Hard Questions for Schools Building Virtual School Policies

As schools develop the use of digital tools to support learning, especially incorporating Learning Management Systems, a need for clear policy accommodations is rising. This came to light this fall at our school, and I believe it affects every school worldwide who are embracing technologies for learning. But after talking to school heads, principals and Tech Directors through various social media and PLNs, I see that this conversation has yet to even begin in earnest.

Most of us have experienced school closures. My small school in West Africa had a two-week closure this Fall due to some political unrest. It started out as a one- or two-day thing, but increased incrementally until we had been away from the campus for 10 consecutive days. Fortunately, we had deployed Moodle last year and teachers were able to move into a purely digital environment almost immediately. All in all, it wasn’t much of a disruption, and although a purely digital environment is different from a blended learning environment, we were willing to accept the differences so that learning could continue to take place and we could minimize the effect of the physical school being closed.

Contact Days are traditionally based on physical requirements; if school is ‘open’ and teachers are ‘present’, that’s a Contact Day. But these measures are meaningless in a digital environment

Naturally, both student and teacher use of Moodle varied quite widely: some used it daily, others every few days. Some teachers posted ‘busywork’, others hosted a more project-based environment. Some teachers did not use it at all, as they could not see how a digital environment was conducive to their subject, or they felt their skills were insufficient. This range of use is expected among a group exploring digital learning, and we were very patient with them…everyone was working within their comfort level, and growing.

However, some interferences are not within the control of the institution. Power outages can affect accessibility, remote hosting can be interrupted, or forced evacuations can keep a student from logging in. In our case, there was a disruption to the ADSL service to people’s homes, so some students lost internet access and used this as an excuse to not access Moodle for several days. However, 3G continued to work as well as text messaging, and we knew that many kids communicated with each other independently, although we had no hard statistics about actual student access through diverse channels.

Questions from Parents

When we returned, some parents of students who were less active asked if we were going to make up the missing days. Their rationale was that the policy states that we have 180 student contact days, and we had just missed 10 of them, and what were we going to do to accommodate that?

At first, we did not see any issue. Teachers had been actively posting online, kids had done work, learning had taken place. Yes, the policy gave a specific number of ‘contact days’, but surely we could consider the ‘digital school’ days as contact days to honor the policy since we had maintained Moodle?

However, we soon realized that their request opened a Pandora’s box of issues, for which we had no policies or guidelines in place.

How to count Contact Days?

Contact Days are traditionally based on physical requirements; if school is ‘open’ and teachers are ‘present’, that’s a Contact Day. But these measures are meaningless in a digital environment…even if we were to write a policy that gave some equivalency for ‘Virtual School’ days, what basis would qualify? It can’t be attendance-based (requiring that kids check in digitally), as we would like to see teachers embrace Project-based activities that might not require daily access to Moodle. Also, distribution of assignments can be viral; in our case, sometimes less than 50% of our kids could access the internet, yet the kids still knew what the assignments were. Certainly we’d want some sort of learning-based metric to account for digital presence…but does one even exist?

And in the absence of such a policy, if parents insisted that we needed to make up the missing days and we acquiesced, I would expect teachers to be considerably less willing to prepare and post work in Moodle if they had to redo those days anyway.

Teacher Workload

Some challenging questions about teacher workload also arise.

  • What if a student’s family evacuates, and does not return in time?
    • Can we require teachers to do double duty and support both the physical and digital environments equally?
    • Should schools provide extra pay for this extra work?
    • If teachers have the capability to maintain a digital environment, but choose not to do so because of workload (or are prohibited from doing so because of policy), are we penalizing absent students?
  • What if a teacher is evacuated and cannot return in time for reopening, but can maintain an effective digital presence from afar?
    • Do we allow that,  do we hire a sub, do we charge the teacher for a personal day?
    • Do kids have to go to that classroom during class time, or can they have a ‘free period’ to work independently? What about supervision?
    • Does this open the door for other teachers to work from home, if they feel that they can do so effectively?
  • Should we require ALL teachers to post digital work during closures, and how do we account for the different work loads between teachers?
    • Lower ES teachers or PE teachers might not post much at all, compared to a HS Science or English teachers, for example.
    • Requiring teachers to post might result in excess “busy work” for kids.
    • How do we address questions about Academic integrity, and are assignments done during Virtual School held to the same standard as those during regular school?
    • How do we evaluate the quality of online work that a teacher is posting? Should we even try?
  • What if a school already has a policy to allow a certain number of missed days…Snow Days,  for example?
    • If the school started leveraging Virtual School, that policy would no longer be needed: would the teachers feel that they lost some ‘bonus days’ off?
    • Would it be reasonable to only require a virtual presence only after the set numbers of missed days had passed?

Student & Parent Participation

  • What if a student does not go online and do the work?
    • Do that count as an absence (excused or unexcused)?
    • How do we even deal with the concept of ‘absence’ when we are in an online environment?
    • What would be the policy for make up work?
    • What is the role of the parent in all this? Do we expect them to accommodate their child’s learning (especially in the lower grades)?

As you see, there are a host of questions that should be addressed, and ‘best practices’ has yet to evolve. It seems that the most common way to avoid these challenging issues has been to avoid asking the questions in the first place, but with a growing trend and ability for leveraging digital learning environments, there is a clear need to be a bit more proactive in providing guidelines and policies.

Disclaimer: Ideas and opinions in the blog posts are the work of the author and do not necessarily reflect the ideas or beliefs of 21CLI.

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