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eLearning ‘mock weather day’ before Thanksgiving

Posted: September 6, 2018 5:18 p.m.
Updated: September 7, 2018 1:00 a.m.

There’s a good chance of “snow” about a week before Thanksgiving for the Kershaw County School District (KCSD). That virtual snowfall -- or flood, tornado or hurricane -- will happen one day in mid-November as the district conducts a “mock weather day” to test out what it will have put in place by then as part of its eLearning pilot program.

In early August, the district learned the S.C. Education Oversight Committee had chosen Kershaw County as one of five districts in the state to undergo early implementation of the program. The idea, as KCSD Superintendent Dr. Shane Robbins explained at the time, is to give students a way to continue with school work and actual classes via the internet during inclement weather. The eLearning program is based on one implemented in Robbins’ home state of Indiana, and the district hired Isti Sanga -- who last worked in Indiana’s neighboring state of Illinois -- to be its eLearning director.

Tuesday, Sanga presented an overview of the district’s eLearning efforts to the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees.

Sanga, from Nigeria and who earned his doctorate from the University of South Carolina before moving to Illinois, started off by expressing his gratitude at coming to Kershaw County.

“It’s kind of a miracle, really,” Sanga said, “but I’m glad to be a part of Kershaw County. By the way, I can’t say the word ‘Kershaw.’ Every time I say it, everybody goes, ‘What?’ You think I have an accent? I don’t know.”

He said even while living in Illinois during the past 15 years, he’s been able to visit South Carolina nearly once a month.

“But thanks to you, I’m back for good,” Sanga said, adding that, originally, he was going to move to Indiana, but ended up in South Carolina.

He said one of the things being propagated in the district for the community is the idea of eLearning.

“I’ve heard some concerns. eLearning is, really, like a miniature of what we’re thinking, overall, in terms of what you see. Already, you’ve heard about students’ achievement, and the goal that we have is to increase that. Now, I’ll tell you this: technology is no magic wand. If it were, we would’ve used it and then we would retire, right?” Sanga said.

Instead, he said the district should look at technology and eLearning as a tool to help teachers improve the way they teach, give them more creativity and help students to grapple with information that is so prevalent in today’s society.

“There is so much information,” he said, but said that technology could help students “organize that information in a way that would help them learn best. So, when you talk about eLearning that’s really what we’re looking at -- eLearning under the bigger umbrella that is instructional technology.”

The question, he said, is how to harness technology to help teachers and students achieve what the community wants.

As a precursor to the state’s desire to pilot eLearning programs, Sanga said the question of snow days came up.

“When I talked with friends about the snow days in South Carolina, they laughed. I laughed,” Sanga admitted, hinting at a difference in what constitutes a snow day in South Carolina versus Illinois or Indiana. “We went like, yeah, tell me about it. Anyway, we know that things do happen everywhere; the weather will change to anything.”

He said the eLearning focus for Kershaw County is on weather days -- for now.

“That doesn’t mean that we’re putting the whole program we’re thinking about in terms of really improving the way technology is used in schools (on hold). If we are going to do this and meet the requirements for the state, let’s focus on that and that will sort of serve as a stimulus for what else we’ll be doing in the future,” Sanga said.

Having said that, he warned trustees that administrators will be coming to the board for support to make sure eLearning and tech improvements are done the right way.

Moving further into his actual presentation, Sanga said he sees students -- really, all people -- in two categories: “digital immigrants” and “digital citizens.”

“If you were born in the age of technology, right, you’re a citizen. Some of our children … if you say anything outside of technology, they really don’t necessarily understand that. They think technology has been here forever. For those of us who have been around awhile … it’s a struggle,” he said.

For students, young ones, especially, Sanga said “that’s what they do.” And, by harnessing the power of technology, the district can help students learn the content it wants them to learn.

“If we withhold that from them, we’re not helping them at all,” Sanga said. “For some of us who don’t understand technology, we say, ‘Well, we don’t know how it works.’ My call to you is give us a chance, and let’s see if it helps.”

He also pointed out that by teachers having to use the technology to assist students, they’ll also learn more about the technology itself.

Sanga most recently served as the eLearning coordinator at Northern Illinois University (NIU). Taking what he experienced in the world of higher education, he noted that colleges and universities recently began noticing a downturn in enrollment. Ultimately, he and his colleagues realized it wasn’t that students weren’t enrolling as much as before, but that they were enrolling in online universities.

At first, they laughed off the problem because they thought the online schools didn’t have good reputations and that no one would hire such graduates.

“Suddenly, the businesses starting realizing, ‘Oops, these are real schools; they’re actually learning something.’ So, they started hiring those students, and guess what? Our enrollment started to go down,” Sanga said.

Last weekend, Sanga went back to Chicago and learned that NIU’s enrollment was at its peak about six years ago at about 25,000.

“This year, starting this fall, it had dropped to 17,000,” he said.

Four to five years ago, Sanga began working with NIU on eLearning, because the school realized it had to find a way to also offer online courses.

“Most of our students now actually like taking classes online, even though we were a brick-and-mortar school system,” Sanga said. “We had to address the issue, otherwise we wouldn’t survive.”

How does that affect Kershaw County on a K-12 scale?

Sanga said there is now a similar challenge from online K-12 schools, as evidenced by a commercial he played for K12.com, an online, tuition free public school program. In the commercial -- which includes student and parent testimonials -- K12.com claims it offers students online instruction from six certified teachers. One parent talks about how her daughter is happier taking the online classes rather than having to go to school. The girl said she has more time to spend with her family and participate in gymnastics. The commercial also claims that K12.com-powered schools currently serve nearly 1 million students.

“Where do you think that money’s coming from for them to be able to offer tuition-free education to kids? Obviously, it’s coming from the same pot that we are getting our money from,” Sanga said. “Because they are taking some of our students, therefore they can be paid to educate those students.”

He said this is a “bad thing” because he prefers students to be able to see each other and their teachers face to face.

“If we are not careful -- I’m not a prophet … but I can almost predict, if we’re not careful, if we don’t take positive steps to make sure we address this, these schools are going to do to us what they did to higher education,” Sanga said.

He even pointed out that Stanford University, one of the most prestigious in the nation, now has one of the best online high school course offerings in the country.

“How many parents would like to ‘send’ their kid to a high school that is run by Stanford? And how likely is it that they’ll end up at Stanford?” he asked.

According to Stanford’s website, its Online High School (OHS) offers courses for grades 7-12, thereby affecting middle schools, too. Full-time tuition (four or more courses) is $22,850; part-time (two to three courses), $14,200; and $4,700 for a single course. It claims that about 15 percent of its students receive financial, and has an enrollment of about 750 with average class sizes of 12 students.

While K12.com did not appear to provide similar class-size information, the program did claim that “teachers meet with their students in an online virtual classroom. There, they lecture; show videos, demonstrations and presentations; ask questions; and hold discussions. They can even put students into small groups for collaborative sessions in their own private online ‘breakout’ rooms.”

“We can’t sit and just wait and think things are just going to happen by magic. We have to find ways to engage them (students),” Sanga said. “We’re not saying we’re going to offer all our students online classes, but if we find ways to pass through that, then we encourage them to stay with us.”

Sanga said hopefully -- quickly adding that he believes it can -- the district will not only act as an eLearning pioneer for traditional school districts, but that it will “do it right.”

Between now and December, the district will continue to build the eLearning pilot program, with the main focus on training teachers.

“Obviously, it doesn’t matter what program you bring … if teachers are not prepared enough, we’re just wasting our time,” Sanga said, adding that he wants teachers to “buy into” the program as well.”

He said he plans to visit all the schools and talk to teachers directly so he can know what they’re thinking and work with them on preparations.

That led to his announcement of the mock weather day test, and that connectivity issues are currently being addressed ahead of that date.

“We are addressing a lot of issues the students might face. We are not going to leave a single student behind … we want to make sure every single student participates and they gain from what we are doing. The goal is to help students achieve. We think we can use technology to help us get there. It’s not the only thing, but we can use technology to help us.”

After Sanga’s presentation, Robbins acknowledged there will be “road bumps” in implementing the eLearning program, especially where connectivity is concerned.

“We’ve talked about WiFi on buses, pre-positioning our activity buses, we’re going to partner with businesses to afford them hotspot opportunities if they will support us -- there are a tremendous number of things that are going on right now as we speak. This is, really, just the tip of the iceberg to get ready.”

Robbins said one of Sanga’s key roles is to get teachers comfortable with what he called a “blended learning environment.”

“Because, at the end of the day, it’s to engage students and the more they’re engaged in the process, the more you’re going to see those achievement levels rise,” he said.

Also Tuesday, KCSD Director of Operations Billy Smith provided an update on school construction, including at the Woolard Technology Center adjacent to Central Carolina Technical College; North Central high and middle schools; the new Camden, Lugoff and Wateree elementary schools, which should all be ready to be moved into when the second semester begins on Jan. 8, 2019; Lugoff-Elgin high and middle schools; Zemp Stadium, which has been completed; and Doby’s Mill Elementary School.

Answering a question from Trustee Kim DuRant, Smith said the district recently learned that any work at Baron DeKalb, Bethune and Mt. Pisgah elementary schools deemed at “Level 2” or “Level 3” would require brining an entire facility under 2017 building codes. He said the S.C. Office of School Facilities has informed the district anything more than Level 2 would force Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and that the district has begun informing stakeholders in the North Central area of this fact.

In other business Tuesday:

• Robbins recognized Chairman James Smith and Vice Chair Shirley Halley on receiving Level 3 and 4, respectively, training from the S.C. School Board Association (SCSBA).

• Nancy and Bruce Canada, parents of an autistic student, spoke during public forum claiming that their son has had several poor experiences in the school system, including a day when a bus driver left him with someone else rather than at his expected bus stop and was missing for three hours until police could locate him. While the board did not respond to the Canada’s, they did ask for a written copy of their statement.

• The board voted unanimously to enter into an $11,250 contract with the SCSBA for an in-depth review and update of all board policies.

• Halley provided a report on topics covered at a recent school law conference.

• Trustees entered executive session to discuss undisclosed employment matters and a legal matter concerning possible litigation. Afterward, the board voted unanimously to accept the administration’s recommendations on the employment matters.

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