Charting the future of virtual learning with Webex
A hybrid teacher planning session, with some teachers meeting in person and others joining virtually via Webex Meetings.
While many U.S. schools have returned to fully in-person learning, a number of districts are trying something different—creating permanent virtual learning options for their students.
Among those who’ve embraced virtual learning for the long term is District 11 in Colorado Springs.
District 11 has launched an entirely online school called Spark Online Academy to serve students who’d like to continue learning from home. And while the rest of the schools in District 11 are back to in-person learning, they often take a hybrid approach, incorporating virtual elements to increase flexibility and enhance the learning experience.
Having the right technology has proved critical for their virtual learning innovation. With Webex, District 11 found a platform that offered the security, easy management, and student engagement features that they needed.
Spark Online Academy: New online school offers flexible virtual learning
Spark Online Academy was born when some families expressed a desire to have their kids continue learning from home. After a couple years of virtual and then hybrid learning on Webex, District 11 was confident that they had the foundation they needed to create a permanent virtual learning option for students.
“We’re trying to provide learning with what works best for the student and the family, as opposed to being inflexible and saying, ‘sorry, you all have to come back to campus,’” said Kathy New, Network Communications Administrator at District 11.
District 11 launched Spark Online Academy in 2021, serving about 180 students from kindergarten to eighth grade. It garnered significant interest from the community and even gained national media attention (see Spark’s CNN feature).
After its successful first year, Spark is expanding to include ninth and tenth grade in the 2022/2023 school year.
While students have numerous independent options for online learning, Spark’s connection to the local school district sets it apart.
“One of the benefits that students and families get by being part of our online academy is they are registered students with District 11, which means that they get access to all our athletics, clubs, and other activities at a student rate.”
Spark students enjoy a more flexible, personalized learning experience, while still benefiting from interacting with a robust peer community in their city.
Students meet with their teachers for virtual classroom instruction on Webex every day and also frequently collaborate with classmates. At other times during the day, they engage in asynchronous learning where they take a screen break and work on an activity independently. For example, after a virtual lesson on adding double-digit numbers, a first grader might practice the concepts on their own off-screen, using math blocks. After they complete the activity, they’ll submit a photo of their work so their teacher knows they were on task. Or a seventh grader might read a passage of literature off-screen and then hop on a Webex Meeting to discuss it with their classmates.
This Spark model has also been a good fit for some students in Colorado Springs’ large homeschooling community.
“We have some students whose families are homeschooling them, but they’re still participating in the Online Academy because of the additional social time that they get with other students, as well as the additional access to athletics, clubs, and special events,” New said.
Remote learning opportunities enhance in-person student experiences
While Spark is the only online school in District 11, the dozens of other schools in the district still leverage virtual learning on Webex to enhance the education experience for students.
“We’re 100% back in person, except for Spark Online Academy, but there are always times where we’re going to be continuing to use Webex for remote learning,” New said.
Learning without interruptions: When situations arise that make in-person learning impossible like severe weather or temporary quarantines, schools can easily transition to online learning.
For example, at the beginning of the year, some teachers set up a Webex meeting and tell students to come to class virtually at that meeting room whenever the district announces an inclement weather day. There’s no longer the need to cancel class, and no need for a last-minute scramble to set up a virtual option.
Access to on-demand content: Some teachers also use Webex to record each class so students can rewatch and review concepts as needed.
Thanks to the Webex Education Connector, which integrates Webex with Schoology, the district’s learning management system, the recordings are automatically posted to Schoology where any student can access them.
“Students who are absent for that day can listen to the lecture and all of their homework and everything is there also,” New said. “It makes it less disruptive for those students who can’t be there in class for that day.”
Including everyone: Hybrid events on Webex also open opportunities to include parents, families, and community members who otherwise couldn’t be as involved in a student’s learning journey.
Using livestreaming via Webex, District 11 offers virtual options for in-person open houses, athletic events, and other special events.
“There are still quite a few people who are not comfortable coming out in crowds,” New said. “So we offer them a virtual event instead.”
Livestreaming and virtual events also allow family members outside the local area to participate and support their students.
“We have people who live out of state who want to see what their grandchildren are doing,” New said.
Military families also really benefit from virtual options. “We are a very big military city so we have a lot of parents who are out of the country,” New said.
A virtual learning platform that’s engaging, secure, and easily managed
During the pandemic and beyond, the Webex Suite has provided a powerful virtual learning solution that offers the core features District 11 needs.
District 11 wanted a platform that was engaging, secure, and easily managed. Webex delivered on all those fronts.
Engaging: Keeping students engaged in a virtual environment requires different techniques and tools than learning in person.
“You can’t have somebody just stand up front and talk,” New said. “In order to keep those students engaged, you’ve got to have interactive things going on.”
New and the District 11 team found that Webex integrated with useful tools that helped teachers make class interactive for students. They started using Slido, which lets teachers easily do live polling, Q&A, and quizzes during Webex meetings. District 11 also gives teachers access to Miro for online whiteboarding.
“Slido and Miro are embedded in Webex so you don’t have to have students go to another place in order to keep them engaged,” New said. “You can do it all within the Webex meeting just like you would normally do it in your classroom.”
Avoiding external distractions is also important for helping students maintain focus. The background noise removal features in Webex came in handy for this.
“You’ve got students who are at home, they may have two or three other siblings, the parents, the dog barking. It could be very disruptive for others in the class. So that noise reduction made a big difference for us,” New said.
Secure: Finding a secure platform was also a top priority for District 11.
After evaluating various options like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, they determined that Webex offered the best security.
“We like the security that Webex gives us,” New said. “We know that the people who are logging in, their data is not going to be shared anywhere else. It’s all going on secure servers.”
New appreciates the peace of mind Webex provides.
“Webex has grown immensely to become the best application that I found for having those online meetings and ensuring the security, making sure that we keep all of our student data safe, our parent records safe, everything that’s tied to the district. Privacy is crucial to us and Webex provides that for us.”
Along with privacy, the fact that Webex is a cloud solution gives the district added confidence in the platform.
“I really like that Webex is cloud-based,” New said. “That is a big, big benefit for us to have Webex available as long as people can get to the Internet from wherever they are.”
Easily managed: New also needed a platform that was simple for both the tech team and the teachers to manage.
“Teachers especially have a lot on their plate. They have a lot of different technologies they need so the simpler we can make it for them to use a communication tool, the easier their life is, which means that they can focus on their job, which is, of course, teaching students,” New said.
When they first started remote learning, some teachers had lots of trouble with classroom management and distracting interruptions.
“We did have problems with some students who would jump into meetings they shouldn’t have been in or were just being disruptive,” New said.
Webex helped solve these issues, giving teachers the power to mute or remove attendees as needed.
To make this classroom management even easier, the district also leveraged their Webex/Schoology integration.
Thanks to the integration, now only the students listed in Schoology as part of a specific class can join that class’s Webex meeting. To get to class, students simply log into Schoology and access the appropriate Webex meeting through their Schoology portal.
“There is no other way to join that meeting without going through the learning management system. That helped us a lot to make sure that we have the right people in the room,” New said.
The Webex/Schoology integration also removes other admin tasks from teachers’ shoulders.
“It automatically does attendance, so the teacher doesn’t have to do any additional attendance taking,” New said. “It keeps track of when students come and go.”
In addition to helping with classroom management, Webex also makes it simple for New and her team to manage all the users on the platforms, from students to teachers to staff. With Control Hub in Webex, New can use active directory groups to automatically assign each user the correct permissions.
“We’ve got it set up in Control Hub so that when your account is created, it automatically looks at ‘Are you a student? Okay. You get an attendee account. Are you a staff? You get a host account.’ So luckily, I don’t have to do any manual intervention on those,” New said.
Empowering teachers to provide incredible learning experiences
Whether serving as the foundation of Spark Online Academy or enhancing education at one of the district’s many in-person schools, Webex is empowering District 11’s teachers and staff to create great learning experiences for their students.
“Teachers are the unsung heroes,” New said. “It’s amazing because they have to be technical, they have to be supportive, they have to be a psychologist, they have to be an educator, they have to do it all.”
And the fact that Webex can make that job a little bit easier, while also unlocking new learning opportunities for students, is a major win in New’s book.
To hear more about Spark Online Academy and District 11’s other virtual learning innovations, watch the district’s recent Webex Community talk featuring Kathy New. And check out Webex for Education to explore how Webex can transform student experiences at your school.
Mar 16, 2023 — Tanuj Goyal