Virtual learning is well underway in many North Texas schools.
Districts have spent all summer transferring everything that happens in a classroom into the virtual realm. District officials have also spent a lot of time and resources in getting a computer and hot spot in the home of every student who needs it for online learning.
But once the computer is booted up for the school day, what does the technology look like?
A few school districts allowed us to get a sneak peek at the programs their using — on both tablet and computers — to get their students through this unprecedented semester.
Districts like Irving ISD have spent the entire summer perfecting their online learning platforms.
“We’ve been preparing for this,” said Patricia Alvarado, director of Digital Learning and Learning Resources for Irving ISD. “I think it’s been available for many years. And we just never really leveraged it the way we’ve had to by force.”
For students in most districts, it’s as easy as one web link. In Irving, they just have to type in ‘learn.irvingisd.net’ on their web browser.
Once logged in, classes are laid out with picture icons.
“I can see my account, my courses. The dashboard gives me an overview,” said Alvarado.
The calendar shows assignments posted by the teacher, which students can easily refer to for all of their daily tasks. Outside of video calls, students can also chat directly with their teacher using a messaging tab found on the dashboard.
“If a teacher wants to put a video together, he or she would record a video of themselves, and post it there,” said Alvarado. “Students can also respond back to the teacher with their own video.”
She showed us an example of a 5th grade classroom and just how creative teachers are getting with the online learning management system.
In the middle of the dashboard page, there’s a picture featuring the teacher, Mr. Sanchez, in the form of popular avatar creator, Bitmoji. As he sits in a bean bag chair, there are other objects decorating the classroom including personal photos and a banner for UNT.
This isn’t just a picture, though. Some objects in the classroom are clickable to things the students need, like the books sitting on a bookshelf.
“We don’t want something that’s so above the student’s head that they get discouraged from using it,” said Alvarado.
This screen shows all of the apps they need for class. Each one covers subjects like math, reading, science and art.
“The use of the apps is only as good as we make it. And we need to make sure everyone is using them. We are continuing to do weekly training for all staff and will continue training the entire year,” Alvarado said.
On one of the apps, called Canvas, parents can even be an observer within the learning management system, which allows them to see everything that their child sees. They can toggle between children in differing grades through their own access.
“Our goal is for our students to be independent users of information and independent learners. But we want our parents to be a part of it, if and when they choose to be a part of it and when they have time,” said Alvarado.
A great deal of time has been spent on training teachers. The district had more than 500 teachers dial in to an open hours Zoom session so that the digital department could answer questions and fix issues.
“It’s not perfect. We miss the students. We miss interacting with them,” said Alvarado. “For some students, they thrive in this environment. For others, like us, they miss us and miss coming to school. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to provide our students with what we can.”
Training will continue to be conducted for both teachers and parents through the end of the semester.
“We have lots of things to work out. We are all brand new to our learning management system,” said Alvarado. “We also want the parents to know that we’re there for their children, that we are responsible for educating them and we’re trying everything that we can.”
In Mesquite ISD, virtual learning started on Aug. 17.
In the months leading up to the first of school, a big focus has been on preparing teachers.
“One of the things we realized is that it wasn’t just about the technology piece. It’s what are the teachers putting in for our students in order for the lesson delivery to happen? But also for us to know that our students are understanding the material and really learning from it,” said Cara Jackson, executive director of Instruction Technology for MISD.
She said a team of 30 people who spent the entire summer creating modules and training for teachers for their ‘Learn Anywhere’ online system.
“We got feedback from parents, teachers and students — and knew we needed to make some changes and put some things in place,” Jackson said.
Within the learning management system, pre-K through 2nd graders are using a program called Seesaw. Irving ISD is also using the same program for its younger students.
“It’s a program that’s really easy to use,” said Jackson. “Most of them can do that on their own which is great.”
Third through 12th graders are using Google Classroom.
“The teacher goes in and can add every student into the classroom. Through google classroom we use google meets for our synchronous instruction, so there’s a place where the teacher can post that link for students to easily access,” said Jackson. “Each child can have their own work and submit their work. The teacher grades it within google classroom.”
In addition to extensive teacher training, parents have also had access to training and one-on-one time with teachers through virtual meetings.
“The teachers are saying, ‘Please ask the questions, we want to help you. We want to make sure your child has access to the tools and resources that they need,'” said Jackson.
The district created a ‘Parent toolbox’ website as a one-stop shop for help.
“We’re continuing to add to it as new little quirks come up with technology,” Jackson said. “Please reach out to your campuses. Please reach out to the teachers and principals. They want to hear from you.”
Dallas ISD plans to open with 100% distance learning when school starts Sept. 8. Distance learning continues through at least Oct. 6.
“I definitely think the crisis situation exploded on the scene, which pushed us into more rapid innovation perhaps with technology,” said Shannon Trejo, Chief Academic Officer for DISD, when asked about online learning. “A lot of us were already well on our way. I think there’s a lot of positive that can come from the things that are happening right now.”
Well before the pandemic, DISD had about 35 personalized learning schools within the district that featured this type of online and computer-based learning.
“We’ve been able to learn from those personalized learning campuses and benefit from their expertise, trial and error, and their successful practices,” said Trejo. “It was great to have that team available to us to help us pivot so quickly.”
Like the other districts, their goal is also to utilize a platform that is easy to access and use. The program DISD is using is called ‘Power School.’
“The more clicks you have to make the less engaged you’re going to be,” Trejo said.
That’s why this system has everything organized in a single dashboard.
“Students can receive assignments here, submit assignments, they can complete assessments. There’s actually discussion boards,” Trejo said, hovering her mouse over a simple set of tabs during a screen share with NBC 5. “In the weekly lessons, teachers and students can actually access the power points that have embedded videos in them.”
Teachers also have the flexibility of creating a customizable Google website, which is what many instructors used during summertime instruction. Teachers can send the one link to students and the site features a simple page of videos, lessons, and overviews.
Others are using an app called Screencastify to pre-recorded lessons, with interactive quiz questions and assignments built into the video.
“They’ll stop and insert a quiz question that pauses the video. The students have to engage and answer the question in order to move forward with the lesson,” Trejo explained.
At the end of the day, one of the goals for these districts is to take the pressure off the parents.
“We want to try to re-capture the responsibility of learning back to us, back to the teacher. But we do have to partner with the parent, so we do want to make it easy as possible,” said Trejo. “If the parent can help us get the kiddo logged on and they get used to the routine — then it’s just a matter of scrolling down. And saying, ‘What are we going to read and watch?'”
On another note, students should think twice about skipping class. Districts can run reports on how many students are actually logging in and how many minutes are spent going through daily tasks on the apps. Students who are not logging in will be flagged and contacted quickly.
Dallas ISD, Mesquite ISD, and Irving ISD are members of the Texas School Alliance.
This story was originally published by NBC DFW.