like to work during the day? Are you going to work at night?”

They have to designate someone as a learning coach. That’s part of the enrollment process, we talk about that. Who is going to be with this student, and looking at the work that they do and monitoring the work that they do? That way we find out immediately, is there a group situation, or is it a home situation?

Students need social interaction, they absolutely have to… If they don’t have that naturally built into a virtual school, and that virtual school is not willing to support that need, then a brick and mortar could be a better option for them because that is just a giant part of what’s important in their growing up…

Victoria: To recap what we’ve learned so far, at the district level, high quality virtual schools have policies and processes that ensure enrolled students will be best served by virtual learning.

So at the state level, how can we best support this?

The first thing schools need is, unsurprisingly, money. Our school districts need a stable funding stream that will allow them to plan and budget for these best practices. Our educators indicated that where this funding goes and who it goes to is a crucial decision that lawmakers need to consider. Whether or not funding goes to districts drastically impacts the relationship between virtual schools and their local communities.

You’ll now hear from Kaye Rogers, the executive director at iUniversity Prep, on how her virtual school’s relationship with their local district makes it high quality.

Kaye Rogers: We’re the only district-run virtual school. I hire all our teachers. They are GCISD employees that are focused on virtual school. We train them in our core values that we have in GCISD, and the bottom line is students first. It’s about nothing else but students and growth. How do we do that, and how do we serve them?

Victoria: Justin Louder from TTU K-12 expressed similar opinions on their relationship with districts.

Justin: We want to be seen as a partner for school districts, we don’t want to be seen as a competitor.
I don’t want to steal students from a school district. I want to provide opportunities for students that may need to look outside of a traditional district and that’s where we thrive. We never want to be a massive program. We want to be seen as an option for students that aren’t working in their regular district or traditional district. We don’t want to be seen as a competitor to school districts. We want to be that partner in education.

Victoria: According to the leaders of our state’s high quality virtual schools, full-time virtuals should not be in opposition to our traditional, brick and mortar schools. Rather than replace our local district campuses, high quality virtuals partner with them to provide opportunities for students who might need to look outside of their traditional, brick and mortar school.

And as we talked to more of the educators working at iUniversity Prep and TTU K-12, it became clear that this distinction between being a district partner or competitor has a huge impact on what is centered in virtual schooling and whether or not the virtual school truly serves its students.

Kaye: The core philosophy here is students first. So what do we do in bricks and mortar? It’s kids first and so having that why. Why are we here? We are making a difference for students every day. We just happen to be doing it virtually versus face-to-face. Everything we do, it’s back to our kiddos first in our decision-making.

Michelle: Our bottom line is not a number. Our bottom line are students.

We’re not trying to sell a product. We are a service and we want to make sure that we’re a right fit for them, because for a lot of students, they might think they want to go virtual but we can just tell that, “No. This is not going to be successful.”

Victoria: And, moreover, funding districts not only allows for this student-centered instruction, but also provides student access to in-person services or activities that their local schools offer.

Justin: I don’t think virtual education will ever replace the brick and mortar programs. Brick and mortar programs provide students opportunities that a virtual school doesn’t. I can give students the core classes, math, science, English, history, all of the core classes, but we don’t offer band or we don’t offer choir or orchestra or some of those extracurriculars. We don’t have athletics. We have art classes and those things, but we don’t have some of those others that really give students a lot of opportunity that a brick and mortar does.

Victoria: Now, let’s keep following that money. If our state adequately funds districts who provide virtual learning opportunities for students – but remember, only the students who would be best served by virtual instruction – how should we invest that money?

What we learned from our expert educators was – to center the entire educational model on students, high quality virtual schools put extensive resources into professional development. Investment into student learning also comes in the form of training and investment in the adults who support students – both caregivers and teachers.

Kaye: We’re not just educating kiddos in this setting, which is a little different. We spend a lot of time on educating parents in this because it’s different. When you come to a bricks and mortar, those kiddos are with us. Mom and dad are at home or at work. They’re really there with us. In a virtual setting, those kiddos are home with mom and dad or someone. And so, we’re not right there. Communication with our kids and our parents are really important. As we’ve changed that scaffolding of support system, that education, and that front-loading support has continued to be refined.

Victoria: And how can high quality virtual schools support their educators?

Michelle: It’s a very steep learning curve. This last set of new teachers who are asking us, because we had just been through it. The new teachers who came in my year, and we were like, “The first semester is rough. The first semester is really rough.” You really did. I felt like a first year teacher again.

Kaye: I do about a two-week intense every day with teachers training them, teaching, and modeling how to be a successful virtual teacher. Then there is about three, four weeks of them doing the work and in a daily or mentorship with a lead teacher. This is all through August.

So teachers are not left to try to learn this on their own because this is a really significant transition to do well.
Then, above and beyond that, it’s a matter of … It’s a very collaborative team. You’re not just left to one person, it’s a whole team. Again, the philosophy is what we have here is like, “Once you’re our kid, we’re going to be there for you,” and it’s the same with a teacher. We need teachers who come in, and they become exemplar teachers in this arena. You can’t do that without a support system.

Michelle: 10 years into my career, I’m feeling like a first year teacher again. It really was a ride, but I felt so supported by my colleagues and by admin. No question was too small. I just felt I could go to them with anything, just while learning the ins and outs of the different learning management systems and expectations and all that kind of stuff.

Victoria: Let’s take a moment to recap what we’ve learned, because virtual schooling is complicated, and there are a lot of factors that play into the quality of a virtual school.

First off, there’s the acknowledgment that virtual schools are not a one-size-fits-all approach, and that, while they might work for some, they might not be the best fit for others. In order for virtual schools to center student needs, they need to have structural processes, such as iUniversity Prep’s enrollment calls, to make sure potential students have access to necessary resources and support.

Next, at the state level, our funding mechanism for virtual instruction should promote partnership between virtual schools and districts, rather than competition. That means directing funding to our local school districts. This would allow districts to create virtual learning opportunities that best serve the needs of their local communities, as well as continue providing in-person services that even virtual students could benefit from.

Finally, as Michelle and Kaye both stated — there is a really steep learning curve for students, caregivers, and teachers moving into a virtual instructional model. Funding needs to be directed towards professional development so that our educators are prepared to provide their students with the best possible instruction.

So back to our initial question: We know technology and virtual education pose potential problems with equity and accessibility in schools. We also know that post-COVID, it will probably become an even bigger part of our public education system. Given what we’ve learned in this episode, what now?

Moving forward, our 87th Legislature needs to support our local school districts by providing consistent funding for them to serve all of their enrolled students, including services best delivered remotely. This funding needs to be funneled into professional development for educators, so that all of our students, regardless of learning model, are receiving high quality instruction.

Thank you again to Kaye Rogers, Michelle Holt, Tina Alwin, and Justin Louder for their contributions to this episode. Let’s hear from Libby to end this episode.

Libby: Thanks, Victoria.

This episode was produced by Victoria Wang, with Executive Producer Laura Mellett and Sound Engineer Brian Diggs.

I’m Libby Cohen, and thank you for listening to Intersect Ed. If you want to learn more about how to support Texas public education or how to get involved with our work, visit RaiseYourHandTexas.org.


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