Go Virtual – Essentials for online synchronous programs

In August 2009, I went from being a principal in a classroom-based high performing school in Chula Vista, California to launching a start-up charter school for K-8 students. Backtrack to two years before August 2009 and I’m sitting in a principal’s meeting when I had an epiphany. “Why not deliver public education online?” I was the tech guru principal among my cohorts and I had done a lot of online instruction for graduate students. It would be simple. The hard part would be writing a charter and getting it approved. At least that’s what I thought.

Now fast forward to today where I am completing my second full year of chief inventive officer at Ecademy California. Of course, the difference between having a novel idea and putting into practice while holding to California’s rigorous standards, is the difference between thinking about running a marathon and training for one. Getting the charter approved was almost too easy. Creating a robust online program that could meet the needs of elementary and middle school students who are participating in live meetings all day every day has been a great learning experience. It been far from easy and I’ve worked harder in this venture than I have in any other professional endeavor. The jury is still out on whether this learning model will “take-off” in a big way for K-8 but my hunch is that it will in time. I believe the east coast is ahead of the rest of the country in this regard.

I thought there may be readers of this blog who are either involved in online programs, hybrid programs, or traditional schools considering online components. While I claim no special expertise in this area, I have learned some things about what I think are essential components of an online program. In particular, I am referring to synchronous online learning where students and teachers are working from home but participating in live meetings.

1. Choose an affordable but robust learning management system

When I began researching learning management systems, I contacted Blackboard because it was what I was already familiar with. A university colleague of mine suggested I also contact Adobe Connect. The university had been using it for staff meetings and reported liking it. Adobe Connect isn’t free (I know there are some free learning management systems out there) but one of my priorities was to work with a company I knew would be around for awhile. Cost was also a factor. Adobe’s licensing fees for schools was more than reasonable. Connect included: the ability to record all meetings, full hosting, built-in VOIP and video, content management, and Flash-based “pods” for document sharing, whiteboards, note taking, chatting, and web-links. Finally, Adobe Connect, while a business application, was user-friendly for students and teachers. I’ve included some screen shots below that demonstrate some of the ways we have used
Adobe Connect.

2. Choose cloud-based productivity tools

Given the number of blog posts about Google Docs, I probably don’t need to say much about the importance of having anytime, anywhere access to documents. When we began, we used Zoho for Business. I have nothing but good things to say about Zoho for business – they are in many ways ahead of Google with their productivity tools. However I found their technical support team difficult to communicate with. Response time was also lacking. I worried that they might eventually be purchased by Google or another large company so I migrated all of our productivity functions including e-mail and intranet to Google enterprise for education. I particularly like the fact that with Google’s free .edu services to schools, students and teachers can work collaboratively within relatively secure environment.

3. Curriculum matters

When we were in our planning stages, we were writing our own units of study which turned out to be incredibly labor intensive, expensive, and slow. After completing complete units for grades 5-8 in math, English, social studies, and science, we estimated each unit of study (4-6 weeks work) to take 40 hours to complete. Each grade level would need approximately 10-12 units of study per content area. All educators know that curriculum (packaged or home grown) is the heart of any educational program because it helps set professional development priorities, determines what supplemental materials/programs will be needed, directs how assessments and rubrics will be used, establishes how teachers will articulate from grade level to grade level, and provides support for students in special or bi-lingual programs including English Language Learners. The lesson here is, don’t underestimate the complexity or importance of curriculum when thinking about launching an online program. If you already have a reliable adopted curriculum make sure you have thought carefully about how well it integrates and communicates between your current classroom based program and the online model you are developing.

4. Communication is essential

One might think that communicating with students and parents online would be easy. While there are some exceptions, the vast majority of people do not read e-mail in a timely manner. My guess is that e-mail has become for most people a kind of white noise. In boxes are swollen with junk mail interspersed with important items that may or may not get noticed. Since communication is such a critical component of any successful online program, there needs to be a tool through which all stakeholders can stay current with assignments, grades, and critical dates. While we use e-mail for many things, we have added engrade (a free technology in Google’s education app store) to great effect. In addition to a grade book and attendance tool, students can download and submit assignments, parents can message teachers, and students can access tools/resources for their studies. It’s intuitive, simple to use, and free for everyone. In today’s difficult budget climate, I call that a win-win.

In closing, I have been engaged throughout this process with thought partners who have been generous in helping me think about how to create an online school that can compete with other model schools. By reaching out to smart people in education and technology fields, I have taken baby steps toward creating a school of the future. If you are looking for a thought partner to help you, I am happy to return the favor or put you in touch with some of the folks who helped me.

Information About the Author:
David Damico has been a counselor, educator, author and school administrator for more than 23 years. He has a Multiple Subject Teaching Credential and an Administrative Services Credential. Before starting Ecademy California, Mr. Damico was the principal of Joseph Casillas Elementary School in Chula Vista, California. During his time as principal he worked closely with the Ball Foundation and National University to promote professional learning communities and deepen school-community partnerships. This work led him to create a technology-based charter school. In 2009, David launched Ecademy California. David received his Bachelors Degree from San Diego State University in 1982 and his Masters Degree from the University of San Diego in 1997. He is a post graduate fellow of the Institute for Dialogical Psychotherapy and a past member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. David has authored and published two books, The Faces of Rage (a book about dealing with grief and loss) and The Influential Parent (a book for parents with teenagers).

Thank You Readers for 14 Amazing Years!