Distance Learning

7 Best Practices for Building a Multimodal Online Elementary Curriculum

A course designer shares the process that her virtual school uses to decide how to teach STEAM and the humanities.

With many states requiring students to complete one or more online courses to be eligible for high school graduation, virtual schooling has taken off in K-12 education. According to iNACOL's Fast Facts About Online Learning, in 2013, 29 states and Washington, DC, offered their students full-time online school options. However, almost 75 percent of the 1,816,400 enrollments were at the high school level and focused on course recovery. There were far fewer student enrollments in grades 6-8, and even fewer still in grades K-5.

There are several reasons for such low enrollment at the lower grade levels: 1) Not as many full-time virtual programs exist for these age groups; 2) parents or learning guides must commit to facilitating daily student learning; and 3) standards-aligned, interactive, engaging curriculum is difficult — if not impossible — to find. I'm sure you've heard the saying, "If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself." Well, that is exactly what our virtual elementary school decided to do. We used the following best practices to build and implement humanities and STEAM curricula for our K-5 virtual school program.

Determine Your Virtual School's Needs
Determining the needs of your students, staff and parents/learning guides requires student data analysis, a thorough investigation of the curriculum you are currently using and providing stakeholders with the opportunity to present feedback. First, look at student performance data in reading and math to spot achievement trends and identify areas for improvement. Conduct an alignment analysis on your current curriculum to determine which core standards, if any, are addressed and how they are being assessed. Be sure to evaluate whether or not the curriculum offers teachers a way to differentiate instruction for individual students, has accommodations for ESE and ELL students and includes instructional guidance for parents or learning guides. It is also important to survey the virtual teachers and parents or learning guides to gain their input about the successful or unsuccessful components of your current virtual program. Once you know the needs of your program, you can create one or two specific statements that will clearly define and focus your online content creation process.

Build a Committed Team
It is critical to assemble a team consisting of both teachers and administrators who understand the project goals, work well together and are committed to the curriculum process. There may be times when team members have personality conflicts, differences of opinion and varied priorities, but knowing how to engage in difficult conversations, using effective problem-solving strategies and being open to compromise are essential skills for all team participants.

Agree on a Vision
Creating a vision for your virtual program is a good team-building activity that brings focus to the project and can serve as a guide when making future decisions. Start by having each team member create a personal vision statement for the program. They could ask themselves, "If my child were enrolled in a virtual program, what would I want it to look like?" or "What would I expect from my child's virtual teacher?" Once all team members have created their personal vision statements, the team should work together to look for commonalities, combine them and develop a collaborative vision statement that will represent the program. Once the statement is complete, creating a video and posting it on your virtual program's Web site is a great way to communicate your vision to current and potential families, as well as to all community stakeholders.

Review the Standards and the Current Curriculum
Understanding the core curriculum standards and determining how you plan to assess them should drive the writing of your online curriculum. Determining what students will need to know and do is imperative to student success. Together, teachers can decide how to chunk standards, create rubrics or scales to assess mastery of concepts and develop pacing guides. Completing this step at the beginning of the curriculum-writing process creates a timeline that teachers can follow for writing content, and naturally leads to the next step.

Choose the Right Technology Tools
Virtual teaching and learning requires technology. This may seem obvious, but it is important to remember that technology is a tool that should enhance content while using effective pedagogical practices. The Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) framework can help teachers identify Web 2.0 software, apps or even hardware that can enhance their teaching of curriculum and transform student learning.

Most virtual schools require their students to provide their own hardware, so curriculum should be housed on a system that is accessible and works well across a variety of platforms. Our teachers build their content in the Canvas learning management system (LMS) by Instructure. Canvas provides collaborative components such as Google Docs integration, small-group spaces, real-time conferencing and multimedia creation tools that enable teachers and students to produce multimodal communications. Teachers can create discussion boards and wiki pages to encourage a participatory culture where students can work together on a writing project, give their opinions on a topic, show what they've learned or explain their thinking processes while problem-solving. Through LTI integration, Canvas offers teachers and students access to external learning apps such as Quizzlet, Educreations, Khan Academy and YouTube for Schools, which can be embedded directly into curriculum pages and assignments to provide visual and audible content explanation.

Teachers and students can use Web 2.0 tools such as Prezi, Thinglink, Haiku Deck, Animoto and Glogster to create interactive, multimodal content. These cloud-based tools are accessible on all platforms and mobile devices connected to WiFi. Our teachers and students submit their created products or content directly into Canvas by sharing links.

Provide Learning Opportunities and Support
Online curriculum-writing projects require a plan for coaching teachers, parents or learning guides and students. Although everyone involved is using technology for teaching and learning (as well as personal interaction) they often need training on how to use specific tools.

In addition to purchasing 24/7 Canvas Tier 1 help support, we offered an orientation for parents and learning guides and students to kick off the school year. We asked parents and learning guides to create observer roles in Canvas so they can see what their children are working on. We also require them to participate in monthly, face-to-face, live lessons where instructional communication technology literacy (ICT-L) specialists are available to answer questions. During these lessons, teachers and ICT-L specialists also offer iPad, app or software training. They model how to use new tools that will be used in upcoming student lessons, and students have time to practice using the tools — with a partner or in a group — and can ask for help if they need it.

To ensure that teachers were fully supported, our school paired virtual teachers with an "E-Team buddy," whom they meet with on a weekly basis. An E-Team buddy is a technical support person who is familiar with the technology, the content and effective pedagogical practices. Our buddies have helped with everything from lesson-plan template creation and software suggestions to troubleshooting hardware issues.

Reflect, Review and Revise
As your team progresses through the process of writing an online curriculum, it is important to reflect, both individually and as a group, on how things are going. If specific activities or technology tools are not effective, it can be helpful to discuss details and work together on solutions. Revisit and analyze student data often. If your students' learning needs are not being met, you can always adjust the content you present and the way you present it. Solicit feedback from parents and learning guides and students, and take their views into account when making revisions to your program and curriculum. Continual reevaluation and revision of the curriculum implementation and the online program will give teachers, parents, learning guides and students the best possible chance to be successful in the teaching and learning process.