Insights from a virtual academy on how to have a successful year with online learning
Now that most school districts are back in session, many have or are turning to virtual learning, even if they were hoping to be in person this fall. No one could have predicted what the past six months would entail for districts, teachers, students, and parents. Districts now have the opportunity to learn from schools that have been doing virtual learning successfully for years.
Georgia Cyber Academy (GCA) was founded in 2007 and serves approximately 11,000 students across the state of Georgia. Over the years, the school has successfully earned high averages in the state’s “Closing the Gaps” score and has made across the board growth in all grade bands. As the school’s superintendent and a parent of GCA students, I understand how well a virtual program can work. I believe there is a place for online in every school district and there are lessons I’ve learned over the years that have helped us build a successful online program. Here are three relatively simple steps any district can take.
- Simple but effective technology
Our school provides just three pieces of equipment to each student and one to each family: a Chromebook, a headset with a microphone, a mouse, and an Epson WorkForce® ST-2000 MFP Supertank Printer. We know we are totally dependent on our technology, and so we buy models we know are reliable. The printer was a must so students can quickly scan and digitize hand-written assignments and art projects to send to their teachers.
We also provide fast Internet connections for families unable to afford one. We either work with a local provider or if a family is in a rural area, we will ship the family a satellite-based hotspot and pay for the service. As a virtual school, it is important for us to provide families with all of the best technology resources to ensure everyone is on a level playing field.
- Offer engaging, live classes
It’s obvious to anyone who has taught online that the environment can be challenging. It is not necessarily harder, however, once you understand the differences. Students at GCA are required to attend classes live every day because students need the structure and interaction no matter how old they are. Also, teachers need the visual cues they get from students’ faces, so while there may be times when a student does not have a camera on, encouraging camera use will help teachers connect with students.
UPDATED: Hundreds of free K-12 resources during the pandemic
When getting a lesson ready to teach remotely, think back to the way you would engage a kindergarten student. These same tactics work for students in any grade. Avoid lectures and change up activities more often than you would in a physical classroom. Call out students by name and add videos, demos, illustrations, surveys, etc. Also, you can ask students to write on their virtual whiteboards. When students are asked to participate in some way often it lets teachers know they’re still there and paying attention.
- Training and outreach for educators
Like any school, we invest a lot in training our teachers. Our focus is on online methodology, especially on how to engage a class virtually. This training does not end within GCA. When the pandemic hit, we were in a unique position to help others learn how to teach remotely.
Since March, we have spent a lot of time helping other educators teach online. We created a resource section on our website for any teacher to access. It includes written explanations, videos, and webinars, broken down by grade level.
The most important piece of advice is to manage expectations. Making online K-12 education work well takes a commitment, but everyone has to give themselves some patience and some grace in dealing with this change. Everything we learn will help us in the future and not just during this uncertain time.
Angela Lassetter is the Superintendent for Georgia Cyber Academy. Since 2010, she has served on school boards for public charter, private, and virtual schools offering college preparatory, STEM, and STEAM programs.