Polar Vortex and eLearning Days

February 4, 2019

Last week’s polar vortex made for some fascinating reading material for us here on the southern tip of Africa. I can count the number of times I have seen snow in my life on one hand so I could not stop looking at pictures of magical snowy landscapes and cities brought to a complete standstill due to the weather. But that was not the only thing that interested me. I was inspired by the way schools, and teachers in the US made use of technology to change Snow-days to eLearning days.

Now you might ask what can we learn from snow-days if we never have them. It is true that in South Africa we don’t have snow days the way they do in the US. But this might be changing. In 2017 the Western Cape Department of Education, experimented with the concept, when they closed all schools in the province during what was called “The mother of all storms”. While the storm did not live up to its name, the experiment proved to be very successful. By closing schools, the number of cars on the roads were significantly decreased and so was the number of traffic accidents. The fact that school were closed had a knock-on effect on other employers to make contingency plans to accommodate workers who had to stay at home to look after their children. Considering the success of this experiment, I expect that we will see more storm-days in the future, at least in the Western Cape. But this can have a significant impact on the way teacher’s plan their year unless we can jump directly from storm-days to eLearning days.

Can we do eLearning Days in South Africa?

The short answer is no. The premise of an eLearning day is that learners have sufficient resources offsite to continue their learning even when they are not coming into school. Not only does this keep the momentum of learning, but it teaches learners valuable lessons when it comes to independent learning.

If we can’t manage eLearning days, what is the point of this blog post then? Well even though we won’t be able to make use of eLearning days at all schools does not mean that it won’t work at some schools, sometimes. And that it is not something that we should start thinking about, because we will get there.

Officially children in South Africa needs to attend 200 (give or take a day) school days per year. If the school is closed on any of those days it needs to be caught up at a later stage, which is of cause a pain. Instead of cancelling schools and leaving the kids to their own devices for the day, we can make use of technology to ensure that the day is not entirely lost.

While eLearning days are still a new thing in the US, we can learn a lot from them already. The first thing is that even though eLearning days come unexpected, eLearning days needs to be planned. If teachers are going to throw a few activities together quickly, with no real purpose other than to keep kids busy, then the learners are better of just having a fun day at home.
The second thing is that you should practice eLearning Day activities. If you give learners a task that is utterly different from anything you have ever done in class and you expect them to do it completely by themselves, you are setting everybody including yourself up for failure. The best activities to do on an eLearning day is using tools that learners are familiar with utilising the fact that they are at home to add an extra twist to it. One teacher asked her learners to write a poem on Flipgrid describing the snow and gave them bonus marks if they could add a photo or video of themselves in the snow.

And thirdly you need to make concessions for learners that do not have internet access at home. This can be accomplished in different ways; you can give learners an offline option or even have hard copies of the tasks for learners who need them. Another option a lot of the schools in the US went with is to give learners a week after the snow day to complete the tasks.

eLearning Days vs Regular Homework

You might ask what is the difference between an eLearning day and just giving the kids a bit more homework to do. Since an eLearning day is supposed to count as a school day, learners should be working independently, while still having access to support. So the ideal eLearning day activity should include some checkpoints along the way for teachers to keep tabs on learners’ progress and give them feedback as they go on. This could be in real time using things like Desmos classroom activities or Quizizz or Goformative. Even better if it is a collaborative slideshow enabling learners to work together. But it can also be a something as simple as emailing the draft of your essay to your teacher for feedback.

And before you start cringing, thinking this is so much work for the teacher, remember that an eLearning day is a regular workday for teachers even though they get to spend it in their PJ’s.

Inspiration for eLearning days

Desmos classroom activities – even though Desmos is designed for maths, there is no reason teachers of other subjects can not make use of the platform as well. The current collaboration between Desmos and The New York Times called “What is going on in this graph?” is an excellent example of using Desmos’ features in a non-math context. Desmos is ideal to keep track of where every learner is and has some build in features that allow learners to interact.

A flipped classroom – give learners a playlist of videos to watch in preparation for the next lesson. Edpuzzle is a great way to ensure that they all watched the video and forced to think and reflect while they are doing it. Research shows that learners react the best to videos that you created yourself. The quickest way to do that is to use the recording feature that is built into powerpoint, or if you do not want to be limited to powerpoints, try the Chrome extension Screencastify. If you’re going to go more advanced you should consider Explain Everything app.

Hyperdocs are the ultimate asynchronous activity – they are based on a document or slideshow that link to a number of resources and activities to take learners through the engage-explore-explain-apply-create-reflect sequence. While setting up your own Hyperdoc might be a daunting experience, there are great examples shared by other teachers available on the internet.

If a full-on Hyperdoc is too much for your class, how about just doing an Instaworksheet, making use of Google’s collaborative functions to enable you to keep tabs on what learners are doing and give them real-time feedback.

Make eLearning Days your next PD session

As I said earlier, eLearning Days can only work if all the teachers have some suitable activities set up and ready to use. And this is not something you suck out of your thumb on the spur of the moment. So why not set an eLearning Day challenge for your staff as their next professional development session. Let each department come together and create an activity that learners can do on an eLearning day. You never know when it might come in useful.

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