During the COVID pandemic, most schools have transitioned to some form of hybrid virtual learning. There have been various approaches: splitting the school week between in-person and remote learning, dividing students between completely in-person and completely virtual, and some schools are slowly trying to transition back to fully in-person learning.
But, Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary, a school in the Jordan School District, has taken a different approach. They’re planning on utilizing virtual learning—indefinitely.
Before the pandemic, Rocky Peak had already been planning to go fully-virtual. COVID-19 just shortened their timeline.
This blog goes into detail about their decision to go fully-virtual, the effect that it’s had on students, teachers and parents, and their plans moving forward.
A virtual learning environment for all teachers and learners
Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary began a discussion about making school curriculum more accessible for their students, teachers, and parents long before the pandemic. Ross Menlove, Principal of Rocky Peak, knew that creating a virtual learning environment meant their curriculum could reach more students no matter their living, learning, or health situation.
But, because of the changes in education because of the COVID-19 virus, the process for switching to remote learning was sped up. Luckily, said Kasey Chambers, 5th grade virtual teacher, the district had already invested time and resources to ensure that their teachers were trained and capable of taking on this change.
“When planning for this 2020-2021 school year, we knew we needed to provide a virtual option—a fully self-sustaining online program. We created an online reading, writing, math, and science curriculum for [our teachers’] virtual classrooms. Then, we taught the teachers where the curriculum is and how to teach with it,” Melove said.
“We were intentional and strategic about the way that teachers designed and used the curriculum.”
With curriculum developed and teachers trained, they were ready to go fully virtual. Nearly 5,000 elementary school students signed up for remote learning at Rocky Peak.
“To us, that meant that kids and parents wanted different options when it came to COVID and providing a virtual classroom,” Menlove said.
While building their virtual curriculum, Menlove and the Rocky Peak team thought through empowering their teachers for online-learning. But, they also asked themselves the following questions:
- How do we ensure that students feel connected to other students in this environment?
- How do we make sure that students get the attention they need in their learning experience?
- How do we ensure they understand the curriculum?
“Because we were asking these types of questions, we were able to design our curriculum and plan virtual school with the students in mind. We set clear expectations and standards in the beginning and now our data shows that kids are learning,” Menlove noted.
Chambers shared that the way the district set up the virtual classroom was not much different than how they set up in-person classrooms.
“Just like in an in-person environment, you buy a bunch of curriculum books and you give them to teachers and they teach. In this virtual setting, the district gave us these online curriculum resources and it was our job—the teacher’s job—to take and deliver it to students,” Chambers said.
A community of virtual teachers
We all know that the pandemic has required every teacher to quickly learn the ropes of remote teaching. Because of that, Chambers mentioned that she’s joined several Facebook groups where teachers share what they’ve learned.
“What’s been really cool is teachers across the whole country have been sharing things with each other and sharing what is and isn’t working,” Chambers said.
On top of being a part of several Facebook groups, Chambers and other teachers at Rocky Peak have joined virtual teams to help continue the conversation about how to teach in this new learning environment.
Chambers explained that they never felt isolated as many educators did, saying, “We’ve never been by ourselves at our houses. We’re working together as a team,”
Technology that supports their curriculum and learning objectives
At Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary, learning objectives are a priority. The educators at Rocky Peak ensure that any new technology they implement aligns with all of their predefined objectives and goals. That’s a big reason why Menlove and his team have decided to implement programs that allow their teachers to customize their curriculum, adjusting it to fit their unique teaching styles.
“We have to give teachers the flexibility they need to meet their students’ needs,” Menlove said.
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Added benefits of virtual learning for students, teachers, and parents
Adjusting from in-person to fully-remote was a concern for the team at Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary, but after leaning into it and putting the right tools and practices in place, they discovered that there were more benefits to virtual classrooms than they could have imagined.
1. Specific feedback
The virtual learning space allows Chambers to give specific feedback to each of her students at a much faster rate. She can also better explain what changes she is looking for in assignments, and give detailed advice to students on how to improve.
“Online, kids will upload an assignment and from there I can add comments and other pieces of feedback. It seems much faster to me than in-person or on paper. Kids are also learning to read that feedback, make changes and resubmit,” Chambers said.
Not only does the digital file sharing aspect of a virtual classroom make assignment management easier for teachers, it also allows students to see work from their fellow classmates and better understand what their own assignments should look like.
“Technology allows kids to see what other kids are doing and allows them to see it more frequently than we have in the [in-person] classroom. Technology allows us to increase the number of those interactions and the quality of those interactions,” Menlove said.
“It also feels like less pressure for the kids. It gives every kid a voice,” Chambers added, noting that many students feel more comfortable working in this digital environment.
2. Creating vs consuming technology
Perhaps one of the primary benefits of virtual learning is that it helps students learn how to create and comprehend technology as opposed to solely consuming it.
“How often do we get on our phones to consume?” Menlove asked. “It’s better for kids to learn now how to create versus just consume technology. So we’ve created projects that allow students to create their own unique content versus just having them consume more and more. We’re very thoughtful about that.”
Chambers added that they are also teaching their students how to listen.
“I’m not a TV show,” Chambers laughed. Students have to watch her and comprehend what she’s saying. Then, they need to ask themselves if they understand. “It allows them to use technology as a tool. Not just something that they take in.”
4. Career ready advancement
Some of the skills that these elementary students are learning directly translate to the workplace today. Digital learning teaches students to communicate effectively with email, chat features, or on Zoom calls in breakout sessions.
Chambers taught her students early on how to email her when they need help with a specific task or assignment.
“They are getting really good at communicating with me via email when they need help. In person, it’s rare to have a student communicate when they need help. Asking for help actually helps them learn at a higher and faster rate,” Chambers said.
Students have also learned how to take ownership of their learning. Because they aren’t in-person with a teacher in the classroom, the student has to know when to reach out for help, and be honest about whether they are understanding concepts or not.
5. Parent involvement
Parents have been more involved in their children’s learning now more than ever thanks to Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary’s classrooms. If parents are ever concerned or curious about what is being taught, they can easily join in on the Zoom lessons.
Because they can be involved from home, they can also see and understand how their student is doing in school.
“Teachers have had better relationships with students and parents now than we’ve ever seen before,” Menlove said. “It’s because now, parents are part of the process. The virtual environment really allows for that collaboration between student, teacher, and parent.”
Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary’s future
Menlove shared that their team plans to continue to evolve and innovate their learning environment for their students, teachers, and parents. Once it’s safe to have more in-person interactions, they plan on creating an environment that maintains virtual learning while adding some face-to-face time.
“This might involve some in-person, hands-on type of activities. We’re still developing what that might look like, but we really want to create the best of both worlds,” Menlove said.
How to get started with your virtual classroom
Chambers and Menlove have some advice for schools and districts looking to create a more effective virtual learning environment.
First, they said, focus on the learning objectives. Always do what’s best for the students. Then, create a digital learning team. They can help develop what the strategy looks like moving forward in a virtual classroom, and help train teachers on the new systems.
Lastly, get support from your teachers, students, admins, and parents. You can do this by being very open and transparent about your plans, and sharing success stories from other schools.
Menlove left us with this thought. “You must make technology a culture at your school and encourage teachers to implement it. Be brave, try new things, and provide training for your teachers. Invest in that. Invest in the future.”