By Madelynn Coldiron
During a long, snowy stretch of weather this winter, you may hear a new education term in some parts of Kentucky: hybrid learning.
It’s the approach taken by 13 school districts that will be using plans for “snowbound days” – nontraditional instruction days – approved by the state education department. Hybrid learning simply means teachers will prepare lessons that students can access online, while take-home paper packets will be used by students without access to the Internet.
PHOTO: Lexie Wilson, a Corbin Independent preschooler, gets comfortable with the technology she may use to continue her lessons from home during a future snow day. Photo provided by Corbin Independent Schools
If these districts can adequately document that students were learning and completing work on these days, they later will receive credit for a regular school day. The innovative approach to “snow days” was made possible by a 2014 change in state law that expands eligibility for this type of learning. But the system will have some challenges, district leaders said.
“We know that there has to be a lot of work in changing the way we’re teaching as far as the digital path, while at the same time we recognize that all of our students are not going to have access – either access, period, or reliable access,” said Susan Taylor, Boyle County Schools technology coordinator.
While up to 10 nontraditional instruction days may be claimed, many districts will start out slowly and won’t unleash the system on the first snow day.
“We don’t want to make this too big the first year,” said Washington County Schools Instructional Supervisor Cherry Boyles. “We want to try this and see how feasible, really, is it. At which level do students take advantage of this and what do they think about it?”
Boyles said though students with Internet access will be able to work online, all students this year will receive the take-home paper lesson packets, just to be on the safe side.
In general, teachers and most other staff in the 13 districts are expected to work on nontraditional days, either at schools or from their homes. Teachers, in particular, will be able to communicate with students by regular email, phone or via interactive online learning platforms that districts will be using to host instructional materials.
The learning platforms have features that record their use by students and staff, which will be one way of verifying their work. The other, for students, will be tests on their return and completion of assignments. It’s the learning outcome that’s important, said David Cook, director of the state education department’s Division of Innovation and Partner Engagement.
“This kind of program is a true example of what I would call a performance-based program … The ultimate test of success of the program is, are we seeing better learning happening,” he said.
KDE will have a digital learning team to advise teachers on building effective online lessons, while another team can help with broadband problems, said Beth Peterson, branch manager in Cook’s division, The agency also plans to collect examples of online lessons and post them on its website, she said.
Surprisingly, one of the 13 districts in the program is a “city” school system. While these generally smaller and more densely populated districts usually miss fewer days than county districts, that depends on the topography, noted Mark Daniels, Corbin Independent’s director of instructional support.
“We’re a city school district, but we’re in southeastern Kentucky,” he explained. “With the hills and the roads, in some conditions it’s just as bad in some of the places we have in our community, just like in a county district.”
“We saw this as an opportunity, also, to expand some of the initiatives that we’re doing with nontraditional learning, anyway, regardless of weather,” Daniels added.
The 13 districts have experience in providing nontraditional learning, ranging from blended learning (combination of online and classroom) and flipped classrooms to various types of individually paced online learning, including basic credit recovery and the more ambitious system offered by Taylor County’s Virtual Charter School.
Teachers are currently receiving training in these districts and they are developing online and paper packet lessons. Boyle County, for example, is requiring teachers to gain experience by preparing one digital lesson weekly. Lessons in these districts are prepared in various ways, by professional learning communities, by grade level and by individual teachers. In Washington County, teachers can apply to draft lessons and be paid a stipend for it.
The actual building of online lessons will be difficult, Peterson said. Taylor agreed, saying digital learning is “very much interactive.”
“(Teachers) can’t think, ‘OK, I’m going to do a lesson that may have some worksheets or whatever’ and pop it up on the Web and say, ‘OK, it’s digital,’” Taylor said.
Peterson said she thinks getting teacher buy-in will be a major challenge. “Getting over the mindset of snow days, I think will be a challenge” for both teachers and students, she said.
Most of these districts plan to open their schools during the snowbound days, either for staff and teachers to work, or for students who can safely make it in. That has some other benefits, Todd County Superintendent Wayne Benningfield said.
“If the weather is bad, we would also be a warming center so kids and families could come. If need be, we’d even feed people if it was that bad,” he said. “So we’d be kind of an emergency shelter and we would also provide access for the kids if they needed Wi-Fi or access to computers.”
Districts also are getting some help from community partners who will serve as Internet access points for students, in many cases the public library. Jessamine County schools will give students a list of community locations with Wi-Fi access.
Some of the districts have added their own unique twists to these days.
In Todd County, an older model school bus has been outfitted with Wi-Fi with a strong enough signal to serve the immediate neighborhood it’s parked in. The bus will be stationed in an area without Internet access prior to a big snow hitting, Benningfield said.
Several churches with Internet access have offered space for children to study, he said. If devices are needed, the district can deliver one of its eight mobile labs that each contains 30 Chromebooks.
Corbin Independent has its own radio and television stations that can be a resource, and Daniels said he’d like to see teachers videotaping their lessons in advance for students to watch during snowbound days.
“We have all these tools – it’s just a matter of how creative the teacher wants to be and the time that they have to prepare something like that,” he said.
Some districts will explore different ways of covering content areas during nontraditional days. Daniels said Corbin is looking at using some as “specialized learning days,” for enrichment activities or to focus on a more specialized subject area, while Boyles said Washington County would like to cover areas like practical living and career and technical education in addition to basic content areas.
Owsley County Schools, with three years of piloting the snowbound initiative, has come up with its own approach for its high school students. The school will create for-credit independent courses that cover all subject areas but have an emphasis selected by the student. The goal is for the student to complete one-quarter credit each year in the course.
Snowbound days: Optimistic but watchful
Washington County school board member Nora Hatton said she’s optimistic about the district’s participation in nontraditional instruction – snowbound – days this year. But she said she is concerned about limited Internet access for students in some rural parts of the county.
“It is a step forward to go optimistically toward, but kind of watch that to make sure – we don’t want to create a new gap – a technology gap, if you will,” she said.
Online learning is no problem for students, who already are tech-savvy, Hatton said. Reaction to the nontraditional instruction days among parents has been mixed. Some are pleased that the district has a way to avoid pushing the school year into June due to missing an excessive number of days, and also has enough time to cover the necessary content, she said.
However, some parents are concerned about limitations because they don’t have Internet access in their area. And there is parental concern, which Hatton says she shares, that the system bypasses the important face-to-face classroom learning.
“And then they also know we have to recognize that a good bit of what we value in our learning system is the interaction, the direct interaction with a highly qualified, caring teacher and the student that comes to them,” she said.