Tech allows students to learn real time from home

New Tech Allows students to learn in real time from home
New Tech Allows students to learn in real time from home

Students in Tom Ferguson’s Advanced Placement (AP) Physics 2 class at Kokomo High School completed a lab that required them to determine the density of an unknown fluid using Archimedes’ principle and other fluid statics concepts.

Mr. Ferguson has conducted this lab with students in past years, but this school year the lab looked a bit different. Some of Mr. Ferguson’s students were sitting with him in the physics classroom at KHS, while other students joined the lab, in real time, from home.

For the 2020-2021 school year, Kokomo School Corporation launched a new learning option for families: a full-time, synchronous, virtual learning program for K-12 students.

  “We understood that due to the recent pandemic, some students and families were not ready to participate in a face-to-face classroom setting as the new school year approached,” Kokomo Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Hauswald explained. “With those circumstances in mind, Kokomo Schools decided to offer complete virtual learning options for the 2020-2021 school year. Our strong belief in offering quality options for all students, including for those families who prefer a non-traditional setting, led us to create this new program.”

Mr. Ferguson’s virtual AP Physics students joined the recent lab from their homes in Howard County, China, and Tanzania. During the lab, each virtual student was paired with an in-person classmate.

Approximately 70 Kokomo Schools teachers across nine buildings have hybrid classrooms, where educators teach students both virtually and in person. Most virtual classrooms, including Mr. Ferguson’s, are equipped with advanced camera systems, funded through federal grant dollars.

The camera follows the teacher as the teacher moves around the classroom. When a teacher presents new material, the camera also has the ability to zoom in and focus on a whiteboard, digital presentation board, or any designated classroom location, such as a demonstration lab.

Utilizing this advanced technology, teachers are able to look at a 55-inch mounted TV screen in the back of the classroom and see students who have logged in to join the live-streamed class lessons. Microphones allow students attending virtually to ask questions and provide answers to the teacher, who is physically in the classroom. These virtual students also hear the discussions taking place in the classroom.

            “This advanced camera system allows for better classroom integration than traditional video conferencing technology,” Mr. Ferguson explained. “Virtual students see not only me, but also the entire classroom. These students see what I write on the board, and what I am demonstrating in the lab. Virtual students also have the ability to interact with the entire class at once through the TV display. Once I understood the hardware and software, I found that teaching a virtual class isn’t much different from teaching a traditional classroom. I feel as if I am making connections with virtual students just as quickly as I am making connections with my in-person students.”

            Kokomo Schools offers virtual options at Boulevard STEM Elementary School, Lafayette Park International Elementary School, Wallace Elementary School of Integrated Arts, Technology Academy at Pettit Park Elementary School, Technology Academy at Bon Air Elementary School, Technology Academy at Bon Air Middle School, Central Middle International School, Maple Crest STEM Middle School, and Kokomo High School.  

            The virtual program at Kokomo High School features options for the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program, as well as traditional graduation pathways. Kokomo Schools officials also created a Virtual College Preparatory Academy through Kokomo High School, which allows students to complete Advanced Placement courses, including AP Calculus AB & BC, AP Physics 1 and 2, AP English Language & Composition, AP Environmental Science, AP Human Geography, AP Spanish, AP World History, AP Statistics, and more through the new virtual format, where students attend classes in “real time” virtually.

            During development of a comprehensive virtual option, Kokomo Schools officials focused on a more personalized approach. Kokomo Schools Director of Special Programs Dr. Teni Helmberger noted the importance of creating a truly local virtual option.

“Students in the Kokomo Schools Virtual Program have a direct connection with a school community, and with a highly trained Kokomo teacher,” Dr. Helmberger noted. “Virtual students have the ability to interact with that teacher, as well as their classmates, in real time.”

            This synchronous online learning environment more closely replicates an in-person classroom experience. Virtual students, like their in-person classmates, have the ability to ask questions mid-lesson, and receive immediate feedback from their teachers. These virtual students also have opportunities to form bonds with their in-person classmates.

            Wallace 5th grade teacher Dr. Jenny Mygrant loves seeing her virtual students and in-person students forming those connections.

            “The new technology Kokomo Schools provided for my classroom has made it possible for both groups of students to feel like one classroom family,” Dr. Mygrant noted. “The students in my classroom cheer and say hello when they see virtual students logging on to our class sessions. It is my intention to have in-class students and virtual students present in front of each other, and learn more about one another in other ways, so our class bond continues to grow throughout the school year.”

            Kokomo High School math teacher Erica Moore has seen those student connections in her virtual classes as well. Mrs. Moore teaches a virtual Algebra 2 class and a virtual AP Calculus AB class at KHS.

            Mrs. Moore noted that she has several International students in her virtual AP Calculus class. These students log in from their home countries and actively participate in class discussions. At the end of each period, Mrs. Moore gives the students a few minutes to learn more about each other. In-person students ask the virtual International students questions about their home countries. These exercises are having a positive impact on her virtual students.

            One of the International students recently told Mrs. Moore, “I feel like I already have a friend in Kokomo, and I can’t wait to be at Kokomo High School.”

            Mrs. Moore added, “I think interacting with my in-person students through the virtual class will help these virtual International students when they transition to physically attending classes at Kokomo High School.”

            In her virtual Algebra 2 class, Mrs. Moore teaches more virtual students than in-person students. To increase student engagement, Mrs. Moore designed small group activities that allow students to learn math concepts together.

            Mrs. Moore set up several video conference calls and gave each of her in-person students hosting abilities for one of those calls. Several virtual students were assigned to each call. Virtual and in-person students worked together to complete the group activity.

            “The first day I tried this I heard very little talking between the students,” Mrs. Moore said. “By day two, though, I felt like I had 29 students in my classroom because I could hear all of the conversations. It was so great!”

            The Kokomo Schools virtual options look vastly different from traditional eLearning.

“This is a multi-faceted virtual program,” Dr. Hauswald added. “The unique design of our virtual option allows for more natural dialogue, while enabling educators to utilize more traditional teaching methodologies.”

On opening day, August 5th, approximately 25 percent of students were enrolled in the Kokomo Schools virtual program.

“This extensively developed plan began in April 2020,” Dr. Hauswald noted. “This simply is another way for us to provide options that meet the needs of our students. I greatly appreciate the parents and family members who trust Kokomo School Corporation for quality instruction through a virtual medium. I’m equally appreciative of the hard work from our teachers and administrators who have brought this educational opportunity to our students.”

Mrs. Moore is grateful for district officials who developed this unique program.

“I think this program, with its use of state-of-the-art technology, is such a great option for some of our students,” Mrs. Moore noted. “Even though we have been in school only for about a week, every day is better. I can’t say enough good things about the virtual program at Kokomo Schools!”

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