Online learning decisions: inside the transition from campus to computer

Investigative

Over the past two weeks, KO’s entire community has undergone a substantial transition to online learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. The transition has proven challenging for many administrators and teachers, but the school is still determined to give students the best opportunities possible for their education.

This transition into online learning has been given a great amount of attention, as it has integrated itself into every part of students’ lifestyles. Classes now meet on either Zoom or Google Meet, and the schedule has been changed to fit this new online lifestyle.

Before spring break, Head of School Thomas Dillow and other KO administrators knew that online school was a possibility. However, much of the planning was done as the coronavirus epidemic escalated over spring break. “We addressed this possibility as an administrative team, and we started talking about what we would need to do in order to be ready to go,” Mr. Dillow said. “Given that it was still a remote possibility, we didn’t start professional development and training, but we had spoken to the faculty about it, so teachers were already thinking and planning for it.”

On Sunday, March 16, the KO administration decided to cancel school up until April 20, complying with CDC and government guidelines. The decision came after many discussions about what was safe and healthy for the students, and how to give them the best learning environment possible. “The community came together and supported each other, and people are continuing to do that,” Mr. Dillow said.

The next step in the process was to create a schedule for the school day. The Upper School schedule consists of four hour-long periods per day and breaks in between each period. There are no classes on Wednesday, and half-hour advisee group meetings are worked into the week. Head of the Upper School Dan Gleason and many other faculty members contributed to creating a schedule that balances a strong academic focus with the health and well-being of the students still kept in mind. “Administration and some faculty looked at the practices from other schools and built a schedule that follows what we learned,” Dr. Gleason said.

The schedule has seen a mixed reaction from students and teachers alike. Some criticize the amount of breaks and unnecessary time incorporated in it, but others praise it for accounting for the health and well-being of students. “Those breaks are a nice time to step away from the screen, and I like that they’re doing that,” senior Ella Schwartz said. “It’s because we’re not in school, so everything is different.”

Students sometimes have found the breaks to take up an awkward amount of time, as there are little breaks throughout the day instead of larger ones, where students could be more productive. “I don’t like how long the breaks are, because they’re too short to complete an assignment, but so long that you feel unproductive if you do anything,” said sophomore Garrett Gallup.

Many teachers have had to make notable changes to their syllabus to fit the learning environment in an online classroom. “It’s actually kind of exciting,” history teacher and Form Four Dean David Baker said. “I feel like I’m a brand new teacher again. It takes a lot of time to prep for these classes, but I’m also realizing that there’s so many different ways to teach the material.” However, teachers have had to cancel tests and find new ways to assess students that is both fair and prevents cheating.

Another giant obstacle that the school has had to overcome in the past few weeks has been the barrier of technology. Led by Spanish teacher Juan Martinez, a group of teachers known as the Academic Technology Coordinators, or ATC’s for short, have helped the school transition into online learning.

The ATC’s consist of Mr. Martinez, physics teacher Kathleen Disanto, Latin teacher and Chair of the Language Department Maureen Lamb, and art teacher Greg Scranton. Previously, they had helped teachers deal with computer problems and integrating technology in the classroom, but their role has taken on an even bigger meaning in the past few weeks, spearheading this major change.

Before break and in anticipation for this transition, the ATC’s reached out to a wider group of KO faculty in order to build a group that could help the larger community deal with this change. This group became known as the “Friends of ATC’s.” “I was chosen before break as someone who’s comfortable with technology to help other people out,” Mr. Baker said. “I’m in a group of faculty, and we call ourselves the ATC and friends, and we help anyone and everyone with technology.”

While the teachers figured out how to move their classes to an online format, whether it be Zoom or Google Meet, the students also had to prepare too. Students had to find a workspace and make sure their technology was adequate for their academic needs. “The first [problem] we faced was equity,” Mr. Dillow said. “We didn’t know the extent to which everyone would have access to a device and WiFi. We made sure Chromebooks were available to be picked up at school if needed, and we shared information about free WiFi that had been offered.”

While breaching the gap between screens in a classroom has proven to be a challenge for these first few weeks, teachers have found creative ways around this. Teachers have utilised “Breakout Rooms,” a feature of Zoom for small group work, and other online learning tools such as VoiceShare, Flipgrid, and Screencastify. 

Even the community as a whole has found ways to push through this barrier and create the classroom experience that students are so acclimated to. “The technology is what makes us able to connect to each other, but it is us, the humans, who have to then take it from there,” Mr. Martinez said. “Once the connection is made, then it’s up to us. It’s the people who are making this work.”

As would be expected for such a drastic change, the community had significant reactions in the transition to online learning. Throughout the community, there was a theme of concern, for others in the community and across the world. Mr. Baker expressed concern for the overall well-being of students. “I was very worried about what this was going to look like in a lot of different ways, both for all the students as a Form Dean and I think about the health, the students’ emotional health and physical health,” Mr. Baker said.

 This concern was shared amongst many members of the community. Math teacher Sara Starnes expressed a similar sentiment, speaking about the seniors in particular. “I felt really bad for my seniors, and how this would affect their senior years. It felt like they were being robbed of their final memories,” she said. 

Many teachers were also concerned about how their classes would translate to being online.  Across the faculty, concern was present in their initial reactions, specifically concern as to how they could move their classes online and still keep their classes consistent and as close to normal as possible. Music and art teachers were hit particularly hard with this predicament, given the hands-on nature of their classes. Chair of the visual arts department Scott McDonald elaborated on the changes he has had to make to his classes. “I think it was especially challenging, in part because in some classes, the things that we do in that class are very tied to the space that we work in, and the materials that we have there,” he said. 

There were varied initial reactions to the announcement among the student body, ranging from excitement to be trying something new to indifference or sadness. “I was excited at first because I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to have online learning at your own home,” freshman Charlotte Eberle said. “I was not too worried because I initially thought I was just going to be like a week or two, but now that we’ve extended it, I’m starting to miss my friends more and it’s not as fun as I thought.” 

Across all grade levels, students and faculty, there is sadness that people cannot see each other in person. “I was expecting [the switch to online learning],” Ella said. “It wasn’t a surprise to me. I was sad that I wasn’t going to be able to see my friends every day.” Mrs. Starnes agreed, expressing a sadness that she would not be able to see and interact with her students in person as she normally would on a day-to-day basis. 

While online learning is still in the early stages and there are some bumps in the road, the opinion of the community is that KO is handling online learning well and adapting well to any unexpected challenges. Mrs. Starnes expressed gratitude that classes had been meeting in person for the prior three-quarters of the school year, which allowed this online transition to be easier, as everyone already knew and was comfortable with each other. Faculty members were particularly thankful that KO has been prepared throughout the process. “I think we’ve handled it incredibly well,” Mr. Baker said. “Communication wise, we’ve done a pretty good job. I think we’ve done a pretty good job from a teaching standpoint.” He also expressed that there were ways that KO could improve; however, considering the current circumstances and the speed at which KO has needed to react, the school is doing a good job. In particular, he mentioned the school’s preparation beforehand in anticipation of online learning. 

Choral Director Steve Mitchell said he was impressed by the community as a whole. “I am so impressed with the kids that I’ve had a chance to meet with and talk to about what they’re doing and how they’re adapting,” he said. “I am so impressed with my teacher colleagues, who have immediately started to try to figure out something new and a way to make it happen.”

Overall, the sentiments throughout the community have been positive and understanding. Transitioning to online learning is not an easy process and encompasses many aspects, from the initial decision to the creation of a schedule and to the still ongoing processes to accurately translate classes from an in-class environment to one that is virtual. Throughout such a significant transition, the KO community as a whole has remained unified and supportive, creating a smoother transition for all involved.

Video Link: https://youtu.be/-XCjD6N6TRs