First Person

In Our Online Learning Experience, More Ups Than Downs

The comments left on GothamSchools’ recent coverage of the Innovation Zone raised questions about the value of online learning similar to those we hear from our students and their families. As co-principals of the iSchool, a two-year-old school built around using online courses to individualize student learning, we thought it might be worthwhile to share the reasons we use online learning and how it works in our school.

Online learning means many different things at different schools. At the iSchool, we use the term to refer to courses where the content is delivered online only, and the teacher and student are not online at the same time. Each of our online courses is facilitated by an iSchool teacher, licensed in that content area, who designs the course, tracks student progress, and meets with students individually and in small groups when necessary. Our students spend about seven hours a week learning online at their own pace. Because of state regulations about awarding credit, these hours take place during the school day.

What does this look like inside our classrooms? Picture a traditional classroom with 34 students sitting in rows. Each student has a computer out on his/her desk and a notebook for taking notes. Each student is doing something different — some are watching a video of a teacher lecturing about the First Constitutional Convention (which students are pausing each time they take notes), some students are working on math problems, some are reading literature texts, and some are labeling the parts of a cell on a digital image.

We chose to incorporate online learning in our model for several important reasons:

  1. Learning online is — and will continue to be — a reality for the world in which our students are growing up. Our students will be required to learn online during their college and graduate school experiences, as well as throughout their careers. If we are to prepare them to be successful in their future endeavors, we must prepare them to be successful online learners.
  2. Learning to make sense of online texts and resources is a critical skill for our students’ academic success as well as their ability to be literate citizens of the 21st-century workplace and global community. Reading and analyzing online material requires development of the same skills that will facilitate their success with more traditional paper-and-pencil academic tasks and standardized tests.
  3. Online learning supports one important tenet of iSchool’s mission: to individualize our students’ high school experiences. Online learning enables students to progress through coursework at their own pace, to take courses when they are ready, and to more easily and readily have their learning presented in ways suited to their style and needs, through the use of audio and visual features.
  4. Finally, online courses broaden the curricular options available for our students. As a small school, we are limited both in funds and personnel. By offering our students the opportunity to take coursework online, we can offer Advanced Placement and college-level courses in any area to our students. This means that our students can pursue in greater depths those subjects of interest to them. It also means that our students will enter college ahead in credits and graduation requirements, increasing the likelihood that they will be successful in and complete college in four years.

While the argument for incorporating online instruction into students’ high school experience is compelling and strong, online learning isn’t easy for the teacher or student. Our students often tell us it would be so much easier if someone would just lecture at them and tell them what to memorize. Indeed, it would be easier, but we don’t embrace online learning at the iSchool to make learning easier. Of course, online learning does not in and of itself make classes rigorous, but used correctly, online learning enables each student to work on the content on which he needs to work — providing a level of individualization that is just not possible in a classroom with even the most gifted or experienced teacher.

At the iSchool we spend a great deal of time determining what kind of content is appropriate to put online, and what learning can best occur when directly facilitated by a teacher. What we’ve learned is that students do not need teachers to help them memorize low level content (e.g. that 2×2=4), but teachers are necessary to help students understand the reasons for (e.g. why 2×2=4) or the application (e.g. what we can do with this understanding) of this low-level content. Our students don’t spend less time in classrooms with teachers because of their online coursework; instead, time in classrooms focuses on developing students’ higher-order thinking skills (synthesis and application), rather than on drilling on content. We know that a computer will (likely) never be able to pass on the kinds of discussions, interaction, and skill development that can occur in the presence of a great teacher, but why waste our great teachers and valuable time on memorization and test prep?

As with any new instructional approach, we all have much to learn as we begin to implement it. Many of the concerns raised by GothamSchools’ readers are real and reflect the type of challenges teachers deal with every day, although they are not dissimilar to those faced by teachers in traditional classrooms. In fact, while students easily grasp the reasons and benefits of online learning, they experience much more difficulty adapting to the role of online learner. Online learning requires significantly more independence, self-discipline, and time management than has likely been required of students in their previous education and many of them struggle with this at first. During the past year, we have discovered several common factors that cause an iSchool student to struggle in their online classes:

  • Students look at the timeline presented in the course, but do not abide by it, thinking there is no “class” to attend.
  • Students think that they are invisible to the teacher and do not have to participate according to the guidelines.
  • Students don’t use the available tools to track their progress and access help when required.
  • Students forget that a real person is evaluating them, and may be tempted to turn in lower-quality work, use others’ work, or skip assignments altogether, thinking that nothing is “due.”
  • Students forget that online classes also have homework and don’t spend the time required.

After noticing the pattern of these common struggles, we put in place several structures to support students as they develop their online learning skills:

  • Each online course has built-in hints and tips to provide immediate assistance when a student is “stuck.”
  • Each online period has a proctor, who can assist students with technical issues, or provide general course help.
  • Online course teachers are available during office hours for students who wish to “drop in”; teachers also regularly mandate students to attend special online support sessions during office hours.
  • Students participated in tutorials at the beginning of the year with hints and strategies for online success; ninth-grade students spent additional time in class discussing online learning and strategies for success.
  • Students reviewed expectations for online coursework in Advisory, and were asked to sign an online learning contract.

While we have figured a few things out, we still have much to learn about how to be more effective online instructors and learners. For the iSchool, the benefit of the new iZone is that we will now have a community of schools who are thinking of the inherent challenges (which are far outweighed by the benefits of online learning) and working together to come up with solutions. We will also be working together to develop the best online curricula that will provide a broader range of courses and a more personalized high school experience for New York City students. Having teachers from different schools work together on curricula and pilot them with students in a variety of contexts will allow us to more efficiently design curricula that are effective across the broad range of the city’s student populations. Working together, with systemic support for the development of more innovative learning experiences, will enable all of us to do a better job of preparing our students for college and the future.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.