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Thoughts on Virtual School – The Problem of Attendance

Through discussions with teachers who were finishing their first “virtual school” experience last spring, we found that regular attendance was an issue. For Ed Directions coaches, student attendance is a critical variable that schools must control in order to reach the goal of “success for all.” Research indicates that if a student misses five days, it will impact their performance, missing 10 days will have a serious impact on their performance, and missing more than 20 days will result in their performance being less than half of their potential. Our first point of emphasis when we begin to work with teachers and turnaround schools is that “you can’t teach them if you don’t have them.”

Attending and Engaged in Virtual Learning

In regular classrooms, we know whether students are present or absent. Virtual situations cause attendance to be more complex. If students have the choice to opt-in at different times to view a recorded lesson or if they can turn on a lesson but then do something else, it is very difficult to determine if they are actually “present” and engaged in the learning work. The Ed Directions coaches felt that as a part of the planning of the virtual school, academic leaders and teachers needed to develop strategies for determining if and when students attend virtual classes and if and when they do the work assigned.

One teacher voiced another attendance issue, explaining that when she led Zoom lessons with her students, they seemed to have trouble staying engaged. When she asked parents for help, the parents began observing the students and discovered that in seven of the eight homes, the students indeed had the Zoom lesson open on their computer, but they were engaged in games on their iPads while the teacher was providing the lesson.

In regular classrooms, it’s easy to tell whether the students are attending and working to acquire learning. This becomes more difficult when students are offsite and virtual. The Ed Directions coaches concluded that, in the example above, although the students were attending the Zoom lessons, they were not attentive to the lessons. Ignoring the lesson – the teacher work or the learning work – has the same effect of being physically absent in terms of student learning. Academic leaders and teachers not only have to get the students to physically attend virtual lessons, but they have to develop strategies to get the students engaged in the virtual lessons.

Strategies to Keep Students Involved

Some strategies that the Ed Directions coaches have in their tool kits that might help with this include:

  • Proactive prompts that alert the students to what is going to be learned in the lesson. These can establish student accountability for the learnings and teachers can, when they reach a natural breaking point in a lesson, review with the students which of the learning priorities were just covered.
  • Academic rituals and routines that focus on optimum learning behaviors can be taught and shaped in the first few lessons and then used by teachers to get students to demonstrate their “proficient” learning work and work product. Rituals and routines provide structures that teachers can use to get students’ attention, get them to engage and stay engaged in learning work, and demonstrate their understanding of the concepts or tasks being learned. In a virtual setting, these rituals and routines would have to be very carefully planned and developed.
  • Post-learning reviews allow teachers to challenge students to demonstrate that they actually “learned” the material that was being taught. An example of this was used by one of our coaches when they were a teacher: At the end of each lesson, they would give the students an easy test question and a hard test question on the material that had just been covered in the lesson. Students didn’t have to answer the question, they just had to find the answer in their notes and highlight it so that the teacher could check the notebooks later and see that they had, in fact, done the learning work needed to begin mastering the content. This can also be done by providing a real-world scenario and asking how the learning was demonstrated in that real-world scenario.

When we plan for the opening of school this year, it will be important to plan with the structure in mind. In-class instruction, hybrid instruction (with a mix of virtual and in-class work that is entirely off-site), or virtual classes require different data analysis, different priority settings, different plans, and different data management if academic leaders and teachers really want “success for all.” Remember, we can teach them if we don’t have them. So let’s be sure to “get” them!

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