Districts leverage technical and physical classrooms to improve quality of online learning

The Green Bay Area Public School District’s virtual learning studios in Wisconsin are packed with technology to boost engagement. Class photo courtesy of Green Bay Area Public School District

Teachers who want to move around the studio can control the Poly Studio camera, and the device’s high-quality microphone and speakers ensure that students stay engaged.

“It doesn’t matter how good the teacher is – if the virtual environment isn’t engaging for students, they won’t learn,” says Patchak.

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Technology improves interactivity between teachers and students online

It’s important to establish virtual schools in a physical location because sometimes students need in-person support or need to take standardized tests that aren’t offered online.

When the pandemic started, St. Mary’s County Public Schools in Maryland had been exploring a virtual school offering for about five years. As school administrators began to see firsthand how some students were benefiting from remote learning, the district applied for and received a grant for a new virtual school to operate in an existing building.

“We had been doing online learning for a long time, but not in a specific environment for it,” says Maggie Giles, academic dean of the St. Mary’s County Public Schools Virtual Academy. “During the pandemic, we found students who thrived on learning virtually, so we wanted to fund a tech-enabled virtual academy.”

To that end, St. Mary’s County Public Schools created their Virtual K-12 Academy in part of an existing school. “It’s a very small, historic building, but with big classrooms,” says Heather Wysokinski, the library’s district accountability and media supervisor. There are 15 modular classrooms (three per regular class), each with a Dell Latitude 7420 Laptop, Dell 43 inch monitor, Logitech webcam and Jabra Evolve2 65 Wireless Headset, so teachers can better hear and talk to students remotely.

St. Mary’s has also outfitted the school’s cafeteria with similar technology, as well as a 60-inch smart TV for those times when parents or students need to come to school for tests or better presentations. delivered in a collective setting.

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“We also use this cafeteria space for our success coaches, who are para-educators who support families and students who don’t always show up online,” says Wysokinski.

Danville Public Schools in Virginia is also expanding the physical spaces for its virtual classrooms. Last fall, the district launched the IW Taylor Virtual Academy in a disused school building and now reaches approximately 850 K-12 students online. Different hallways serve different grade levels, with multiple instructors teaching each class using Promethean whiteboards, laptops, monitors, document cameras and webcams. Teachers also wear noise canceling Bose Headphones to help them stay focused on their remote students without distracting other teachers.

“If we were to walk into a classroom right now, the only thing you would hear is the teachers talking,” says Marcus Chaney, district chief information officer. “Teachers love classroom technology because the interaction it creates is great.”

And for the IW Taylor Virtual Academy, like other schools that have implemented full-time virtual programs, the interaction inside and outside of virtual classrooms is what matters. Even their gym classes are virtual and interactive. The teachers go live from the school gym and wear GoPro cameras to engage physical education classes.

“Even though the students aren’t in the gym, they’re home doing calisthenics,” Chaney says. “They can see the gym teacher’s perspective on laps or shooting baskets.”

According to Cindy Hamblin, a virtual learning experience should incorporate multiple modalities, types of content, and opportunities for engagement. These high-tech learning studios help instructors do just that. And as technology continues to develop rapidly and the demand for virtual schools continues to grow, online learning will evolve even more.