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Under the most unfortunate of circumstances, online schooling has been thrust into the limelight after existing on the periphery of education. Apprehension to outright dismissal has dogged digital education for two decades as naysayers uphold the singular value of classroom instruction as gospel. Yet, a majority of schools have now been forced to adopt the digital learning to engage students outside of the classroom.

Whether under the designation of distance learning, remote learning, fully virtual, online, or digital education, there is a clear lack of consistency and definition of what comprehensive digital education actually looks like.

In spring of 2020 schools pivoted on a dime to provide students with printed materials, live video chats, and tapped into free online resources like Khan Academy, Google Classroom, or Nearpod. With the 2020-2021 academic year approaching, schools across the nation have begun to rollout various plans to adjust the classroom experience to engage students remotely. In spite of this, the pioneers, practitioners, and experts in digital education continue to assert these efforts do not represent the true nature of digital education which inevitably begs the question, what does (or should) constitute digital education?

It starts with a learning management system (LMS). Think of a learning management system as a video game console. The user is able to insert or download a game, play, and the information, progress and other data is stored on the console. This is a basic analogy, but the core principle of an LMS remains largely the same. Once a school acquires an LMS, teachers can load courses, follow student progress, communicate, and even author new material, in an effort to engage and personalize the learning experience to each individual student.

Just as there are numerous companies offering different consoles to play video games, there are numerous companies offering learning management systems. It remains up to each school to consider the needs of their students and teachers when selecting an LMS provider. However, once you own a shiny new video game console, you still need the actual games or in this case, a digital curriculum, to make it worthwhile.

There is a stark contrast between delivering classroom-based instruction via video chat, slideshows, or videos lectures, and a purpose-built digital curriculum. The former simply repackaging the classroom experience and the latter specifically being designed to engage students in an online and flexible environment.

Sticking with the video game analogy, today’s games are a miracle of design, acting, animation and interactivity compared to the 16-bit era. Likewise, a purpose-built digital curriculum leverages similar design, acting, animation, and interactivity to engage the learner. Once again this is much more than video conferencing, recorded lectures, or workbooks.

Although learning can happen independently of a teacher, the goal of a digital curriculum, as any instructional designer or developer will avow, has never been to replace a teacher, just as a lesson plan or textbook cannot act as a replacement either.

Education will take many different shapes throughout the 2020-2021 school year and the teacher will remain pivotal no matter if students attend in-person, online or a combination of both.  A prime example of this is a hybrid flipped classroom. Hybrid school model means that students split their time between the physical classroom and online based on individual student needs. And a flipped classroom means exactly what the name suggests, the relationship between the classroom and home is flipped. Instead of learning new concepts in the classroom and being sent home to apply and expand their understanding through homework, students engage with core content at home so they may come to class to cultivate subject mastery under the guidance of a teacher. This allows the teacher to focus on personalized instruction and intervention when needed.

Because students can learn and work outside of the classroom through a digital curriculum, equipping families with the resources to create a thriving learning environment at home is also essential. Regardless of how schools implement a hybrid or fully online school model, at the core of any education is a foundational partnership between educators, students, and guardians.

Communications is key to building this partnership and is all the more important as students in a hybrid or online program are offered a great deal of flexibility in their schoolwork. Unfortunately, email lingers as the preferred means of communication between teachers and families. Video conferencing, phone calls, and text messages are just now revealing themselves to be indispensable to any form of distance learning.

Still a constant battery of communications from a school, teacher, or multiple teachers in higher grade levels is not valuable to parents if the information they convey is not actionable and delivered in a timely manner. As families prepare for their students to work from home, parents will need to know things like; has my student been logging into their courses each day, is my student making sufficient progress, and is my student successful? Delivering this information on a weekly, if not daily, cadence engages parents in their student’s learning experience and makes them a partner rather than a spectator.

A digital education is not simply transactional between a teacher and students. The goal of a digital education is to bring a fully realized educational experience into the homes of students, which explicitly means that both students and parents must be equipped with the resources for success, whether that is a robust, teacher-supported, digital curriculum or actionable and timely communications to create a healthy learning environment.

As families head into the 2020-2021 academic year, a return to the traditional models of classroom instruction appear to be some ways down the road. And rather than looking back upon the previous spring as the standard for digital education, families should shift their perceptions and begin expecting more from the digital learning solutions that are being rolled out for this year.

Cody Bendix, Guest Contributor | Serving as the Corporate Communications Director for StrongMind, Cody has dedicated his professional career to advancing K-12 education across the country. Starting his career with Great Hearts Academies, Cody was instrumental in the marketing, public relations, and advocacy for one of the nation’s fastest growing public charter school systems. Since joining StrongMind in 2019, he has dedicated his efforts to driving innovation and expanding access to high quality schools for all students. 

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to Verano Learning Partners

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