Virtual School Meanderings

September 30, 2022

Navigating Complexity

An item from the folks at the Digital Learning Collaborative.

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Navigating Complexity

By Justin Bruno, Assistant Director of District Programming at Michigan Virtual

Countless words have been written about the impact that the global Covid-19 pandemic has had and will have on K-12 education. This moment in history has been described as “disruptive”, “future-shaping”, an “incredible opportunity”, and more. Just as much attention has been devoted to discussing what the pandemic has revealed or exposed about K-12 education, with observers justifiably noting systemic inequality, technology shortcomings, outdated policy, etc. But perhaps one of the most obvious yet accurate observations, which has constantly been reinforced over the last two and a half years, is that schools have highly complex, variable, and context-dependent needs. Discussions around online learning, emergency remote learning, and the role of technology in instruction and learning, especially in the wake of the pandemic, too often lack the nuance and appropriate scope needed for productive decision-making.

Variability and complexity are what makes it so difficult to research and serve schools; of course if we could reliably bottle up, replicate, and distribute whatever combination of factors works in one school, we’d embark on our own Operation Warp Speed and cure what ails all the others. One of my favorite metaphors for describing the K-12 education system is the Complex Domain of the “cynefin framework”, a method of analysis and decision-making, which John Miller has described as the “dancing landscape”. This landscape is like an ocean, where surfers and sailors are dealing with a high level of unpredictability in the size and timing of the waves they face; contrast this with a mountain or other terrain where most factors can be mapped and planned for in advance. For those of us who work in or with schools, how do we navigate such an unpredictable and varying landscape? How do we create programs, resources, or environments that benefit as many students as possible while anticipating such differing needs and complexities? How do we, in our planning, account for the fact that teaching is both an art and a science?

Addressing complexity requires us to engage in nuanced discussions and abandon binary thinking. To that end, online learning isn’t “good” or “bad”; like most human endeavors, it is highly dependent on contextual factors that can lead to varying degrees of success. Rather than be forced into false binaries, schools should be empowered to take more risks to find innovative approaches that work best for small groups and individual students. Those approaches might range from online learning, to project-based learning, or even to differentiation in gender grouping. Less important than the approach itself is the ability for schools to differentiate down to the individual student level and be adequately resourced to manage such a range of varying models and approaches simultaneously.

Two things that we know lead to success in any setting are effective communication and relationship-building. Research across a variety of disciplines shows that teams and individuals are more likely to achieve their desired outcomes when communication and relationships are of high quality. Unfortunately, many folks are quick to assume that traditional in-person learning (or in-person teaching) is the best and only way to build meaningful relationships and healthy communication habits. It can of course be more difficult to foster those connections when less in-person interaction takes place, but we have a growing body of evidence that can help us craft high-quality learning experiences that enable great communication and relationship-building. Recognizing the complexity of teaching and learning and the variability of schools and students would allow us to focus instead on the “first principles” like communication and relationships and devise personalized approaches that fall outside of binary choice sets.

Education leaders must now set a future course that doesn’t include solutions to every problem, but instead relies on a new way of doing things to find success in small doses and without panacean expectations. The American education system is yet another institution that is being stressed under the weight of high expectations for simple solutions. Those of us in education must push back on those expectations and highlight successes that arise from a new way of thinking and a new way of doing things, resisting the temptation to “return to normal” and seizing opportunities for change. Decision-makers must determine whether online learning, competency-based education, micro-schools, or whatever other model or tool they are considering is the right paddle or sail for their vessel as they navigate the complexities of the ocean, knowing that there is no fixed destination and the marine forecast can change in the blink of an eye.

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September 28, 2022

Updated #DLAC23 Agenda ⭐

An update from this K-12 digital learning conference.

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One of the things we hear the most from our past DLAC attendees is how much they appreciate the resources and ideas spurred from attending DLAC! The people you meet, the stories you hear, and the knowledge you are left with is so valuable in moving the #digitallearning field and your program forward – There is no place like it!

And, of course, we don’t want to just leave you hanging after DLAC. This community of educators and the conversations continue through our membership platform: the Digital Learning Collaborative. For the first time this year you can bundle your DLAC registration along with a year long DLC Membership for a discounted price!

If you are eager to start planning and want to see what #DLAC23 has in store for you, our Sample Agenda is continuously being updated as we complete and accept proposals after each Proposal Phase.

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The third (and final!) phase of DLACs Call For Proposals is still open until October 11, 2022. If you have a session idea in mind – get that proposal in! If you have any questions about the sessions types or a session idea you want to talk through with our team, email us at DLAC@evergreenedgroup.com!

We are here to help.

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September 24, 2022

The Key to Teacher Retention Starts with Support, Training, and Trust

An item from the folks at the Digital Learning Collaborative.

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The Key to Teacher Retention Starts with Support, Training, and Trust

By Robin Winder, Sr Director of Instruction, and Jason Odom, Director of Instruction, for FlexPoint Education Cloud and Florida Virtual School (FLVS)

We’ve all seen the distressing news – many schools and districts around the nation are challenged with teacher shortages. From reports that teachers are quitting their jobs faster than they can be replaced, to college students in Arizona teaching in the classroom before they’ve graduated, and rural school districts in Texas switching to four-day weeks due to lack of staff, school administrators are looking for solutions.

And although other reports have noted that the turnover rate has not changed dramatically in these past two years, teacher vacancies do exist, especially in certain parts of the country. Which is why we think we need to get back to the basics: keeping incredible instructional talent starts with the support, training, and open communication school administrators provide.

Over the course of our careers, we have learned and experienced the best ways to engage staff – both as teachers ourselves and now as instructional leaders. In fact, at Florida Virtual School (FLVS), our teacher retention rate actually increased in the 2021-22 school year to 92.5%.

Below is a list of our tried-and-true strategies to engage and retain teachers:

Step 1: It all comes down to relationships

Just like we get to know our students and their families through one-on-one support, it’s important we, as school leadership, do the same with our teachers and staff. We’ve seen the benefit of what building rapport and connections with our students can do, like increased interest in their schoolwork and building a growth mindset. So, why not do the same for teaching staff? From introductory calls during a teacher’s first week, to training, and beyond, the goal should be to understand each teacher’s individual needs. What do they like? What do they struggle with? What would they like to do more of? What resources do they need?

And beyond that – what do they like to do personally? What are their priorities outside of the workplace? Understanding teachers and staff, and actively listening to them should always be the biggest priority.

Step 2: Build a community

We know it can seem hard – how do you build a community in an online, blended, or hybrid learning environment? At FLVS and FlexPoint, we have developed several ways to keep the virtual doors of communication open for our teachers and staff. Some of these strategies include sending a survey on day one to understand their concerns, hosting a town hall or Q&A session, providing a space where they can indicate they need help such as a chat, digital forum, or recurring meetings, and hosting social events to give them an informal setting to learn from each other.

We also do face-to-face meetups that allow teachers who live in the same area to get to know each other. We often hear from our instruction staff that the teachers they meet become a support system for them. The key is ensuring that our teachers and staff have a forum where they can express their thoughts and learn about any news or updates.

Step 3: Onboard and train

Lastly, to build trust with teachers, it’s important to have a robust onboarding and training program. That starts on day one! Start by introducing them to the culture of your organization. At FLVS, we highlight our commitment to putting the student at the center of every decision we make, and that helps them become well versed in our goals and priorities.

Then, train teachers on the technology they will be using, such as the learning management system, any program that tracks student data, video conferencing apps, online games and activities, and more. After this, set up training for them with their specific principals and instructional leaders so they can ease into their daily responsibilities. One way we offer additional support is by pairing new teachers with experienced instructional mentors.

It’s important that after that initial training, their professional development opportunities continue as it will set them up for success throughout their entire career. Rather than only helping them with their immediate needs, help them envision their future. This will create lifelong learners who seek to help students in new and innovative ways.

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Copyright © 2022 Evergreen Education Group, All rights reserved.
You are receiving this email because you opted in at the DLC or DLAC website.Our mailing address is:

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700 Main Ave Ste E

Durango, CO 81301-5437

September 21, 2022

Why you should join (and speak) at #DLAC23

An update from this K-12 digital learning conference.

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2023: The year to join DLAC!

With DLAC 2023 being our fifth year, we have had the opportunity to hear from our attendees and why they keep coming back!! Listen below on why they recommend joining our community of digital learning educators in Austin, TX or Online!

DLAC Testimonials over the years – and why you should join us in 2023!

Phase 3 Call for Proposals is now open – if you haven’t submitted your proposal, now is the time! We have accepted a lot of great proposals and are now looking to fill in gaps to round out our agenda for all audiences. Our current gaps are for sessions focused on pushing the field forward (more advanced audience) and for leaders of digital programs/schools.

Haven’t registered for DLAC yet? Mark it off your To-Do list today and Register Now!
Need Help? We’re here.

DLAC@evergreenedgroup.com

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Copyright © 2022 Evergreen Education Group, All rights reserved.
You are receiving this email because you opted in at the DLC or DLAC website.

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Evergreen Education Group

700 Main Ave Ste E

Durango, CO 81301-5437

September 16, 2022

Complicated versus complex

This is somewhat the point that I was making yesterday in the commentary I posted around the news article “Schools bake in distance learning days, say it keeps them in practice.”

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Complicated versus complex

BY JOHN WATSON

Several recent stories have caught my attention as they highlight how hard it can be to start or grow an online/hybrid school, particularly in a mainstream district.

One of these, “APS to apply lessons from virtual learning program audit to planning for new online program” is a rather dry headline to apply to a story that is quite negative:

[Arlington Public Schools] created the [Virtual Learning Program] in May 2021 for families who had reservations about resuming in-person school last fall as well as for students who prefer online instruction. But it quickly malfunctioned for a dozen reasons, according to the audit, prompting school leaders to “pause” the program for the 2022-23 school year…

APS lacked a formal plan and necessary time to stand up the program, having just the summer to do so, according to auditor John Mickevice. He said planners did not think through the problems that might arise trying to hire 111 teachers in that same period, amid hiring freezes.

The VLP needed more principals, teachers and specialized staff to meet the needs of students, who were overwhelmingly students of color, English learners and students with disabilities, he said. Program leaders were slow to inform administrators of technology issues and teacher shortages.

The story goes on, and it doesn’t get much better.

Why such challenges in this and other cases, when examples of success are out there to replicate?

It’s in part because many planners don’t fully account for the difference between complicated and complex. Larry Cuban wrote about this several years ago and updated it recently: (emphasis is added below)

What’s the difference between sending a rocket to the moon and getting children to succeed in school? What’s the difference between a surgeon extracting a brain tumor and judge and jury deciding guilt or innocence for a person accused of murder?

Answers: sending a rocket to the moon and surgeons extracting brain tumors are complicated tasks while getting children to succeed in school (or, for that matter, raising a child) and navigating the criminal justice system are complex.

According to York University (Ontario, Canada) business professor Brenda Zimmermancomplicated procedures like brain surgery and rocket launchings require engineer-designed blueprints, step-by-step algorithms, well-trained staff, and exquisite combinations of computer software running carefully calibrated equipment. Think rocket landing on the moon in 1969, doctor-controlled robotic arms doing brain surgery, and the U.S. “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003.

OK, so complicated stuff is hard. But complex challenges are harder. Why? Back to Cuban:

Complex systems like criminal justice, health care, and schools, however, are filled with hundreds of moving parts, scores of players of varied expertise and independence yet missing a “mission control” that runs all these different parts within an ever-changing political, economic, and societal environment. The result: constant adaptations in design and action…

Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans and savvy managers simply are inadequate to get complex systems with thousands of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in such constantly changing and unpredictable environments. These web-like complex systems of interdependent units adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings.

Let’s put this another way, relating back to the APS article.

It’s really hard to land a rocket on Mars. But Mars doesn’t change its orbit in an unpredictable way once you’ve launched the rocket, and it definitely doesn’t change its orbit because you launched a rocket. Get your algorithms right, and the rocket will land as planned.

But no matter how much planning you do for a new school, you won’t know actual enrollments until you open registration. And you might not plan for the district providing the staff they want to send instead of the staff you need. (Yes that happened in Arlington, see slide 30 of the audit slides.)

Complex issues call to mind the idea that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” There’s no “enemy” in the case of starting an online school, so you might paraphrase to “no plan survives the first day of school.”

I’m concerned that in the coming school year we are going to see more district online programs disappoint in terms of enrollments and results, and shut down. Definitely not all, and hopefully not most. But still, the shutdowns and failures are likely to get a lot of attention.

It will be valuable to remind policymakers, the media, and ourselves that education is complex—not just complicated. And that is all the more reason to celebrate the successful online and hybrid schools and courses that are serving students well.

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