K–12 e-Learning Options Expanding in Indiana
With the fall semester of the 2015–16 school now behind us, it is indicative that the “predictably unpredictable” winter weather of Indiana is about to wreak havoc on Hoosiers! With certainty we know that severe weather will happen and will force school district administrators to cancel school days to ensure the safety and security of students—it’s just a question of how many days.
To prepare for this eventuality, school boards appropriately build in “make-up days” within the school calendar they adopt to ensure compliance with the minimum 180-day school year required by the state. When school districts have underestimated the number of make-up days needed, they must add days to the calendar at the end of the school year. We are then left asking, “Isn’t there a better way to make up the lost instructional time?”
During the 2014–15 school year, a total of 57 school districts and charter schools, as well as 48 non-public schools, answered this question in the affirmative by exercising flexibility granted through the Virtual Option for Inclement Weather offered by the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE). The Virtual Option is one of two e-learning programs that the IDOE Office of eLearning oversees—the other being the e-Learning Flex Pilot Program.
The Virtual Option for Inclement Weather
For the past two years the IDOE has allowed school districts to use the Virtual Option to make up “snow days” either on the day of the inclement weather (asynchronously or in real time) or on another make-up day, but still virtually. The latter strategy allows school districts to open a school building during the make-up time to provide for students who might face challenges learning away from school or who may need accommodations.
According to data provided by the IDOE through a public records request, a total of 17 school districts exercised the Virtual Option during the 2014–15 school year to make up an aggregate of 84 inclement weather days—or on average about five days of school per district—on the same day of the inclement weather. A total of 18 school districts used the Virtual Option to make up 47 days—or 2.61 days on average per district—on a different day. Another 12 school districts used the Virtual Option to address a total of 66 days of inclement weather by using a combination of virtual days on the inclement weather days as well as on different make-up days. These school districts conducted an average of 3.42 virtual days on the inclement weather days and another 2.08 days as different make-up e-learning days. The remaining school districts applied to use this option, but did not report using it during the 2014–15 school year.
To ensure that teaching and learning transpires for every K–12 student enrolled in the applicant school districts, the IDOE has established a list of assurances for which each school district must agree to receive authority to use the Virtual Option for Inclement Weather. The list of assurances delineates “heavy lifting” through planning, preparation, and coordination to ready school districts to participate.
The Flex Pilot Program
Another e-learning option afforded by the IDOE, and launched a year prior to the Virtual Option, is the e-Learning Flex Pilot Program. School districts participating in this program must establish a plan for utilizing digital learning that innovatively alters the traditional school day and ensures the online learning opportunities meet the needs of students and includes contact with teachers. These e-learning days are scheduled and planned for in advance of their occurrence. A total of six school districts participated in the initial phase of the pilot, which was then expanded to 12 school districts in the 2013–14 and 2014–15 school years. For this school year there are preliminarily 20 “Flex” school districts. These districts agree to become a part of a collaborative study group that meets virtually and in person with the staff of the IDOE Office of eLearning to discuss challenges and opportunities and to share resources and support.
Noblesville Schools has been one of the original Flex Pilot program participants and has continued participation through the current school year. Andrew Swickheimer, director of technology for Noblesville Schools, believes e-learning days “provide an opportunity for students to learn in a self-directed manner outside the four walls of the classroom.” During an e-learning day for students at Noblesville Schools, learning activities are “unlimited,” but they could consist of participating in virtual discussions with classmates, working remotely with a partner or small group, watching instructional videos from either the teacher or another source, and creating a project.
Some reservations remain about the capacity of school districts to implement e-learning days with fidelity while producing meaningful student achievement outcomes for students. To address these concerns, one recommendation is for school leaders to conduct a digital learning needs assessment to gauge whether their district has the capacity to meet all of the program assurances and determine that families have sufficient technology (i.e., devices and online access) to enable digital learning in their homes.
To read the full story, including the pros and cons of e-learning options with commentary from a variety of education experts as well as all recommendations for success, click here to download the full column from the Winter 2016 edition of the ISBA journal.