GOSHEN — With all public schools in Elkhart County now closed to students until early April due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 virus, e-learning has quickly become the new standard for educating the area’s youth.
According to Monica Kegerreis, assistant superintendent at Fairfield Community Schools, e-learning is not necessarily a new thing for most local school corporations. Fairfield, for example, has been utilizing the tool for the past three years as a way to help students stay current with their studies during events, such as snow days, when students aren’t able to make it to school.
However, Kegerreis admits that the recent switch from its use as a supplemental educational tool in the past to its current role as the primary source for student instruction has taken some getting used to on the parts of all involved.
“We’ve been practicing e-learning for I think this is our third year. We did two years of practiced e-learning during scheduled days off for teacher professional development. So, parents and students had quite a bit of notice when an e-learning day was coming,” Kegerreis said of the early days of e-learning. “And last spring, we moved toward implementation of inclement e-learning, especially after all of those polar vortex snow days. And then this year we have fully implemented inclement e-learning.
“So, I would say as a district, our students, our parents and our teachers are very practiced on what e-learning looks like for one or two consecutive inclement days, but this is certainly something much different,” she added.
WHAT IS E-LEARNING?
In explaining exactly what e-learning is, Kegerreis noted that the process can vary depending on what subject of instruction is involved, though the common thread is that the process typically involves some type of online learning that can be accessed via an electronic device, such as a laptop or tablet.
“Basically, it is an opportunity for students to continue their learning while at home,” she said. “Sometimes that takes the form of a digital platform, and sometimes that is through guided documents on paper/pencil, depending on the needs of our families. But moving forward with this longer e-learning time, we are focusing and striving with our teachers to provide more of a problem-based approach, utilizing research projects, etc., to make sure that they’re not just doing worksheets and nothing else.”
Fairfield Superintendent Robert Evans offered a similar sentiment.
“We’re committed to making sure e-learning environments are high-quality learning environments as much as possible, given the circumstances,” he said of the process.
Kegerreis acknowledged that — all concerns of a potentially deadly virus aside — in-person classes in a school setting would, of course, be the ideal environment for learning.
“To be clear, there is nothing better than students in a classroom with their teacher. That’s our best format for education,” she said. “But, given the parameters that we have to take for the safety of our community, we are replicating as much as we can through e-learning. “
As an example, she noted how one of the district’s choir teachers has been using video conferencing software to practice sections of choir performances with students virtually.
“And in cases like chemistry, for example, where you would typically have a lab environment, some of those labs can now be found in a digital format so students can experience some of the conceptual knowledge of that,” she added. “Of course, them being able to do things hands-on is important, but we have to work within the constraints that e-learning can provide.”
As for concerns about whether students are actually logging in and getting their work done in a consistent manner, Kegerreis noted that there are systems built into the e-learning process to ensure no students slip through the cracks.
“We have ways to monitor attendance, and monitor if students are interacting,” Kegerreis said. “Today was our second day of e-learning, and we are supporting our teachers with the understanding that if they have not heard from students thus far, we are encouraging them to make contact at home to find out if there are technology issues, if there are things that we can do to support them, if there are questions that they’re experiencing that we can help solve, etc.
“In addition, we’re meeting the needs of all of our special ed learners as well,” she added. “It’s a challenge, but we’re getting there.”
Shanda Branneman, special education director for FCS, agreed.
“I know our teachers are following up with students with whom they work to offer additional support, schedule online chats, etc., so that they can support students in that regard,” she said.
Given the primarily online nature of e-learning, Kegerreis said the district is acutely aware of concerns, such as lack of access to the internet by some families, while also remaining cognizant of the desires of other families, such as those within the district’s Amish population, who wish to avoid the online experience altogether.
“Luckily, since we have been practicing e-learning and implementing e-learning for some time now, we are aware of who those families are who would prefer — either because they don’t have the capabilities at home, or would prefer that their students not have a device at home — we have a way to get paper copies of the e-learning lessons to them so they can complete them that way,” she said.
“We are very sensitive to the needs of the Amish within our community,” Evans added. “We are working within those constraints to offer them a valid educational experience also.”
SO FAR, SO GOOD
All questions, concerns and constraints aside, Kegerreis said she feels good about the recent transition to a primarily e-learning teaching environment, noting that she has been hearing good things from students, parents and teachers alike.
“All indications I have are that students are handling this like champs, as well as their parents,” she said.
Goshen’s Boutsady Phommachanh counts herself among the many parents in Elkhart County and beyond who are currently learning how to navigate the e-learning process right along with their children.
Phommachanh is the mother of 8-year-old Vincent Visetsouk, a second-grader at Concord Ox Bow Elementary School, part of Concord Community Schools.
“This is actually his first year with the e-learning, because he just got his laptop this year,” she said of her son. “They did a practice e-learning day back in the fall, and I think it’s a little bit more difficult for him, because he’s used to a classroom environment. He’s very independent, and would always ask the teacher questions while in class. But with the Chromebook, he’s trying to figure it out himself without asking questions, because he doesn’t like to type in questions as much.
“So, I think it’s a little bit harder. And I think it’s maybe a little bit more involved for parents as well, and maybe that’s a good thing in that we get to see a little bit more of the teacher’s side of things, and how they’re trying to teach your child,” she added.
As for how she and her son are staying on top of the work load while at home, Phommachanh said she has been pleased with the overall structure of the e-learning platform, as well as the ongoing interaction and assistance she has been getting from Visetsouk’s teacher.
“The teacher sends me emails through the program that they use at Ox Bow. So, the teacher is constantly connecting with me on assignments, or what he’s working on, or things she wants to see on my end, etc.,” she said. “Yesterday, for example, she sent me probably five or six emails. And you can also sign into the program to see all the lesson plans, assignments, deadlines, instructional video tutorials, that kind of thing. So, it’s all very organized, and there is a lot of communication going back and forth between my son and his teacher each day. So, it’s probably a lot more work for the teacher, but there is definitely quite a bit of structure, and it really helps you stay on track.”
What’s more, Phommachanh said she feels that the lessons being provided through the platform are of good quality, and is glad to know that her son’s education will not be hindered moving forward.
“I think that as they’re getting more confident with this technology, I don’t think there would be much difference between e-learning and the classroom, because he is so comfortable with technology,” she said of her son. “He doesn’t see much of a difference, because they work with it in class all the time as well, learning things on the laptops, and typing class, etc. So, it’s second nature to them. I mean, it’s a different kind of learning, but for him, he seems so comfortable with it.
“And I think once people get more adjusted to it, including teachers, I think once they get adjusted to it, and maybe modify it here and there, I think it’ll really be good for the kids,” she added. “And once they get out of school and into the real world, it’s all about communication. And through this system, they’re already teaching kids to communicate. It’s not just about being able to do your work, but it’s also about being able to communicate what you do and how you’re doing it, which I think is just as important.”
For Shelley Kauffman, a teacher at Waterford Elementary School in Goshen, one of the biggest changes for her in this new reality of all e-learning all the time, is getting used to being in a classroom with no students, while at the same time ensuring that she remains a presence and guiding force in their educational lives despite their physical absence.
“So today, for example, I went in and I did videos in my classroom,” she said. “I went in, and there were no students, and I did videos of lessons related to things where I think that they need to see me to be able to do that learning — to have a real person instead of just digital. So, it’s just about trying to plan for lessons and help students navigate e-learning while they’re at home.”