In the ever-evolving landscape of K-12 education, virtual classroom platforms have transformed the way students learn and educators teach. While the digital age has ushered in an array of innovative tools and opportunities, it has also presented schools and districts with challenges to overcome.
In a recent EdWeek webinar, we brought together three expert panelists in K-12 virtual platform solutions to discuss some of these common challenges as well as areas where online classroom tools are already opening new doors for students, families, educators, and administrators. From bridging geographical gaps to fostering personalized learning experiences, the world of online education is a dynamic space with both hurdles and horizons to explore.
Real-world challenges of virtual programs
Coming out of the pandemic, many school districts were eager to return to in-classroom learning, having narrowly navigated an emergency-forced virtual classroom experience rife with web conferencing tools not built for education and families altogether unprepared for their new role in student learning.
Stigma associated with previous negative experiences
After the pandemic, many K-12 schools and districts saw a strong aversion to virtual learning due to the emergency nature of its introduction, leading parents to believe that in-person learning was the better choice.
Roxie Mitchell, Program Coordinator at Colorado Classrooms LIVE, states it succinctly, “What we’re finding as we’re talking to brick-and-mortar schools across Colorado is there was kind of a strong pullback after the pandemic where people freaked out in K-12 and said, because that was an emergency and it got forced and it wasn’t done really well, they’re really freaked out by virtual learning. And so, they’ve sent their kids back to in-person learning thinking that that’s the best and kind of only way of learning.”
Infrastructure to support virtual programs
In addition to fighting a stigma created out of less-than-ideal circumstances, schools are also in need of proper infrastructure for an effective virtual learning environment, from staffing virtual programs to acquiring proper online learning tools and more.
Kyle Farner, Assistant Principal for 27J Online Academy, explains, “Probably our biggest challenge in getting going, was that our district had purchased a series of tools, curriculum tools, meeting tools, things of that nature, that were really designed for in-person learning. And so, we’ve been using really inferior tools up to this point. We had to sell our district leadership pretty hard on the importance of online infrastructure just as much as our in-person infrastructure…We needed a tool to give us the best virtual learning environment.”
Opportunities surrounding virtual classroom programs
Online programs offer the potential to revolutionize the learning experience in K-12 education by leveraging technology to enhance engagement and create belonging as well as to provide flexibility and adaptability to both students and educators.
Creating a sense of belonging in the virtual space
When considering best practices for planning virtual school programs, it’s important to be aware of areas where online classrooms take a different approach than in-classroom setups to achieve the best results. One of the most important—and highly discussed—topics is around engagement and community.
Ensuring an environment where students are primed to learn and be set up for success includes creating socialization opportunities. Terri Grey, Virtual Principal for New York City’s Department of Education, explains, “We feel that when [students] feel comfortable, they feel like their needs are being met, they feel valued, they feel safe—then they are naturally socializing with their peers. [Our students have] made some of the best friends that they’ve had—even within our orientation, which lasts…three to five days depending on the grade. During that time, kids were like, ‘This was so much fun! I had such a great time. I never knew school could be like this! And I really made good friends.’ So, we know that we can build a really social environment online.”
Due to inferior tools in the past, many educators have viewed virtual classroom platforms as being less conducive to engagement; however, Mitchell has seen the powerful capability of online classroom engagement for herself, noting, “The level of engagement using Class, we asked one of our administrators, ‘How does our students having this virtual teacher and using the Class platform in this classroom compare to [in-person learning] next door? And, what’s happening there?’ And this administrator said that the engagement—and, as a result the behavior of the students—the engagement, was high. And the behavior was right on when we have students working with a virtual teacher and using that Class platform.”
Virtual and in-person programs working together
Oftentimes virtual classrooms and in-person classrooms are discussed as two distinct options; however, our panel discussed a future where each of these modules plays an important role in students’ educations. The potential for virtual and in-person programs to complement each other opens up new opportunities for a flexible and holistic educational experience.
Mitchell theorizes, “We imagine a future where, as you go around down the hall in a school, you might walk into one classroom where the teacher is physically present, and you might walk into another classroom where there is a…virtual teacher. So, we imagine a world where all of these things can coexist to give the best possible learning opportunities to students.”
“The teacher, up until now, has had to wear a ton of hats…we’re finding that people don’t want to go into the teaching profession. We’re asking teachers to do too much: Be an amazing content expert, be amazing at building relationships with students…and on and on. Can we start to think about…how we’re staffing…in education to maybe break that up a little bit? Can we kind of divide that up? Can we find a classroom supporter who’s just really that person that’s great at building relationships? Can we really let the teacher focus on being a content expert and let those two things come together to support students? Can we start thinking about the teaching profession in having a group of individuals wearing those different roles, wrapping around students? These virtual technologies can really help with that.”
Finding advocates and embracing the future
In exploring these real-world challenges schools face while implementing quality virtual classroom environments—including staffing virtual programs, stigma, and more—as well as some of the greatest opportunities these platforms provide, it’s important to continue to show the impact of successful results.
As Mitchell notes, “Some of the people that are most freaked out become our biggest cheerleaders. In the end, students are really able to engage and learn in these ways and are excited about it and feel like they’re gaining some skills that are taking them in the direction that they need in their education for the future.”
Ready to take your K-12 students’ education into the future now? Chat with a Class team member today! Want to hear the full extent of our expert panel’s discussion? You can find the entire webinar recording here.