The process of shifting Emma Willard School's learning atmosphere to Virtually Emma took rapid and extensive planning and creativity. As students were departing for the spring recess, the academic and technology teams geared up to tackle the transformation. Academic Technology Coordinator Nick Marchese took a moment to share some behind-the-scenes insight into this new adventure in learning. Nick shares his thoughts in response to key questions:
What was the first thing that needed to be accomplished in order to move learning online?
The very first thing that needed to be done was to decide what online learning was going to look like at Emma Willard School. Towards the end of February, when all the real buzz started about the impact of COVID-19, schools were beginning to look into online learning contingency plans. The independent school technology community went into overdrive. The topic that was on everybody’s tongue at the very start was how we were going to replicate live synchronous classes. Immediately, Academic Dean Meredith Legg, PhD, and I sat down and talked about how almost every school was moving in this direction. We felt strongly that this was not how online learning was going to look for Emma. This model did not seem thoughtful, equitable, or sustainable given our international community and the circumstances of our faculty and students. We very quickly decided that an asynchronous learning model was what best fit our community.
What major hurdles were there and how were they overcome?
One of the major hurdles included discussing with teachers how we were going to do online learning (asynchronously) and how that will look very different than how many teachers were currently teaching. Effectively designing and teaching an asynchronous online course requires thinking about course materials in a different way, where we moved from a balance of daily lectures and discussions to posting a week’s worth of materials that are broken down into chunks and delivered in a variety of mediums. We were lucky enough to have a few days where we worked as a faculty to design and understand how this was going to work before we left for Spring Break. We invited teachers experienced with digital learning platforms to speak with us and help us think through how we should be teaching online asynchronously. Upon prepping initial course materials, we leveraged the Educational Technology Team in partnership with Department Chairs to ensure that each teacher met with an experienced technology user to help design their topic page, evaluate what technology tools and workflows should be used, and answer any questions or concerns.
What technology upgrades were required?
There were staff members who only used desktop computers, and they were given laptop computers for their new home offices. We purchased and provided earbuds to any Emma Willard faculty or staff member to use when video conferencing with students, colleagues, or when creating screencasts and video recordings.
As for software, we worked to make the best use of existing platforms but we did purchase Screencastify, a Chrome extension, and make it available to every Emma community member. Screen recordings for demonstrations, lectures, explanations, troubleshooting are now possible. We leveraged other tech tools that we’d previously utilized, scaling up and formalizing their use. Some of those applications include Pear Deck, Padlet, FlipGrid, VoiceThread, ExplainEverything, EdPuzzle, and Kahoot! We also shared the Google Meet Grid View extension that was created by another independent school technologist.
Was there much of a learning curve? What was the need for training?
There was, and continues to be, a learning curve, both for faculty and students. Learning online is a different beast, from organizing and managing your own time and workstation to the increased use of technology and online learning tools, to creating, sharing, and engaging with course materials in smaller modules and in a variety of mediums. We had training with teachers before we left for Spring Break on the philosophy, best practices, and beginning logistics of teaching asynchronously and online. This continued with remote training after Spring Break and focused more on the technology logistics and content creation and delivery. Teachers created explanatory videos to help students orient themselves to how course materials would be grouped and how best to move through those materials.
What were the biggest challenges?
One of the biggest challenges was definitely helping every teacher develop and create their content in this new style. This challenge consists of how we should deliver this, what mediums and modes should students and teachers use, how much work and time should be spent creating, engaging, and doing assignments, to how to use best practices and create standards across the board.
What were the greatest joys?
Seeing some teachers start to feel more confident with their technology skills that they weren’t before and watching some teachers thrive in incredible and unexpected ways has been a delight to watch. Seeing the way that our faculty comes together to work through this process with empathy, kindness, and positivity has been a joy to see.
Any key takeaways from this process?
I think this process has many key takeaways:
- We identified the gaps in our technology skills for faculty and students and learned to build on that knowledge to develop professional development and training to enhance baseline technology skills.
- We discussed and developed teaching pedagogy methods that worked well with online learning and should be transferred whenever we come back in some way.
- We reassessed how we deliver the curriculum and how we structure assessments. That can influence our work in the future.
With their depth of knowledge and inventive problem-solving, the technologists among us have led the way in bringing Virtually Emma online. Thanks to their work, our students can continue along their paths of learning even from afar. As a school, we’ve developed insights and new habits that will help us propel teaching and learning in unexpected but valuable ways.