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By Mindy Gumpert, PhD, JD Ball, PhD, Judy Jankowski, EdD

The relationship between student and teacher has been fundamental to the process of instruction for as long as human beings have been learning from one another. Independent schools have always placed a special emphasis on that bond, implementing small class sizes and personalizing education to help students and teachers grow together.  Education as we know it, then, was completely transformed in February 2020 with the onslaught of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Because of infection risks, limits were placed on in-class instruction to variable degrees and in multiple ways across schools throughout the world, and the relationship between educators and their students was altered profoundly.

The predominant learning platform (whether face-to-face, on-line, or both) has since been evolving across all schools, and even within single schools. The first professional battle confronting teachers was how to navigate online platforms for virtual teaching which they were abruptly forced to implement. Next, and equally intimidating, teachers grappled with how to make their content delivery as meaningful virtually as in face-to-face classes – how to establish the personal connection so essential to the educational process.

Providing support to students of all ages during this period of unprecedented dependence on virtual learning has been a massive challenge. Any given school’s success in the educational enterprise has been significantly impacted by its ability to facilitate teacher-student engagement despite the limitations of distance. That process has likely been impacted by the school’s experience with educational technology prior to the pandemic.

As a non-traditional independent school, Chesapeake Bay Academy’s (CBA) mission is to serve students with learning differences. To that end, CBA has been utilizing many forms of assistive technology and electronic learning management systems for decades prior to COVID-19. It is our hope that CBA’s adaptation to this crisis may serve as a model to stimulate further educational creativity in other independent schools. Meanwhile, CBA is finding ways to learn from these naturalistic and rapid changes. Challenging though they may be, the alterations in educational practice necessitated by the advent of COVID-19 have provided a unique opportunity for continuous refinement of both the educational process and data collection methods that will continue to drive instructional decision-making for years to come.

Assistive Learning Technologies in the Classroom

Evolution of Technology at CBA

CBA was founded in 1989 by parents of students attending a proprietary, for-profit predecessor school for children with learning differences. CBA has operated as a not-for-profit independent school in eastern Virginia for 30 years, having achieved accreditation from the Virginia Association of Independent Schools (VAIS) nearly 25 years ago. Our central tenet has been to prioritize individualized education, including through the use of assistive technology to personalize instruction for special education students.

CBA has always been keenly attentive to creative and effective ways of incorporating hardware and software into students’ academic lives. In the late 1990’s, when CBA made plans to leave its rented space in a nearby church and construct its own state of the art facility, it engaged students through its IT-360 Project to visibly hard-wire the building for computer operations and assemble the desktop computers that would become the school’s initial means of ensuring technologically savvy graduates. In those early years, CBA students routinely graduated with Microsoft certifications.

During the period from 2000-2010, CBA’s electronic introductions included SMART Boards for teachers and electronic readers for students. Interactive SMART Boards were then replacing overhead projectors in many U.S. classrooms, and CBA found them particularly effective for students with learning differences, enabling new teaching methods and enhancing student learning. Students with attention difficulties were able to move objects physically on the SMART Board, providing interactive engagement, gross and fine motor practice and a needed respite from passive “sit-n-git” instruction. Both tactile and visual learners acquired new content in a multisensory fashion by finger-writing onto SMART Boards and viewing large-scale images of charts and videos. Information on SMART Boards could then be captured into electronic files to be shared later with absent students or for lesson review.

CBA next began using Kindles and eBooks, allowing struggling readers to easily access speech-to-text technology. Learning-disabled students with weaknesses in reading comprehension and/or reading fluency are at risk for reading disengagement, but research has made clear that reading time is the best predictor of reading achievement. Introducing CBA students to e-readers enhanced students’ motivation, encouraging a newfound interest in reading. Struggling readers could opt to read printed text, but more often chose an e-reader, separating oral lessons in reading fluency from needed exposure to written content. Students used Kindle highlighting for note taking and were able to query text. Teachers were excited and motivated by students’ increased reading enthusiasm.

Over the next ten years, CBA implemented many additional technological advances. CBA’s upper school teachers introduced Edmodo, a free learning management system that connected teachers and students with people and resources outside of the school. This technology allowed teachers to upload assignments to a classroom forum, providing multimedia work to students at home that they might later review in class, “flipping” traditional classroom practice. Students could now watch videos, comment on questions posed by teacher or peers and engage virtually in collaborative activities. Students and parents were relieved from high-stress homework situations that often typify the experience of special education students, when more of the explanatory work and practice shifted from home to the classroom.

Parents, too, were able to access Edmodo, providing them with a virtual view of the classroom. Families were aware of which assignments were due when and what learning materials were necessary. Edmodo was a big win for all parties. Teachers could virtually organize assignments, and students were never without needed homework materials. Students were helped to feel mature and behave responsibly, building both organizational and digital citizenship skills. While teachers had first worried that only upper school students could use Edmodo effectively, the proficiency demonstrated by the upper school students quickly led to the adoption of Edmodo in the middle school as well.

In 2016, CBA instituted Class Dojo within the lower school. Class Dojo is a free online management system for helping students monitor behavior and build character strength. Through it, students created personal avatars and earned Dojo Points based on their individual or group classroom behavior. Students could readily see points they earned or lost and track progress toward daily or weekly goals. A messaging system connected teachers and parents, enabling adult guidance, and Class Dojo became another success story at CBA. Together, e-readers and Class Dojo made iPads an inevitable next tool for all lower school students, just as the one-to-one laptop was for middle and upper school students.

CBA initiated its own signature maker program, MAKE CBA, in 2014-15. MAKE CBA was developed to help students explore 21st century skills in creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and entrepreneurship while also learning content related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). For this initiative, the school acquired 3-D printers, a laser cutter, a vinyl cutter and a whole host of other hardware and software, through which students learned how to make technology work for them. This innovative program has become a student favorite and it now accounts for some of CBA’s most differentiated uses of technology.

As the school’s technology use matured over time, CBA explored new opportunities and determined that a new learning management system (LMS) was in order. In 2017, CBA moved from the comparatively rudimentary LMS of Edmodo and committed itself to growing into the more sophisticated Canvas systemAt the same time, the upper school moved to using OneNote for digital texts, as OneNote can scan and convert handwritten script into text, a valuable accommodation for students with limited graphomotor skills.

Enter COVID-19

CBA’s longstanding commitment to technological innovation prepared all constituencies – students, faculty and parents – to respond to the challenges of COVID-19 with resilience and patience. While technological change has been propelled more swiftly than ever before by the virtual learning demands of the COVID-19 context, CBA has continued to innovate. On the hardware side, CBA has added Vibe interactive videoconferencing boards that interface directly with multiple videoconferencing platforms, including Zoom and Microsoft Teams. All of the  existing LMS systems can be integrated with Vibe Boards, which also enable real-time integration with iPad, Android, and Chromebook operating systems.

As CBA shifted in the spring of 2020 to virtual learning, it introduced regular parent, student and teacher surveys to assess the learning experience from multiple respondents. Spring survey data revealed that upper school students made the transition to virtual learning most smoothly, having been particularly well-prepared through prior Canvas and laptop use. Recognizing the critical value of teacher-student relationships and the challenge to those relationships presented by heavy reliance on virtual learning, CBA initiated weekly phone calls from teaching faculty and division heads to all parents. These calls enabled us to gather needed information about student reactions to virtual learning, to provide guidance to parents and students around any technology-related learning glitches, and to work overtime at building and maintaining the relationship between home and school. These efforts quickly brought higher satisfaction ratings from parents of middle and lower school students as their engagement in their children’s learning increased.

In fall of 2020, CBA began the academic year with the lower school students on campus and middle and upper school students learning virtually. In anticipation that some students might be quarantined or sick with COVID-19, CBA introduced students and faculty to Kubi telepresence robots. The Kubi allows students participating from home to engage actively in the classroom. A tablet (iPad) mounted on a rotating “neck” sits on a classroom desk. On the screen is the face of the student at home, providing them with a presence in the classroom. A digital user interface enables the student at home to control the view, “looking” around (360 degrees) and up or down (90 degrees) and providing them with a more authentic learning experience.

In 2020, CBA also purchased several Wacom tablets for CBA students. These tablets, originally designed specifically for drawing, allow students to present information visually rather than only through text, a valuable accommodation for students with speech-language difficulties. CBA has also added digital document cameras that allow teachers to display real-time video, books, math problems, science experiments, maps, images, and student work. Through the document camera, students can see an object from anywhere in the classroom, replacing the need for handouts and greatly assisting those using Kubis with at-home learning.

CBA has explored myriad combinations of learning management systems, videoconferencing platforms and digital interactive boards, gathering data in the process to assess the effectiveness of each. Data collection around student attendance, motivation and engagement, including surveys of all constituencies, has been underway since last spring; it continues to inform ever-evolving instructional practice. For example, evidence of an upper school benefit from virtual learning includes a lower student absentee rate during virtual learning than when students were in class before COVID-19, and a report from the upper school division head that he has covered more curriculum content this year than in some previous years.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has been both a particular challenge and an exceptionally important curriculum component during COVID-19. CBA has carefully maintained its significant interest in varied SEL offerings to students of all ages, including a virtual mental health (i.e., mental hygiene) course for upper school students, yoga and mindfulness training in the middle and lower schools, and social skill building and art therapy groups for students with particular social learning needs. Here, too, CBA has capitalized on technology by accelerating its earlier efforts, providing its students with access to Thrively which is an online platform that allows students to self-assess their learning strengths and interests, and then pursue those interests individually on an extra-curricular basis with teacher and parent guidance.

Center for Educational Research and Technological Innovation

At this writing, the pandemic has worsened again, and all CBA students have returned to full-time virtual learning. CBA’s work to meaningfully integrate technology into its teaching practice over several decades and its ongoing dedication to creative, impactful technology use has enabled its learning community to manage well this continuous need to shift back and forth between in-person and virtual learning. Throughout this process, CBA has strengthened its ties with local schools of higher education, permitting us to accelerate our research efforts.

Several doctoral dissertation projects were conducted within CBA under close Institutional Review Board and CBA Board oversight in recent years, and CBA is now striving to gather empirical data related to technological innovations to ensure that new tools are optimally selected and effectively used. Through its existing partnerships with Old Dominion UniversityEastern Virginia Medical SchoolVirginia Wesleyan University and other institutions, CBA is creating a self-sustaining Center for Educational Research and Technological Innovation (CERTI). Through CERTI, the hope is that the area’s brightest and most capable researchers will generate a new understanding of educational technologies that will not only enhance CBA’s capacity for self-evaluation but will also benefit the wider educational community.

Conclusion

A dedication to individualized instruction and a long history of embracing assistive technology contribute to a CBA school culture that has proved resilient and adaptive to unparalleled  disruptions in education. That culture has provided the CBA community with a distinct advantage in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, as teachers, students, and parents were already experienced with a wide range of virtual learning tools. During this unprecedented time, we have explored new ways of leveraging those tools to preserve and strengthen the bonds between all members of our learning community.

While the evolution of technological innovation at CBA has been impressive, its recent movement toward data-driven academic decision making may be especially significant for its future. As educators everywhere scramble to select and utilize fast-evolving technology, it will be critically important for schools and technology innovators to collectively review quantitative and qualitative data to best inform academic decisions. This singular independent school for children with learning differences provides a telling example of the dual importance of student-centered learning and academic innovation. However, it is just one example of the rich potential among independent schools nationwide to clearly differentiate themselves. It is said that from challenge comes opportunity. During this challenging time for all educators, our independent schools can employ creativity and innovation in ways that will not only help us to weather this storm but sustain us long after the COVID-19 pandemic.