First Person

Ask an Expert: Making the most of online learning

EdNews Parent expert Ann Morrison offers tips on how to help your child make progress in a virtual classroom.

Q. My teenager is taking a couple of classes online this semester to supplement the classes he is taking at school. At first we thought it would be a great idea because he has a job and it allows him more flexibility. The trouble is that he is falling behind in his online classes. We talk to him about it and he tells us that he will “take care of it,” but when we check his grades, it turns out he hasn’t. We are worried he won’t pass these classes. What do we do?

A. Several implicit characteristics of online learning contribute to making it easier for students to fall behind.

Denver Public Schools’ students work in a computer lab in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

First, put a student in front of a computer and, at some point, they will end up on Facebook or some other site that is more interesting than their math or English class.

It takes motivation and self-regulation to attend to challenging work for extended periods. These skills are strengths for some students, but not for all.

Second, where face-to-face classes allow for socially-constructed learning through interaction with peers in real time, student interaction with peers in the virtual classroom comes through discussion boards.

Often, a teacher will pose a question on the discussion board for students to respond to. Depending on the time frame of the course, one student may respond to the question and another may not log in for days or weeks.

Although the activity is intended to foster discussion, unless all of the students are on the assignment at the same time the discussion ends up being more of a string of responses to the question without interaction between the students. Learning from peers is an important part of classroom learning that is largely missing in online classes.

A student may have a question that requires an answer before proceeding. The teacher and resources provided by the course are just two sources of information. Other high-quality sources of information are available on the Internet and in books. Finding and using these sources can take some initiative and problem-solving which, again, are strengths for some students but not for all.

Last, while online teachers can provide information to students, they cannot watch and listen for student learning and adjust instruction accordingly. In the face-to-face environment, a teacher can look at student faces and listen to their discussion to gauge whether students are learning. If a class needs clarification or re-teaching, the teacher can check student understanding and provide guidance in that moment.

If a student misunderstands content in an online class, the teacher may only become aware of it when grading the student’s assignments.

So what is a parent to do?

Here are some tips that could help:

• Decide how involved you will be. First, decide whether you need or want to have control of the situation or if you want to encourage your child to take control of the situation himself. This decision is fundamental in how you proceed in supporting your child in completing online classes successfully. Your approach need not be completely hands-off or hands-on. Your child may be more motivated by one class than another, requiring differing levels of adult involvement and supervision.

Consistent study time. Elements that add structure to an online course are test and assignment due dates, a consistent daily schedule that includes time for coursework and breaks, a work environment that lends itself to studying, and an adult who checks progress at least once a day.

Assignment calendar. Managing studying and assignments independently can be overwhelming and frustrating. The answer to managing assignments is an assignment calendar. Many course management systems have due dates for each assignment. Some students take online classes to accommodate athletic, work or travel schedules, however. In this case, the assignment calendar needs to accommodate those parts of the student’s life.

Divide up the work. In order to make an assignment calendar for your child, take the number of assignments your child needs to complete before the end of the course and divide by the number of days they will be working on it. Adjust the workload to group more small assignments on one day and leave tests or larger assignments as the only task for other days. Keep the assignment calendar somewhere conspicuous in your home and let your child cross off units, tests or assignments as they are completed.

Use a planner. If you want to encourage your student to take more responsibility for their success, provide them with the tools they need, ask them to make a master schedule and then show it to you. A calendar or planner they like is a good tool. Take a trip to the office supply store and let them pick out their own planner to increase their buy-in for using it.

Same time, every day. Most parents, teachers and administrators of online learning will say that it is essential for a student to work on their online courses at a consistent time every day. Making consistent progress is much more difficult when a child’s schedule doesn’t allow for consistent work time.

Create a good work environment. Creating a work environment that lends itself to studying is important. Students who are easily distracted will benefit from low room lighting and a desk lamp to direct attention to the course materials and computer and away from visual distractions in the environment. Many students will insist that they study best on their beds or in their bedrooms. If they make progress working in the environment they say works for them, then great. If they do not show success working where they want to, then the environment needs to be changed.

Check your child’s progress. It is important for a parent to check their child’s progress regularly. If you are taking more control of your child’s progress, then be clear about consequences for not staying on schedule and be prepared to follow through. Alternately, consequences for lack of follow-through must be paired with rewards for strong follow-through. In order to decide on appropriate rewards and consequences, consider what is important to your child. Make rewards and consequences proportional.

Parents who are leaning toward encouraging their child to take more responsibility for themselves should still check progress regularly. Be sure your child knows the natural consequences for lack of progress and then be prepared to let them fail. The lessons learned from natural consequences can sometimes be the best lessons of all.

Let us know if this helps.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.