Liz McCormick Published

Researcher: Making Virtual Learning Successful Requires Coordination Across A School System

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In our latest installment of our summer education series, “Closing the COVID Gap,” we explore the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on broadband needs and virtual schooling.

Many pockets of West Virginia still do not have reliable internet access in homes, yet thousands of school children last year were forced into remote and virtual learning.

Additionally, West Virginia lawmakers approved a bill this past session that allows the creation of virtual charter schools in the state.

Education reporter Liz McCormick spoke with Chris Harrington, director of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute at Michigan Virtual School, who has studied virtual learning for ten years, to get some perspective on ways to make it successful in West Virginia — and the importance of reliable internet access.

Michigan Virtual School is a nonprofit that was launched in 1999. According to its website, the program is not a school itself, rather it provides a variety of online course options for students who may not have access to a particular subject of interest at their school. The program also offers professional development for educators in Michigan and globally.

The organization’s research institute studies blended and online learning throughout Michigan, the nation and internationally to incorporate a global perspective.

Extended: Making Virtual Learning Successful Requires Coordination Across A School System

This transcript from the original broadcast has been lightly edited for clarity.

LIZ MCCORMICK: The coronavirus pandemic came out of nowhere, and students and teachers were thrown into virtual settings. What makes a good virtual schooling model?

CHRIS HARRINGTON: For schools and districts to do this right, there really needs to be a lot of thought and strategic design put into the planning of the program, and then the actual implementation of the program. Technology is going to be a foundational piece of that. Then that means computing devices. Also internet access — whether it’s making sure that there’s enough internet access in a school or district if students are engaging in online courses, on-site, in the school, or certainly from home. So having those technology foundational components is really important.

But then also, what comes right off the heels of that is, how a teacher teaches in a virtual environment is also very different. How you communicate with kids is different. How you provide feedback for students is different. How you create community in a virtual classroom is different. And it’s not something that is very intuitive for a novice teacher or for someone who is new to teaching in the virtual environment. And that certainly doesn’t come naturally, when we’re thrown into it like we were.

There needs to be some time to grow teachers’ skills in teaching in a digital learning environment, and make sure the technology is there, the instructional design built into the development of your digital content, and then of course, your professional development to grow teachers in their skills of teaching. In a virtual course, those are the critical components, in my opinion.

MCCORMICK: How important is it to have a supportive home system for these children? How important is that component to having an effective virtual schooling model?

HARRINGTON: You hit the nail right on the head there. That is critical, because every home situation is different. I’ve led multiple virtual learning programs serving as a director for schools and districts in the state of Pennsylvania. One of my foundational components of success — for any student — was engaging the family, and working with the family, and setting up the right learning environment at home, [to ensure] they knew how to do this, and they knew how to support their child. Because that’s not something that all adults are able to just know without being given some guidance from the school.

MCCORMICK: What sort of issues did you find the pandemic exposed in the country, when it comes to virtual schooling and the needs of virtual school? What did we learn?

HARRINGTON: One of the things that we knew was a problem and a concern was equity of access to technology. We knew it existed before the pandemic, but boy, when everybody was pushed to be learning virtually and remotely, that was certainly highlighted and became a very severe pain-point for a lot of schools and districts who are suffering from that inequity.

I think some of the other concerns, or some of the other issues that were really brought to the forefront, was that there were a lot of schools and districts who were using technology in a supplemental way only, in some cases. Some schools were just dabbling in technology. They had the technology, but there wasn’t a real formal plan and structure around how we’re really going to leverage technology to deliver the benefits that it could promise. And as I mentioned before, it’s the content and that cohesive approach to developing course content, but then also all the pedagogical skills to be able to do that. That was certainly the biggest hurdle that I think we ran into.

I think this is why there was so much stress, you know, in the homes of families. But then also in teachers’ virtual classrooms and also with the administrators, because this education just wasn’t delivering what we really hoped it could be delivering during this time. And I can tell you right now, that is where schools and districts are focusing on moving forward.

MCCORMICK: Chris, going back to some of those critical needs that you touched on when it comes to having a successful virtual model. West Virginia, and many rural states, have struggled with providing adequate and reliable broadband internet.

This past year, in an effort to help those kids and families stay connected for school, West Virginia officials established something called Kids Connect, where they made more than 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, and they spread them out all over the state, so that if a family didn’t have internet at home, they could at least drive to one of these hotspots so that kids could turn in their homework. That’s not ideal, and I wonder, as a researcher, what needs to happen going forward in rural places like West Virginia? What needs to happen to improve access to this utility?

HARRINGTON: You mentioned the term utility. We get heating to people’s homes, we get electricity in people’s homes, we get water to people’s homes, or if we don’t have pipe water, there’s water supplies available somehow, someway. We have ways of getting these other utilities to homes. But how do we do it for internet access?

If there were conversations between telecom providers and state officials, and the state Department of Education, and include your state chambers of commerce, things like that, and identify what are the standards of access that are needed. And then prioritize funding and accountability, expectations to make sure that the work actually gets done. It takes a sustained effort.

I think one of the things that we probably have examples of in every state is when we really want to get something done, we can get it done. But I think it’s going to take collaboration. It’s not just going to be one telecom provider, it’s not just going to be one grant coming from the state that incentivizes to a certain extent.

I think it has to be a whole systemic analysis of what do we really need for business? Commercial purposes? And also educational purposes? And how do we actually get it there and then actually put the process in place and get the funding and the human resources aligned to be able to make it a reality.

This episode of “Closing the COVID Gap” originally aired on West Virginia Morning on July 28, 2021.