Tuesday, February 23, 2016


A Schoolwide Work from Home Day?

Park Ridge High School (NJ) did something simple and brilliant: it scheduled a work-from-home day for its students.  They were expected to work online, and the faculty was expected to have enough material online for the students to be productive.

The exercise apparently had several goals.  It was a test of the school’s various online systems.  It was a goad to ensure that students were comfortable going online.  It was a goad to make sure that the faculty could be productive online.  And it served as a backup for snow days, which is a very real need in the Northeast.  Making sure that both students and faculty can be productive online during a snow day can help maintain instructional continuity in bad weather, as long as the power stays on.

The day had a few asterisks, naturally.  Park Ridge is an affluent area, so access to broadband and laptops could be pretty safely assumed.  Students with special needs still came to campus for services, and some students from distraction-filled homes came to campus for quiet.  (I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those students were covering for economic issues, but that’s just a guess.)  

Still, it struck me as a fantastic idea.  I have to applaud the audacity.

Too often, we talk about online teaching as a drastic departure from traditional teaching.  And it can be.  But it can also be a useful backup, once relative fluency in online teaching and learning is sufficiently widespread.

At my last college, we built an expectation of an online component into every campus-based intersession (January) course.  The idea was that when the class is only a few weeks, missing a couple of days for a storm is a big deal.  A few of the more established faculty balked, but it was hard to argue with the facts of winter in New England.  Students adapted easily; apparently, with some planning, everyone who needed to was able to get online enough to cope.

Online-as-backup works well, too, when a professor is sick.  If course shells were already established, then when a professor has to miss class, she can still provide a productive learning environment for students.  It may not be her first choice, but it’s far better than just declaring a day a total loss.

A community college context is different from a high school, of course.  Our students are far more economically diverse than you’ll find at most high schools, since high schools tend to draw only from one or two towns at a time.  Given economic segregation, any given district typically has an economic profile.  But we draw from the entire county, rich towns and not-rich towns alike.  We have a wider age range, of course, as well as students who attend part-time.  But if anything, those factors seem to suggest an even greater payoff for a strong online backup.  For working adults who attend part-time, and who are juggling work and family along with coursework, continuity is crucial.  

The trick is ensuring that enough students are fluent enough, and sufficiently resourced, to handle online backups for traditional classes.  It’s hard to judge that sort of thing without an actual drill.  Park Ridge did an actual drill.  Color me impressed.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a commuter college try something like that in the last couple of years?  If so, what lessons did they learn?

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I don't know about in the NE, but here in the PNW it seems like power outages and bad weather go hand in hand. (We get power outages from either ice buildup on the lines making them fail or snow buildup on trees causing falling branches. Wind storms are, of course, the worst for this but rarely cause multi-day school closures unless the school is without power. I once worked in a small town where both power transmission lines into town were taken out by trees in the same windstorm, which was...fun.)

I currently teach at an online school, and what I've found is that some students really need to go to school to protect their work time. Left at home, their families expect them to do things like care for younger siblings or disabled family members, or help out with the family business, and they just don't leave them enough protected time to be full-time students and finish high school.
How is a HS replacing a class meeting with online work any different from a day where students come in to find that the teacher is absent and has left work for them to do with a sub?

In all my years of being a public school student and a public school teacher, I've rarely if ever come across a situation where students really learned something from the work that a teacher left when he or she was absent.

It has been my experience that after independent work and after group work, most students really need a whole-class debriefing of what they just did with their teacher to really make meaning out of the activities and connect all the dots. I think that the model described above misses that important piece.
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