Lincoln Academy Academic Technology Coordinator Stephanie Cheney is teaching an online class for LA faculty to help improve their virtual teaching skills. LA is planning for possible in-person, virtual, and hybrid instruction this fall in conjunction with Governor Mills’s recommendations that schools prepare for multiple public health scenarios.

Lincoln Academy is planning several instructional models for the fall to prepare for various scenarios outlined by Governor Mills for schools statewide. These include in-person instruction, virtual instruction, and a hybrid of the two, with the possibility of switching between models as the public health situation evolves.

In order to be ready for the unique challenges facing teachers in 2020, LA faculty are spending part of their summer vacation honing their virtual teaching skills through–what else?–an online class.

“Understanding how to deliver content effectively online is an essential skill for teachers in 2020,” said Stephanie Cheney, Lincoln Academy’s Academic Technology Coordinator, who is teaching the class. “It is clear that at least some content will be delivered online when we go back to school this fall, and we may transition from in-person to online instruction and back again before the year is over.”

During the four-week virtual class “faculty experience being a student in the virtual environment while exploring concepts vital to design engaging course materials.” Teachers are learning best practices in distance and project-based learning, online assessment, communication, and collaboration. The virtual format means that Cheney is modeling various practices as she teaches the material.

In the workshop teachers are challenged to take their typical class content and transition it online. “This does not mean simply pasting their regular syllabus into Canvas [the school’s learning management system] and continuing to teach as usual on Zoom,” said Cheney. “That is a recipe for losing student interest real fast. Delivering content effectively online is a whole new skill set.”

“Virtual learning isn’t just about translating your classroom curriculum online,” agreed LA English teacher John Cannon, who is taking Cheney’s course. “In most ways it requires a complete rebuild, forcing you to rethink what the essentials of your discipline are, how to deliver those core skills and concepts, and how to best support student understanding and growth in this new platform. It’s still a Lego house. You use many of the same Lego blocks. But it’s a different structure, so many pieces don’t fit, and you need to find new ones that you maybe haven’t used before in order to make it sound.”

Cheney cited challenges with engaging students through a virtual platform, including the fatigue factor that comes with learning online. “A 15-person discussion is pretty standard practice in school, but on an online discussion board [where students write comments in response to a prompt and to each other] it gets exhausting. We tried it with the teachers, and the discussion quickly grew to more than 75 comments. Teachers realized that even as adult professionals it is difficult to follow a string that long. When we divided into three small groups, the online discussion went a lot better.”

LA science teacher Betsy Grannis is participating in the class. She commented that “one advantage of virtual learning is that it allows (or sometimes requires) all students to participate. During an in-person class, some students are more comfortable listening and absorbing what others are saying during a discussion. They need more time to process and reflect before they would consider contributing to the conversation. Working in a virtual setting gives them the time they need to comfortably participate.”

LA Director of Curriculum and Instruction Kelley Duffy sees Cheney’s class as essential in preparing teachers for the next phase of virtual learning. “In the spring we had to make an emergency transition. The learning curve was steep for both students and faculty, and we had to make compromises to deal with unexpected circumstances. We now have time to spend on good preparation for a range of academic situations. This course is providing teachers not only with tech tools, but a chance to really examine the best educational practices for virtual learning, and how to move smoothly between virtual and in-person instruction as needed.”

Head of School Jeff Burroughs, who teaches a class in the LA math department, is taking the class alongside teachers. “We realized in the spring that we have an opportunity to improve our online teaching, and we are taking that opportunity this summer,” he said. “I really enjoy the focus on project-based learning that is a natural fit in the virtual environment. If we do this well it gives us a chance to individualize instruction and help students learn subject matter through material they are passionate about.” As examples, he cited helping students learn math through bicycle mechanics, fishing, or photography rather than just problem sets.

The first session of the course will wrap up on July 24, and the next session begins July 27, offering the opportunity for every LA teacher to take the class before school starts in September. So far, teachers report hard work and a steep learning curve.

“Stephanie’s class has shown me a lot of new tools to use for virtual learning,” said Betsy Grannis. “One thing that surprised me is how easily those tools can translate to in-person teaching as well.”

“I’ve been so impressed with the rigorous curriculum that Stephanie has developed and with the dedication and engagement of the teachers during their summer vacations,” said Duffy. “Whatever happens this fall, we will be as ready as we can!”

In addition to training faculty for specific technology use, the school is also preparing to purchase equipment and software for improved access to technology for students and faculty. If you would like to support Lincoln Academy with this expense, please reach out to Laurie Hurd, Director of Development at hurd@lincolnacademy.org.