Distance Learning 2.0

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Distance Learning 2.0Five months into continually changing public health and educational guidance for the COVID pandemic, local school officials report that they have hammered out a more cohesive model for “Distance Learning 2.0,” which we are mandated to adhere to for at least the start of the coming term.

“I think there is a level of fatigue that everyone is feeling, just based on how much we have all been required to adapt,” said Sierra Sands Unified School District Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Michelle Savko.

“The good news is that we are finally starting to get clear information from the state that has allowed us to make some decisions. That’s the good part. The challenge is that the sheer volume of change is incredible. So we are doing everything we can to make sure our teachers, our students and our families feel supported.”

Savko acknowledged that the initial rollout of distance learning last spring was a point of frustration for nearly everyone. “One of the difficulties was that, when the governor initially gave his orders, we thought that the closure would be about two weeks after you factored in Spring Break. But it kept getting extended. We were trying to plan and implement a completely different delivery of education in real time with no concept of how long we would be operating in that mode.”

While Savko and her staff have remained committed to following new developments and adapting accordingly, a significant priority for her all the while has been trying to consider the perspective and challenges facing the end-users.

“If I am the parent sitting at the kitchen table, what do I need to know to succeed?” she said. “We have talked to parents about those frustrations. We know that none of them were ill-intended, but we learned that there was too much variance in expectations and deliveries, the system was incohesive and difficult to navigate, there were so many places to get information that it was easy to overlook important tasks.”

These were struggles that districts all over the state faced, and tried valiantly to address without having the benefit of precedent to follow.

“One way we learned that we were ahead of the curve is as it relates to technology,” she said. “Because we had already invested in that component of educational support, we were able to respond very rapidly.”

SSUSD officials surveyed parents, and within days had distributed more than 1,000 Chromebooks to students and hundreds of wireless internet access devices to families who had no online access.

To address some of the challenges of last spring, Savko identified the Canvas “learning-management system” — currently used by dual-enrollment students in the Kern Community College District system.

“Canvas provides an interface that streamlines communications as well as online classroom access. So you’re not logging in and out of portals or dashboards. You remain in Canvas to see your schedule, your assignments and your messages from instructors.”

The system also synchronizes with personal calendars to automatically populate deadlines and other critical information.

Among the many concerns of parents, as we approach the school year, is how students will be expected to switch back and forth between on-campus and at-home learning.

“Canvas will be part of the learning continuity for students. It’s not just an online tool, it is truly a ‘learning-management system.’ And one of the ways we are looking at this is not as a replacement to traditional learning, but an enhancement.”

As part of its scaling-up endeavors, district leadership is working with faculty to build professional development days in the beginning of the school year so that teachers have more training and support with the new online tools. A similar training will be offered to parents.

Rather than beginning school on Tuesday, Aug. 11, students are likely to formally begin some time during the week of Monday, Aug. 17.

“Another expectation we are trying to help build with our families is that this version of learning, although it is offered online, will still be very much rooted in schedule and routine.”

Students will be expected to log into the “virtual” classrooms for live instruction from teachers at a specific time.

Savko acknowledged that distance learning will likely require more support from parents or other guardians at home.

“I do think that Generation Z is better suited to this learning format than we would be. There is going to be a learning curve, but at some point the collaboration with their peers and instructors will help them become more independent.

“I also believe in general, we are going to see that the demands of home support will diminish with the higher grade levels,” said Savko.

“What was missing — across the nation and state, not just in our district — with the first iteration of ‘Distance Learning’ was a lack of student engagement. Our task, and one we accept with energy and excitement, is how we can better engage our students.”

The California Department of Education has also provided responses to frequently-asked questions about the new model at https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/cr/dl/distlearningfaqs.asp.

Pictured: Michelle Savko shows what the “Canvas” interface will look like.

Story First Published: 2020-07-31