News Detail

Virtually Emma: Online Learning Launches

Suzanne Romero Dewey
What are the essential elements in a learning environment and how do you rapidly put on-campus teaching and learning into a digital format for 355 students scattered around the globe in the midst of a pandemic? Thanks to a dedicated faculty, the forethought of a head of school, and an academic dean with a can-do attitude, online learning launched this week.
Close your eyes and recall your favorite learning experience. Okay. What did you see? A classroom, your teacher, your peers, paper, pencils, laptops, beaker tubes, a science bench, paints, a whiteboard or even a chalkboard, a clock and a window. You might have even imagined a bell ringing. If you enjoyed rich academic experiences, you might have also thought about the learning itself—maybe an aha moment or wonderment and curiosity.

Now ask yourself how you get to that wonderment phase without all of the physical things you just imagined? That has been the essential question driving Academic Dean Meredith Legg, PhD, the academic tech team, and the entire faculty. Given the foresight of Head of School Jenny Rao, thinking around this quandary began before Emma Willard School made the decision to conduct classes in a digital format in mid-March.

Hours and hours of planning and preparation went into the online learning program that launched on April 6. Platforms had to be tested and selected, the general frame had to be determined, the mix of asynchronous and synchronous sessions considered, website properties were created (for faculty, students, and parents), course planning was completely reconsidered, standards were discussed, and finally the students concluded their spring recess and online learning began under the idea that the campus is closed but the learning continues.

Welcome to the academic program of Virtually Emma!

All classes are asynchronous. Weekly office hours, advisor meetings, one on one sessions, learning support, and many community events are synchronous. The focus of the first week aimed at orientation. The new teaching and learning format will excel with student feedback and actual experience with the delivery. Teachers have built feedback and reflection tools into each week. An open mindset and the willingness to tweak and adjust will be markers toward learning success.

Descriptions don’t do justice to the shape of learning that is now occurring with Emma Willard students around the globe. The measure will be how many aha moments can be reached. The examples that follow were created for the first week of classes and provide a glimpse of what is happening in virtual classrooms.

  1. Setting expectations

Julie Matthews, PhD provides an example with her AP Biology class setting expectations for the remainder of the year. She details how grading will change and discusses office hours and the learning format. 

  1. Daily breakdown of assignments and tasks

Esther Dettmar, PhD communicates with her English class about the daily breakdown of 
assignments and discusses the norms with video conferencing.

  1. Lesson delivery

John Ball uses humor and detailed demonstrations to share vital physics lessons.

Asked on day four, how things are going, Dr. Legg said, “Online learning is going really, really well. We’ve done so much planning and yet you don’t know until it happens. We’ve already learned a lot. The faculty talks about the idea of a student’s mental post-it note and believes the less that post-it note has on it, the better for the student. That thinking is helping us already make an organizational change to how the courses deliver content. We are using student feedback to help us gauge time on tasks as well. We are learning from each other.” Ms. Rao further shares, “I’ve been snooping around checking on various classes and have been so impressed. What has been re-imagined by our faculty is remarkable. They have poured creativity, thoughtfulness, and knowledge of their students into all of their new lesson planning. Their intention and care is demonstrated!”

Everyone agrees that being together on-campus is very much missed, and yet there are many silver linings that the school community is experiencing during this time. There is a vitality and a determination by the entire Emma community to make Virtually Emma a success. So far, all signals point to “WE'VE GOT THIS!”

What's Next?

Our Mission

Honoring its founder’s vision, Emma Willard School proudly fosters in each young woman a love of learning, the habits of an intellectual life, and the character, moral strength, and qualities of leadership to serve and shape her world.
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