Transitioning to Online Learning
Your Step-By-Step Guide to Taking Your School Online
Adapting to a remote learning environment takes preparation and dedication to your school community. We know your staff, students, and families deserve the best, so we've developed this guide to help you plan for all of the little details coming your way.
Get Your School Running Online in 4 Steps
Making the switch from a physical school to one operating remotely is a big step, but with the right planning, you can get your private or charter school set up to face any challenge that gets thrown your way. This guide will walk you through the 4 major steps to setting up your online classrooms.
At Twine, we are excited about helping schools, passionate about transforming learning and focused on improving student achievement. We are proud to provide technology solutions that help schools achieve their goals. Best wishes to you on this new journey!
Note, we've done our best to pull together current and accurate information. Even so, there may be omissions or mistakes or content that needs to be updated. If you have recommendations, additions, or corrections, we appreciate your input so we can continue to improve this guide for everyone. Nothing in this guide should be construed as legal, business, or tax advice. It is important that you engage qualified professionals who can advise you on such matters.
Step 1: Lay the Groundwork
When transitioning to an online classroom, two of the most important steps are planning and communicating how you’re going to make things happen. Without a solid roadmap, you’ll likely encounter frustration and complaints from teachers, staff, parents, and students. Having a clear plan and setting clear expectations reduces anxiety for everyone, and will help to make your transition a success.
It might be hard to pre-plan for every growing pain you’ll encounter, but here are some fundamentals you’ll want to nail down before making the switch:
Expectations for rhythm or pattern of classes
While some of the finer details of issuing and submitting work should be left up to your teachers, having a unifying policy of expectations across your school can be really beneficial, particularly for parents who are also new to online classrooms.
For example, when should work be submitted and how often will content be provided? Throughout the day? Daily? Weekly?
Will there be real-time meetings or class sessions and how often will they happen? How will teachers collaborate to ensure their real-time sessions don’t overlap or interfere with other requirements students must meet? Are these meetings mandatory or can students do an alternate activity if they can’t attend?
How many hours per week or day should students be actively working on their schoolwork? This may need to be a per-subject guideline or an overall guideline but defining this ensures teachers are assigning consistent and reasonable amounts of work to their students and gives parents and students an idea of how much time they should set aside to work.
There are a lot of things here to think about and develop policies for and it is okay to not have every answer right away. It may take a little trial and error to find what works best and implement it. Don’t be afraid to ask your teachers and staff for input, too. They are an invaluable resource when it comes to having insight into what will work for your school community.
If you need some inspiration or just a place to start, here are a few sample schedules used by schools to guide their teachers, parents, and students.
Expectations for staff
Many schools making the transition to online learning are keeping teacher hours the same due to contractual requirements, which is something you’ll want to check and adhere to, if necessary. If you don’t have contracted work hours, you can offer your teachers some flexibility when they are available for students.
While many older students may be up late and working on schoolwork, you need to consider whether you feel teachers should be available in the evenings to assist students or whether you’d like to adhere to traditional school hours.
Some schools offer phone and email support for students as late as 8 or 9 pm. Some schools require teachers be available for short periods of time over the weekends, while others don’t. There are schools that successfully manage student expectations using many different schedules, so this is really a matter of how you’d like your school to run. There is no right way to manage teacher availability – it is about what your students and teachers need and expect.
You’ll also need to determine and clearly communicate to teachers, parents, and students, how they should be working in their classes and how they should be addressing concerns. There should be clear school or teacher policies for the following, but keep in mind that making these decisions at the school level allows for consistency among teachers and cuts down on confusion for parents and students.
What methods should students be using to submit work? With an online learning management system, students can submit their work directly to their teacher. Otherwise, should they be emailing it?
How will teachers acknowledge they received the assignments and how soon should families expect it to have it returned with grades and/or feedback?
What kind of support/assistance is available to students who may be struggling and can’t get help from a parent due to work schedules, lack of content knowledge, etc.?
Expectations for student participation
Students, and their parents, need to understand what kind of time commitment to expect from their class or classes, and how they can meet these expectations while dealing with possibly increasing job and family commitments.
As schools transition to remote learning, older students may become responsible for the supervision of their younger siblings, especially in families where parents aren’t able to stay home due to their job requirements. Other students may be working additional hours at part-time jobs to help supplement their family’s income. In both of these cases, the flexibility remote learning provides can be helpful for students, allowing them to take care of their obligations and work on school around the other things on their schedule.
You might also want to consider how much of student work time is spent in front of a screen versus doing activities that allow students to be up and moving around. Just like in the classroom, students will get restless and lose focus if they are having to stay in one spot and work. Having clear expectations about when students should be online, or at least how often, compared to how often they should be doing other activities is important. For example, students could do an online lesson on how to classify plants based on physical characteristics and then complete an assignment where they find various plants in their neighborhood and explain how they would classify them. This combines online learning with physical, outdoor time, and allows students to shift gears and get a break from their seats.
Finally, one of the biggest unexpected struggles students can run into when making this transition is a lack of structure and routine. Without teachers there in person to guide them from one activity to another and a regular schedule with specific times to be at specific places, students can get overwhelmed quickly. It is really important to communicate to students and parents that, while there is flexibility and choice involved in how and when they are going to approach their remote learning, there is an expectation of some kind of schedule or routine to keep students focused and on track.
If you’re looking a few sample schedules you can provide to your families as suggestions for how students can manage their time, these sites have a variety, from those created by parents, to ones suggested by experts. Keep in mind that every school will have work requirements that are a little different, so you may need to adjust these to meet the needs of your specific private or charter school.
Training/Support for Teachers and Staff
One of the biggest hurdles for private or charter schools moving to online learning is reluctance or concern from teachers and staff who might not be confident in their abilities to work remotely. For many teachers, the idea of not being in front of their class for lessons is something they’ve never considered and wouldn’t necessarily plan to do on their own.
For that reason, it is important to provide training and ongoing support to teachers who may feel overwhelmed or confused by a new method of instruction and the technologies that go along with it.
Here at Twine, we take a 3-tier approach to ensure staff have the tools and support they need to be comfortable with online systems and tools.
- First, initial onboarding and implementation includes training for school administrators, staff, and teachers, to make sure everyone is comfortable and confident with the tools and features they need to teach and support their students remotely.
- Second, after schools are up and running, they are provided with dedicated Twine staff to host webinars, walk teachers through problems and troubleshoot anything that might come up, meaning your school never has to struggle to sort things out on your own.
- Third, we have a vast library of online resources for reminders and reinforcement of the skills and topics covered in training, so staff can take part in self-directed exploration if that is more of their learning style. These three tiers take training off of your plate and allows you to focus on other aspects of your transition to online learning.
If you’re going to try to go for it alone, you’ll probably want to plan for several hours of planning and developing training materials for your teachers, depending on the systems you’re trying to use, and then additional time for holding trainings and being available to answer questions and troubleshoot problems with your staff. If your school is large enough to have specific technology staff, they can assist you with this, but unless your teachers and staff are particularly tech savvy, expect to dedicate significant time to training for several weeks.
Support/Assistance for Students Requiring Additional Services
There’s a good chance some portion of your school community typically receives additional education supports, whether students get English Language Learner/English for Speakers of Other Languages (ELL/ESOL) types of supports or have Individualized Education Program or Section 504 (IEP/504) requirements that must be provided. As you make the move toward an online classroom model, keep in mind that most, if not all, supports being provided to students under any of these programs can be provided remotely, as long as you are planning for them. This may be a tedious process for you and your staff, depending on how you typically measure, track, and document the accommodations and modifications students have been receiving, but, like anything else, once you have a process in place, will move smoothly. Be sure to meet with your teachers/staff that typically work with these students and briefly review what needs these students have and what the plan is to continue these items through online means. Remember that for many students, this can be as simple as allowing additional time to submit their work or setting them up with daily or weekly video sessions with their normal classroom aide. Several organizations have put together resources to assist both schools and families in ensuring that students with diverse needs are being assisted in the best way possible.
- The Ability Challenge has a great guide with 10 tips for keeping students engaged and learning from home, with suggestions for parents and for teachers so that students are being supported from all sides.
- The Diverse Learners Cooperative has also provided a guide for delivering inclusive online lessons, aimed primarily at teachers and school staff. They also offer coaching, professional development, and partnerships with schools for more one-on-one support.
- The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools has written an in-depth article about the challenges schools face when temporarily shifting toward online learning and what the legal implications are. They also provided some excellent strategies for schools to use to assist in delivering curriculum to students with special needs.
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Step 2: Get Infrastructure in Place
Once you have an idea of the direction you’re headed in and have some policies in place, you’ll want to make sure your school community has the infrastructure and resources to implement the things you’ve planned. While this can look different depending on the exact plans you made in step 1, there are generally a few things you’ll want to work out.
Ensuring Internet Access
Internet access from home may be a challenge for some families, and even teachers, providing a possible roadblock to working remotely. There are some ways you can help connect families to resources that exist to help them.
Depending on where you live and what kind of community involvement there is, you may be able to get services and/or support from the city or municipality your school is located in. For example, in Austin, Texas, city officials have created local WiFi networks based out of buses
that can be positioned in neighborhoods where there is poor coverage.
It is a good idea to reach out to your city and/or county officials to find out what services may be available to assist you in getting your students connected and able to work from home.
Comcast announced in March 2020 that they will be providing their Internet Essentials service for free for 60 days for students and families during the shutdowns due to Coronavirus. The service is usually $9.95/month for qualifying families, and low-cost computers are also available. Information may be found at: https://www.xfinity.com/support/articles/comcast-broadband-opportunity-program
AT&T has a similar program starting for as little as $5/month. They’ve not yet announced a waiver of that fee. Program information can be found at: https://www.att.com/shop/internet/access/#!/
Check with your local carriers as well; Cox, Spectrum, Bright House and other providers have similar programs taking place now.
Availability of Devices
What about families that may not have a PC, laptop, or mobile device at home? There are local, regional, and national organizations that can help get hardware into the hands of low-income families. Used or refurbished desktop & laptop computers:
- PCs for People focuses on recycled/refurbished equipment and can provide laptops and PCs for as little as $75.
- Another great resource for low-cost desktop and laptop computers is Connect All
- FreeCycle is a community-based resource where neighbors offer used items of all sorts (including computers) at no cost
Chromebooks are an inexpensive way to get students connected from home, with new devices from brand-name manufacturers starting at as little as $150 and used devices for half of that. A search at BestBuy, Target, or Walmart will turn up a variety of options. Even phones and tablets, which most families have today, can fill the need for both a device and Internet access. The challenge with phones is the lack of a keyboard (who wants to type out a term paper with their thumbs, right?) There are some clever solutions out there for Bluetooth keyboards for as little as $25 or $30.
Phone Solutions for Teachers and Staff
Without access to typical desk phone landlines teachers and staff would have in their classrooms and offices, you’re facing a communication hurdle. Sure, most of your teachers and staff probably have their own cell phones, but do your teachers really want to give out their personal cell phone numbers to parents and students? Probably not.
There are several different options for getting your employees phone access at home.
- Google Voice -- One of the easiest services to use is probably using Google Voice. Google’s internet phone service allows users to sign up for a free phone number that can be used from their computer or from an app downloaded onto any smartphone. This allows teachers and staff to contact families and students, and vice versa, without having to buy additional hardware or paying for additional services. Google Voice numbers can be set to do-not-disturb mode after school hours and can also be used to send text messages.
- TextNow -- This service is similar, in that it allows for calls and texts over the internet at no charge. You can download an app to your device and use it to call and text from a different number. the big difference is that TextNow is supported by advertisements within your app, with the option to pay a monthly fee to remove the ads. If you’re looking for a free way to connect teachers and students, though, you may be okay with seeing a few ads here and there.
As a school, you are ultimately responsible for the security and safekeeping of a lot of student information. With teachers and staff needing to access this information from home, you’re still responsible for ensuring it stays protected.
If your school uses a private internal network to access secure information at school, with your data stored on-site in file shares or other local repositories, your teachers and staff will need a VPN, or virtual private network, to ensure they can access the network and its information from home with minimal security risk. A VPN will allow users to send and receive info from the school network to their personal home networks, while still keeping things secure.
Alternatively, if your school uses an online system such as Twine with a secure login function, your teachers, parents, students, and staff can access everything they need without additional software.
Implementing Online Systems
It may be tempting to think you can shift to online classes using consumer tools like Facebook groups or WhatsApp, but such tools lack the privacy controls, structure and accountability required when running a school. Furthermore, most consumer services have restrictions on use by minors and are funded by advertising, which may not be appropriate for use with students.
What is required is a secure school management platform that can be used to support online classrooms, and that also supports the overall operations for your school.
In previous posts on our site, we explained some of the major features found in two common types of school administration software: student information systems (SIS), which store student, parent, and staff data such as attendance information, schedules, transcripts, and more; and learning management systems (LMS), which allow for students and parents to access course content, view grades, communicate with peers and teachers, etc.
A one stop shop like Twine combines the online classroom features of an LMS, including online classrooms, parent communication tools, content sharing, and a gradebook to help track and communicate student progress, alongside the student data management capabilities of an SIS. The advantage is that schools have seamless integration of student information, allowing students, families, teachers, and staff to access the information they need, when they need it, all from one centralized location.
With a comprehensive school management platform such as Twine you’ll have just about every school function that you’ll need to operate remotely for as long as you need to. Sites can be fully operational in just a few days. And once you’re back in your physical building, you’ll find that teachers can work more efficiently and parents are better kept in the loop by using Twine to tie all the functions of your private or charter school together.
Step 3: Utilize Online Systems and Tools
Online LMS/SIS systems like Twine have dozens of different tools and functions that your school can use to replicate some of the typical activities that take place in a face-to-face classroom, and even some that can help elevate existing lessons to be better than they were in person. Typically, online tools can be divided into two major categories: asynchronous tools, where users access things at different times, and synchronous, or real-time, tools.
- Discussion board
A class discussion board can be used for teacher announcements, student questions, online sharing of student work, and discussion of class topics and content. Think of this like an email message, but one that can be viewed and responded to by anyone. Many teachers with online classrooms award credit or extra credit for students who go above and beyond helping other students with their questions and sharing relevant information with the class through the discussion board.
- Resource libraries
Resource libraries are for storing documents, videos, and other things you want to keep on hand and/or share. Think of this like a classroom bookshelf or filing cabinet where you’ve stored any of the things that you might need later on or want to have handy. Rather than saving all of these things to your personal computer, they can exist in the resource library, where you can easily search for what you need when you need it.
- Online tests and quizzes
Online tests and quizzes are for assessing student learning and matching mastered concepts to standards and/or learning outcomes. Just like in a traditional classroom, tests and quizzes can be timed or not, can have different versions for different students to minimize cheating, and can be unlocked at certain times to keep students from working too far ahead.
- Assignment submissions
While students could email their completed work to their teachers for grading and feedback, having an online system with built-in assignment submission functions takes a lot of the pressure off of teachers to keep track of hundreds of emails and also allows students and parents to ensure the work was submitted on time and was received by the teacher. Simplifying the process and taking the guesswork out of whether something got lost in an endless inbox gives teachers, parents, students, and administrators confidence that things are working smoothly.
Polls can be used for informally reading the room, so to speak. These are a great substitute for scanning the classroom for confused faces or frustrated students to determine whether everyone “gets it.” Students are likely to participate in a poll versus responding to a series of questions because polls are quick and feel more like a low-stakes activity.
- Course content builders
Course content builders are where you can build out detailed lessons, share documents and videos, and organize materials for online learning. The content builder helps you visualize how individual pieces and parts of lessons come together to form entire lessons and units and allows you to easily move things forward or back in the course as needed.
Depending on the ages of your students, an easy way for teachers to remain in contact with them is over the phone. Teachers can call to check in on students, answer questions they might have about content and remind them of upcoming due dates or tests. For high school students, texting might be an even better option. It is quick and easy to send texts to both students and parents, making sure that they see any important news or announcements.
- Chat options
Many schools operating in an online environment also use real-time chat options to allow teachers and staff to quickly check in with each other, and to allow students with limited phone access to still get text messages from their teachers. Skype is a popular option, primarily because many schools already utilize Microsoft Outlook for their email services, and Skype integrates with it. Microsoft is transitioning from Skype to a new product called Teams, which provides some remote collaboration options in addition to the chat feature.
- Video options
The remaining piece for many schools is enabling real-time meetings, ideally with a video chat. For real-time video conferencing, one of the most popular choices today is Zoom.
Their free plan allows group meetings of up to 40 minutes, and they have paid plans that remove the time limit and offer LTI integration to simplify invitations. We have some customers today that are using a combination of Zoom and Twine to deliver fully online programs.
If the free plan works for you, teachers can sign up individually and get started right away. For private or charter schools registered as 501(c)3 nonprofits, another option is to set up accounts through TechSoup, which has licenses for many useful software suites at an extremely discounted rate for nonprofits.
For schools already using Microsoft O365 or Google, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet are integrated services with video conferencing capabilities. Another common Zoom alternative is Skype. Video quality and features for these tools are in some cases not as robust as Zoom, but all services allow for video conferencing with multiple users and basic screen sharing features.
"What three words would I use to describe Twine? Ease, Communication and All-Inclusive. "
Wendy Cox Blair, Executive Director / Arbor School of Central Florida
Step 4: Develop Content and Lessons
One of the biggest points of anxiety from teachers transitioning to an online classroom is about their lessons. Teachers, especially those with many years of classroom experience, spend a tremendous amount of time developing engaging and interactive classroom lesson plans, testing modifications, and making changes to them over time. A teacher who has been in the same grade level or course for a decade has probably put hundreds of hours into fine-tuning lessons to work well in their classrooms, and now they feel like they have to start from scratch. It sounds daunting, right? There are a lot of resources to help teachers over this initial hurdle, and easy ways to take existing lessons and modify them for online learning – no need to start from scratch.
Many of the major textbook publishers provide digital resources alongside their book offerings, and you may already be paying for these without realizing it. These packages can include presentation slides, video lessons, pre-written test question banks, worksheets and other activities and more. Check and see if these are things your school already has access to as part of your book purchasing agreement, and if not, reach out to the publisher rep to find out if it can be added. Many publishers are willing to work out agreements with schools to give mid-year access to these resources.
Not every teacher is going to be able to record and edit their own class videos on day 1 or even day 100. Luckily, YouTube has a seemingly endless collection of educational videos, from tutorials and explanations, to historical reenactments, to visually dynamic science experiments. If you’re worried about students being exposed to advertisements or less-than-educational content, you can use a service like https://safeshare.tv/, which removes the surrounding video previews and advertisements from YouTube videos, so students only see the video you’re sharing.
Lesson Plan Purchasing Sites
When all else fails, consult the experts! There are various websites that exist for teachers to share their lesson plans, either for free or a small fee. Two of the most popular sites are Teachers Pay Teachers and Share My Lesson, both of which have a substantial number of online learning and distance learning activities available for teachers to download and use in their own classes.
You’ve probably noticed that the internet has vast amounts of information and wading through all of it to find the hidden gems can be time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. We know that teachers don’t usually have a ton of extra time to scour the internet looking for supporting resources for their students, so we compiled lists of the most useful resources on the internet. You can check out the lists, visit the sites, and use the content or link to the sites for your students to access from home.
Once teachers have settled into their routines and have some lessons to get started, the best source of content and lessons for their online classrooms is modifying existing lessons to work in a virtual platform. There is a little creativity required sometimes to take a science experiment and present it to students via a video or online simulation, or to modify a class activity that has lots of supplies to something students can still do from home, but the majority of the things that are done in a classroom can be replicated in an online environment to some degree. Even handouts or worksheets that teachers typically distribute to students are easily scanned as .pdf files, if they’re not already.
If teachers are struggling to see how to adapt their existing lessons, it can sometimes help to break the lessons down into their components – is something a discussion, a physical activity, a lecture, a demonstration? Once you’ve determined the components of the lesson, you can match them to the online tools at your disposal and it will make the process a little more clear.