Last school year, many educators were caught unprepared when schools closed in response to cases of swine flu. This time around, both the federal government and school districts are putting specific online-learning measures in place to get ready for possible closures or waves of teacher and student absences because of a flu outbreak.
To prepare for the H1N1 flu virus, federal education leaders recently formed a partnership with high-tech education companies to help students access curricula online.
At the district level, school officials in Montgomery County, Md., made sure students could send e-mail attachments to their teachers and find their homework online. And in Irving, Texas, school technology leaders are considering using video lessons that would air on the district’s television channel and providing laptops for middle school students to take home.
Concerns about the flu are pushing schools to use technology more heavily in their day-to-day activities and prompting them to look at creative ways of employing online learning. Schools with some e-learning tools or programs already in place are expanding or speeding up their use.
Those that haven’t done much with e-learning are now thinking about how technology could continue students’ education in all types of scenarios, from swine flu to hurricanes to other events that put students at home for extended periods.
“We’re getting calls every day from school districts that have online programs and want to ramp them up, and districts that do not have capabilities for online learning but want to know how to bring those in,” said Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or INACOL.
The U.S. Department of Education released recommendations last month for steps districts can take to prepare for possible long-term closures prompted by the H1N1 virus. Some of the suggestions were decidedly low-tech—such as sending home hard-copy packets of information and homework with students—but most focused on high-tech tactics. Federal officials urged school leaders to look into digital resources, webinar support, phone conferencing, online courses, and virtual classrooms as possible ways of delivering education.
Experts recommend a number of steps be taken when building an e-learning plan to be used in the event that swine flu or other circumstances cause school closures or large numbers of student absences.
• Conduct a readiness assessment to determine the technology infrastructure in place both in students’ homes and in schools. Sample questions can be found at www.edready.com/assessment.
• Explore alternative ways of communication between teachers, students, and parents in case of school closures—such as information packets, telephone conferencing, Webinars, and Web sites—and evaluate what is most appropriate for your district.
• Determine the amount of training teachers need to effectively deliver education through alternative means.
• Encourage students to use the Web to check homework and turn in assignments.
• Make sure parent e-mail addresses and phone numbers are current when using mass-messaging systems.
• Familiarize yourself with the resources that are available for schools to use in case of long-term closures to see what your district may be able to leverage in an emergency.
Source: Education Week
The Education Department also announced a partnership with companies and organizations such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Pearson, Scholastic, Curriki, INACOL, and others to pool resources designed to support “continuity of learning” in case of school closures.
“We want to make sure as a department that we’re both putting forward best practices and ideas for the education community, but also dealing with innovators in the private sector to partner with them and make sure that together we can all work on putting together resources that will be helpful,” said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the department.
The initiative was a natural fit for Curriki, an online community for educators and a repository of free and open curricular materials, said the organization’s executive director, Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan.
The organization has crafted instructions to help schools, districts, and states make use of the resources on Curriki that could be helpful in the event of school closures. For example, teachers can post content from their curricula or flag curricular materials that already exist in the Web site’s database of resources for student use, said Ms. Kurshan.
One critical step for preparing a continuity-of-learning plan, said Ms. Patrick, is completing a readiness assessment to evaluate what kind of technology infrastructure is in place both at schools and in students’ homes, as well as what kind of training teachers have had in delivering instruction online.
She said that INACOL, in partnership with Steve Hargadon, the director of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking’s K-12 Open Technologies Initiative, as well as the Pleasanton, Calif.-based Elluminate, which provides Web-based audio- and video-conferencing capabilities for educators, has built a wiki to list all the resources that both private and nonprofit organizations make available to schools to assist with continuity-of-learning plans.
The exploration of online learning and open educational resources to help during long-term school closures has also spurred states and education leaders to review policies surrounding online learning and help establish stronger partnerships between traditional school districts and virtual education, said Ms. Patrick.
“The concern around H1N1 is making school leaders think more strategically about how e-learning can be more a part of their overall emergency plan,” said Jessie Woolley-Wilson, the president of Washington-based Blackboard Inc.’s K-12 division and also a member of the board of trustees of the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.
Blackboard offers both systems that allow teachers to post assignments and homework and communicate with their students online as well as mass notification technologies, such as automated calls or e-mails. “We often see external forces bringing market readiness to a tipping point,” she said.
The Upper Saddle River, N.J.-based publisher Pearson Education has also been exploring ways to leverage resources that could help schools in case of closures.
“We’re defining our effort around where we can support and respond most quickly and easily, but also ways that we can support every child in every potential situation,” said Scott Drossos, Pearson’s president for K-12 school solutions.
Pearson Web sites such as Funbrain and Poptropica, which are student-centered education sites, are free and open to the public, said Mr. Drossos, and could potentially be harnessed for e-learning purposes in the event of school closures.
The company will also make digital versions of their textbooks available free of charge for schools that have purchased the paper versions. “That way, if for some reason [students] can’t access their textbook, we’ll have a method to make those available,” he said.
In early October, Pearson will launch a Web site that will outline all the resources the company is making available to promote continuity of learning, said Mr. Drossos.
Making E-Learning Plans
Debra S. Munk, the principal of Maryland’s Rockville High School, knows firsthand the chaos that unexpected school closings can cause. During the last school year, her school in the 139,000-student Montgomery County district closed for three school days because of a swine-flu outbreak. The period spanned a weekend in which the school was set to host area SAT testing and athletic events.
Over the summer, each principal in the district received a memo directing him or her to develop plans to deliver lessons electronically if large numbers of students were absent or schools were closed.
Ms. Munk had already been working on her strategies. Last spring, the district used automated phone banks to call parents and students to provide updates, but officials quickly realized that many of the phone numbers in school records were outdated. This year, the school is making it a priority to get correct numbers, Ms. Munk said.
The district also uses an online system, called Edline, that allows teachers to post grades and homework. However, last school year not all teachers were consistently using the system, Ms. Munk said. During the week before classes began this school year, Rockville High provided extra teacher training with the system and underscored the importance of getting students accustomed to accessing their homework electronically in case they were absent.
“Automatically, if we’re closed or a student is sick, they know where to go to get their homework,” Ms. Munk said. “We’ve made it imperative that teachers do that so students get used to it.”
In addition, the school has modified its e-mail policy this school year. In the past, students were prohibited from accessing their personal e-mail addresses in school to prevent electronic communication between students during the school day, Ms. Munk said. But most students don’t use e-mail as their personal mode of electronic chit-chat anymore, Ms. Munk said. Texting via cellphone is the preferred method.
So, with the e-mail policy restrictions now eased, students can get accustomed to sending their work to teachers using attachments to e-mails. “We want them to feel comfortable with it in case they have to be out for long periods of time,” Ms. Munk said.
On the low-tech side, she also asked teachers to provide extra lessons, in case of their own absences. “In the past, we’ve asked teachers to have three days of emergency lesson plans available,” she said. “Now, we’ve asked for five.”
Ms. Munk said the school already had many technological options in place that could be used in case of school closings or student absences to keep learning going.
”I could see us doing distance teaching, videoconferencing, or sending things out over the Internet,” she said. “It would take some training to do, but the technology is at our fingertips. If this happened five years ago, it would not be possible.”
‘Keep School Running’
Some technology directors are taking a second look at the technology they already have.
Sheryl Abshire, the chief technology officer for the 32,400-student Calcasieu Parish public schools in Lake Charles, La., said her district is providing daily updates on the number of confirmed swine-flu cases at each school on its district Web site. With the click of a mouse, parents can see whether the flu has hit their school and whether the illness is widespread.
“Now, a group of us have tried to brainstorm ways we can keep school running.”
“Parents now have the facts and the data and they’re not calling the school system alarmed by a rumor,” she said. “It has really kept the media from creating stories where there are no stories.”
In the 33,000-student Irving Independent School District in Texas, the executive director of technology, Alice E. Owen, did an assessment of all existing technology and how it could be used for a continuity-of-education plan.
The district has a one-to-one laptop initiative at its five high schools, making it easy for teachers and students to communicate in the case of absences or school closings, she said. The district would also tap its Web site and extensive cable TV programming to put lessons in a televised format for middle and elementary school students.
“We would work with the content coordinator to come up with short videos, including lessons and exercises to keep the kids busy at home,” Ms. Owen said.
In middle schools, the students also work with laptops, but don’t take them home. In the case of extended absences, schools are considering allowing students to check out their laptops and submit work that way, Ms. Owen said.
“Last [school] year, “we came about an inch away from shutting schools down,” Ms. Owen said. “Now, a group of us have tried to brainstorm ways we can keep school running.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week