Fall 2020: Avon's Approach to Online Learning
The Key to Success for our Remote Students
As we approached the fall 2020 re-opening of Avon Old Farms School, the private CT high school for boys, we knew that our online program would need to be more flexible than our Spring 2020 synchronous (real time) design allowed for. We knew the fall program would need to accommodate not only students in different time zones, but also a fluctuating population of online students.
Basing the online program on asynchronous content, which allows for students to work on their own time schedule, created and curated by teachers would allow for maximum flexibility in terms of student access. Our faculty spent time over the summer working with different platforms and software in order to design personalized content for our online students, but no matter how engaging and customized the content, we feared the asynchronous content alone could likely feel impersonal and transactional. Ensuring a more personal interaction and connection for our online students was a primary concern as we opened school with a full population of 60 students online and 346 students on campus, boarding and day.
1 >>> We scheduled time during the week for online students to connect live with their teachers for priority enrichment sessions. Teachers would also be available for ad hoc meetings as necessary. After all, live interaction with and connection to community are keys to the type of relational learning that works so well with our students.
2 >>> During our opening weeks, Head of School Jim Detora hosted weekly Zoom meetings with the online student group to establish not only genuine, live connection, but also the opportunity for the online student group to provide regular feedback. We also distributed a survey to the online group to collect written feedback about their experiences. This feedback affirmed that online students appreciated the personalized asynchronous content; the instructional videos that teachers had created were effective, and email communication, and consistent feedback on assignments helped online students not only with their learning, but also with feeling connected to the school community.
One student wrote, "The enrichment time allows me to talk with my teachers about course problems. Also, if I send an email to my teachers, they will send back as soon as possible like we are face to face at school."
Responses also clearly indicated the desire for more connection. Online students still felt as though they were missing out. They asked for class recordings since real-time attendance was not advised, nor convenient. As much as they could, they wanted access to their teachers and classmates.
3 >>> Avon responded. Enrichment sessions were re-distributed across three mornings before the start of classes on campus. We scheduled those times according to departments—two each morning—so online students would not have to cram all of the Zoom enrichments into a single morning. This allowed even more access to protected time with teachers.
4 >>> Additionally, the IT Department refreshed a collection of old faculty laptops for teachers who wanted to record class discussions without tying up their own computers during class. Teachers posted these recordings as another resource for online students to supplement their content. Since the quality of these recordings has varied, we continue to explore other options for recording technology. In fact, a group of students from Mr. Detora’s Leadership and Problem Solving class proposed use of an OWL camera, which provides a 360-degree perspective on the classroom, and plans to follow up on their proposal with on-campus demonstrations.
The changes to the enrichment program and addition of selective classroom recordings were well received and helped to enhance the support and connection necessary for our online students. During the most recent Head of School meeting with the online students on November 4, all of the attendees reported that they were satisfied with their first-quarter grades. Of course, grades are not the only indication of an effective learning experience, but they are certainly one important measure from a student’s perspective. The adjustments to the online program over the course of the fall may have been minor, but they were effective in supporting the online students to achieve academic success, and as we look ahead to the future of our online program at AOF, we do so with continued close attention to the experience of this fall’s community of online learners. Their experiences will help us strengthen our online program, which is sure to be a part of academic programs of the future.
About the Author
Dean of Studies, English Teacher