Five Steps to Remote Learning

by Josh Pretzer
Dean of Faculties
Culver Academies, Culver IN

(Understanding how Folio members transitioned to remote learning this past Spring can provide valuable insight for independent school leaders guiding their faculty to plan for the Fall. This is one in a series of blog posts in which members share their process.)

Three months ago at the NAIS conference, it became clear that having to teach remotely might be a possibility. In Philadelphia, I started talking to my colleagues from other independent schools about how we could learn about online learning. These conversations were the start of the five steps at Culver to manage the academic addition that came from the COVID-19 crisis.

To begin, we needed to understand how to break into the online environment.  It was clear our learning management system was soon to become our virtual campus. What infrastructure would we need? What were the tools available?

In conjunction with our school’s IT professionals, we built a backbone to support this dramatic shift that included proper support for video conferencing and any additional integrations for our LMS. A team of faculty and staff dedicated to educational technology worked together to prepare and present resources. As a faculty, we experienced online tutorials for the technologies within our LMS that most aligned with our teaching and learning philosophy, engaged in a shared resource space on our LMS, and all had training with the video conferencing software.

Our next step was collaboration. My colleagues and I re-engaged with peers in various networks of independent schools, including FolioCollaborative, to learn together how to address the moment. Our conversations were broader than technology and management. We shared how we were translating the values of an independent school education to online learning. Having these existing relationships in professional networks was invaluable; it made sharing easier and more comfortable. 

As the reality of remote learning set in, we transitioned to a third step in our process, overlaying our mission with what we had learned. Faculty talked about what is special about our school and how we could embed that into the new structure we were creating. For example, our mission is to educate students for leadership and responsible citizenship. We knew we had to explicitly include that in our model. So we decided that Wednesdays would be devoted to leadership, when we would allow kids to reflect on that leadership work. 

Another example of applying our mission and values is with teachers. We have a core commitment to faculty collaboration so we really leaned into meetings. We are now meeting more frequently as a school and as leadership teams as a curriculum development tool. We collaborated the heck out of these problems. Being together as a team overshadowed any hesitation to additional meetings.

 Once we had a model and started living it, the next step for us was to develop a structure to promote and celebrate what’s working. We wanted to build off our strengths and capacity and spread it. To do that, curriculum team leaders and curriculum chairs talked about their practices. A regular, non-negotiable portion of our weekly faculty meeting was to highlight specifics about what is working and celebrating the online wins our faculty and students were experiencing. 

Step 5 was feedback. A team of faculty provided weekly feedback about our work – what was working and what wasn’t. We adjusted and changed based on that feedback, especially around explicit guidelines and expectations of students, faculty, and parents.

We also asked for feedback from our students, and this led to a wonderful, unexpected reward. Students had the option of providing comments directly to faculty and staff, and almost all students who replied expressed gratitude and appreciation. This was encouraging and motivating to everyone involved in the process.

It felt natural for us to do these steps. We took a process that we would use to adjust a course curriculum – understand the subject, collaborate broadly to uncover best practices, apply our unique mission and values, apply and expand what works, and seek feedback – and applied it broadly to create an online experience for our entire school community. Adding to the natural feel, this process mirrors how our faculty and administrators learn as they pursue a goal, supported by the Folio process.

As we all prepare our many models for what the Fall might look like, we should remember that we all have models that work for our community. Let’s ask each other for advice and be flexible, but educate to our unique model with standardized practices that work for our students and faculty.

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