George Lucas Educational Foundation
Online Learning

5 Elements of a Sustainable Online Learning Program

Remote learning was an emergency response last year, but districts can create a long-term virtual learning space that meets students’ and teachers’ needs.

November 9, 2021
Mother and son working on laptop at home
FG Trade / iStock

In the midst of the pandemic, online learning took on new forms according to what districts had the resources to do at that given time. It caused the shift from in-person to online learning during that time to be dubbed pandemic learning or emergency remote learning because many recognized that the learning taking place in many circumstances didn’t follow the best practices in online learning, nor were all students properly equipped to learn online.

The benefit of pandemic learning was that educators everywhere saw some students excel in online learning, which has prompted districts to start online programs to continue to support those students.

However, pandemic learning programs and online programs are different. In most cases, the ways that programs were set up during the pandemic were not sustainable for teachers or students. They were set up in response to an emergency, which means adjustments need to be made in order to transform the current system into something appropriate for the long term.

As an added challenge, it can be more difficult to change behavior and policy after it has already been established versus starting a program anew. Here are some tips for creating a more sustainable program to ensure that educators and students are supported in their online learning experience.

Elements to Consider When Planning Your Program

1. Branding: Branding is typically associated with marketing, which may sound outside the realm of education. However, in this context, branding is important because it distinguishes the new, sustainable, best-practices program from the previous pandemic learning program.

For example, if your pandemic learning model looked like educators teaching students synchronously on the computer for six hours a day, branding your online elementary program as “homeschooling support” tells parents that the new program doesn’t follow unsustainable practices and instead requires parental support for elementary students to be successful.

2. Staffing: Staffing is a critical component of meeting student needs in the online program. Of course, districts always think of classroom teachers. However, staffing considerations for specialist teachers, mentors or guidance counselors (or both), administration, special education support (occupational therapy, speech therapy), and additional special services are also vital. It’s crucial that anyone involved with virtual programming has the proper professional learning opportunities to equip them for working with online learners.

3. Enrollment and onboarding: Enrollment and onboarding, like branding, is an important piece of establishing how students are going to learn in the program, especially if that is different from how it’s been done in the past. Decisions to make include the following: 

  • Will the district allow rolling enrollment?
  • Will there be a hybrid schedule allowed with classes in the brick-and-mortar school for secondary students? What are the circumstances under which this will be allowed?
  • Is there the possibility of students controlling how quickly they move through classes at the secondary level, which could potentially allow them to graduate early?

Onboarding sets students and parents up for success, as it should teach students how to use the learning management system, clearly communicate policies and logistics of the classes, and contain one or more digital citizenship and leadership modules that provide students with guidance while working online. The more effort that’s put into onboarding students and parents in the beginning, the less likely that challenges will arise that hamper student progress in learning.

4. Attendance and truancy: The requirements for attendance and truancy have most likely changed since most schools were in the midst of pandemic learning. Because many districts wanted to continue with online learning past the pandemic, several states have taken the time to revamp their expectations. For example, in some states the requirement to submit attendance became flexible during the pandemic; however, now there are policies in place for districts to calculate attendance for online learners.

Focusing on what attendance and truancy look like can feel like a confusing task when we relinquish the requirement of seat time and students may not be working or learning during normal school hours. I recommend that you look at your district’s truancy policy and identify what makes sense for determining attendance for your online program. Instead of creating a truancy policy that contradicts the district approach, construct the remote learning program’s policy to support the district guidelines as closely as possible.

I worked with Chris Cromwell, instructional technology coordinator with the West Chester School District in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and his team to develop their K–12 Cyber Program. When discussing the truancy model they adopted, he said, “As with many aspects of our Cyber Program, we have found it best to find ways to incorporate how we collect attendance into current district policies and procedures, with slight modifications. For example, our students complete a daily ‘check-in’ and teachers report students absent who have not completed asynchronous work in a week. The combination is used to follow the established district truancy policy.”

While the majority of the program is asynchronous with some synchronous opportunities, some classes like foreign language have a heavier synchronous load due to the special nature of learning a language. These special circumstances are also taken into consideration in the attendance policy.

5. Device management: In some districts, handing out devices during the pandemic relied heavily on how quickly they could get into students’ hands. This emergency response may not have left districts time for a well-thought-out plan for distribution, how the devices would be repaired if they were broken, or if tech assistance was needed. Creating a plan for how technology will be supported at home is important because device malfunctions can cause anxiety for students and their families. 

During the setup of a K–12 virtual charter school, I worked with a company that, for a fee, provided 24/7 help-desk and in-person assistance to virtual students, including state testing assistance, which is one option to consider if that kind of support isn’t already staffed in a district. Consider the following questions when developing your tech support response: 

  • Can the level of support that families need be provided by the district, or is there an opportunity for community collaboration or private sector assistance?
  • What’s the policy when a device breaks or assistance is needed after hours or on the weekend? 
  • How will a peripheral device, like a printer, be supported if it’s not supplied by the district? Will printers be supplied if students are required to print materials?
  • If there isn’t 24/7 assistance, how does the broken device impact the student’s attendance? 
  • Is the technology department required to go to students’ houses to pick up devices if the family doesn’t have transportation? How is the technology department’s bandwidth affected by supporting a virtual program in addition to on-campus classes? 

Another important item to consider is if the devices that were originally chosen for a particular grade level are appropriate and working for the level of work that will be done. For example, will an online graphic arts class be able to fully function on a Chromebook? By proactively engaging in these questions and topics, a district can begin morphing its pandemic program into a fully functional online program for students who have found success in virtual learning.

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