OHS Rises to the Challenge of Distance Learning

By Aiden Wacksman

COVID-19 has presented schools across the world with numerous challenges. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, educational institutions are utilizing flexible learning options for students. At Oak Hall School, some students are choosing to attend class on campus, while others decide to learn online. Those who are pursuing academics from home feel as though they are physically in the classroom, thanks to the on-going work by Oak Hall’s administration, faculty, and staff.   

In March of 2020, when Oak Hall closed due to the emerging coronavirus crisis, school administrators began to plan flexible learning strategies for the 2020-21 school year. Distance learning plans were designed differently for each division of the school, as each has certain academic requirements and needs.

Oak Hall’s Head of School Dr. James Hutchins assisted in organizing a distance learning plan for students who chose to stay at home. “It took a lot of teamwork and effort,” he said. The process of designing an effective flexible learning system proved to be a difficult task for administrators, especially due to technological challenges. Aging technology is being put to the test, and the school is spending money to enhance the system. Hutchins also believes this wave of online learning could have a profound effect in the future. “I believe we will see a greater and quicker shift in how education in America is delivered when the pandemic has passed,” he stated.  

Because the age ranges differ so greatly among Oak Hall students, the flexible learning plans for each division are designed differently. Middle School (MS) and Upper School (US) students have longer attention spans, therefore classes last throughout the day for this group. For students in the Lower School (LS), however, the flexible learning plan is designed differently. “Lower School students get a mix of Zoom and independent assignments,” Hutchins explained.  

“Oak Hall School has, in my opinion, done an excellent job with both preparing for this school year as well as making adjustments as needed. I am so proud of our committed and talented teachers.”

Michelle Mills, Director of the Lower School

In the LS, students in different grade levels use different learning platforms. Seesaw, a platform in which students take photos of their work and upload it, is used by students in preschool through third grade. Meanwhile, Canvas is used by students in the fourth and fifth grades. All LS students, however, utilize Zoom to attend virtual classes.  

Synchronous learning refers to when students learn the same thing at the same time (i.e. zoom classes), while asynchronous learning refers to education that occurs outside of the in-person or virtual classroom (i.e. homework).

“The amount of time that Lower School students participate in online synchronous classes each day varies by grade level,” explained Michelle Mills, the Director of the Lower School. While preschool students spend the least amount of time in synchronous classes, students in the fifth grade spend the greatest amount of time participating in virtual classes. Special area classes such as Science, Spanish, P.E., etc. are scheduled on a six-day rotation for online students in preschool through the third grade. 

“Because we utilized continuous learning with all of our Lower School students on March 13 through the end of May, flexible online learning was less of a challenge,” she stated. Mills also explained how technological difficulties have been a hurdle, but praised LS teachers for their work in ensuring that distance learning students in the LS can receive the best learning experience possible. 

US Spanish teacher Libby Karow faces many technological difficulties. “The worst part is the lag,” she said. Karow explained that discussions in her Spanish classes tend to move at a quick pace. This prevents online students from being as engaged as in-person students.  “The flow of conversation, which is such an important part of language learning, [becomes] more stilted and difficult,” she stated.

OHS distance learning students utilize iPads and computers to keep up with school work as part of class is through Zoom or Microsoft Teams

Karow uses Microsoft Teams to teach distance learners. She enjoys how the calendar featured in “Teams” organizes her classes, and especially appreciates the software’s simplicity. “The chat/call features are easy to use and the online students can support each other during the class with the sidebar,” she explained. Instead of requiring students to use a lockdown browser, Karow currently allows class notes to be used for her assessments. She believes this method significantly improves student notetaking, and also limits the pressure that comes with taking an assessment.

 “I can’t wait for all of this to be over and for my students to be able to return to the classroom, for us to share a book, see each other smile, and give hugs and high fives,” Karow said.

“There are many difficulties that I’ve encountered when trying to accommodate online learners, such as testing at home and slow internet speeds,” said US physics teacher Quinn Bohan. At the start of the 2020-21 school year, he encountered a couple of technological issues. For example, he could not connect his iPad with his computer to use it as a webcam. Bohan, however, quickly adapted.  “I was not too worried though as I quickly discovered that I could ‘hack’ one of my older security cameras to use as a high-quality webcam in the iPad’s place,” he explained.

Instead of using Microsoft Teams to involve online-learners, Bohan uses Zoom. He believes the video-conferencing platform has a better call quantity than Microsoft Teams. It also allows him to join calls with both his iPad and his computer, which provides a second camera that can be moved from place to place. 

Similar to Spanish, discussions tend to move quickly in physics classes. Bohan has tried many different techniques to involve online students but has not found a particularly effective method as of yet for physics discussions. “We quickly go back and forth between discussion and lecture as physics is rather thrilling,” he explained. Bohan’s setup consists of a webcam attached to his ceiling, AirPods that he utilizes as wireless microphones, and an iPad placed on a tripod which is used as a secondary camera. “We miss all of our online learners and cannot wait until they’re safely back in the classroom with us,” he exclaimed.

Oak Hall junior Rebecca Lillie takes an US class with a teacher in the MS.  Science teacher Robert Bryan, along with his MS colleagues, uses Zoom to teach online students instead of Microsoft Teams, which is more often used by US teachers. Lillie, however, prefers Microsoft Teams for its easy-access features. “I do think that all teachers should use one or the other because once you’re logged into one app you don’t have to stress about logging into another,” Lillie suggested.  

The Oak Hall community continues to rise to the challenges presented by the coronavirus. Hutchins praised the valuable work of teachers and the technology department as they continue to grapple with tech issues. “[They] should be applauded because of their valiant efforts to get this off the ground,” Hutchins stated.