In Lake Washington, lessons learned from a week of online school

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Erika Kapur is the parent of two children in the Lake Washington School District. She spent last week engaged as part of a pilot program for distance learning. She’s sharing her experiences on this process and more generally about ways to engage in distance learning while schools are closed. Thank you, Erika, for supporting families with your insights.

Dear Fellow Parents,

I know, even with the email we received from the district and other emails from our respective schools, there are lots of questions and uncertainties about how our new online learning strategy will roll out next week. So, I thought I’d take a moment to share some of the things we’ve learned from my daughter’s experience as a pilot class for the online learning roll-out set to begin district-wide.

I expect my daughter’s experience with each of her other classes to be different, but, generally, I have a few takeaways that might help you feel better about the continued fluidity we’re likely to experience in the coming weeks.

I know many of you have been frustrated with how things have been slow to roll out, disappointed with the lack of synchronous learning plans, worried about the lack of things to do and learn up to this point, and probably much more than that. I am not a teacher, but I thought it might be helpful to share a perspective from the other side of this process to hopefully help us all tap into our grace and patience a little more (myself included).

Transitioning to classes online is a lot harder than you might think

I coach my daughter’s Equine Science State Team (a Washington State University extension program). I had a learning plan all laid out, which included in-person activities, worksheets, written/hard copy resources, practice contests, etc. All of our in-person activities have been mandated cancelled too, and I’ve had to move our learning and our practices online. When I created these plans, I had the luxury of simply writing myself some bullet notes, and gathering materials I could then discuss and share in person.

While this initial plan did take me many hours, it took me far less time than it has taken me to translate that into something online for my team to learn on their own. Here’s why. Where before, I could write myself a bullet point list of topics to discuss and then just talk about them in person, real-time, I now have to turn that bullet list into complete thoughts, sentences, and an educational structure that is fully fleshed out and explained for the kids to read. This is a much harder and more time-consuming task, I’ve learned. Also, whereas before I would have held up a diagram or handed out a diagram and talked them through it, I’ve had to now figure out which new software options I might use, upload and test how I might teach those diagrams using the new software, and then flesh out the final option into some semblance of a lesson that unfolds for them instead of having them learn and write it down as we go along. And all that is even before we get into the various and sundry headaches and snafus of running Zoom meetings with teenagers.

All of this is to say, while it often might look like the teachers are not providing what you might want, I would bet they are scrambling like mad to turn their plans into something that’s more easily digested independently online, so please have patience and grace. What they have to do is far harder than what I’ve even attempted. I know, for many of you, working online doesn’t seem like a challenge in our high-tech area. But, it is a big transition to do all at once, both for the teachers and the students, because, for them, this is a new way of doing things, not something they’ve been practicing for a long time.

How our first week of distance schooling went

While each teacher might do things slightly differently from what my daughter has experienced in the pilot case this week, this is how it’s working for her. Each Monday, her teacher is planning to lay out what to learn and what homework to do each day of the week on PowerSchool (not via email), and my daughter is expected to allocate her time accordingly. There are links to resources and new tech tools/apps she needs to use for her assignments, and the teacher is using voice-over PowerPoint slides to teach the lessons.

They are not having synchronous learning, which I totally understand given the challenges I’ve had doing synchronous learning with my little team of five…forget trying to manage this with a class of 30 teenagers! Instead, they will (eventually) be rolling out an office hour format, during which time kids can choose to log in and ask questions about the lessons and homework that they are assigned to go through on their own.

In all honesty, given what I know about “flipping the classroom” practices that have been discussed in education for some time now, this is actually the preferred method of distance learning for its greater efficacy and efficiency. I think, as we get going, students will find this self-learning of the material upfront, with the option to ask questions in an online discussion “room” later in the week, to be preferred to the slow and frustrating pace of an “online classroom lecture” format that would come from trying to do synchronous learning “classes”. Please don’t think I’m dismissing the differences in student learning needs, attention, or self-direction capacity! I am only suggesting that, over time, students and parents might come to appreciate the flexibility this “flipping the classroom” strategy provides (because of the ability it might have to better meet the needs of each individual learner) if we give it a chance.

No, this won’t be the same as the classroom experience. Yes, this will roll out slowly and change as the teachers see how it works. Our pilot teacher has been very upfront about that. Yes, this definitely requires more student initiative and organization and potentially more parental management and check-ins. Yes, there are different levels of skill with the different technologies and apps that make this easier or harder for individual students. But, this also allows the students a lot more flexibility, gives them more experience with responsibility, and provides for more time for engaging in other interests. 
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Hang in there! The good news is our kids will learn things from this that we don’t expect and that we never could have tried to teach them even if we’d thought of it.

Erika Kapur

Editor’s Note: This post was part of a message Ms. Kapur shared in various social media education groups for parents and families on the Eastside. She graciously agreed to allow us to share it at EEN.