From Wildfires to Pandemics

The importance of building engaging online courses for effective virtual learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Carl Dawson

Aaron Ferguson is a distance learning design coach for Oxnard Union High School District (OUHSD) and a Milliken National Educator. Last fall, he could not have imagined how much his job would evolve in just one year. He is a self-confessed tech aficionado and a seasoned educator who taught high school for nearly a decade before making the switch to distance learning design. A few years ago, he began to notice a disturbing trend that drove an urgent need for virtual learning; increasingly frequent school closures due to wildfires.

‘They had to find a way to deliver on their mission to ensure every student had endless access to equitable support and opportunities for success…’

The severity of the disasters had him worried about the safety of his students. The fires’ recurring nature had him contemplating how to keep students connected to school even when the classroom was closed. His East Coast colleagues used distance learning to stay connected during snow days and he wondered how he could create the same approach to the fire days out West.

Finding a Way to Deliver

Serving students located near many of the fires in California, OUHSD realized that several students had to miss class anywhere from one to two weeks when fires happened. They had to find a way to deliver on their mission to ensure every student had endless access to equitable support and opportunities for success, especially when schools were closed.

Oxnard had seen that schools worldwide relied on learning management systems (LMSs) to keep students connected to learning and supplement missed class time. Many teachers were already familiar with the LMS approach to virtual learning and they wanted to ensure the technology would amplify their personal classroom teaching style.

That’s where Aaron’s learning design coaching was put to use. The district partnered with an online program enablement provider to create courses that put teachers in the driver’s seat, creating personalized, engaging content, and checking to ensure students were mastering concepts.

Through working with technology vendors and teachers, the district effectively created a credit recovery model, replaced subscription services, and provided more customized courses to better suit their students.

When the global pandemic struck, the district’s disaster response planning took on greater scope, requiring teachers and district leaders to come together to evolve their approach to meet the needs of a 100% virtual learning environment for an extended period of time.

“Little did we know how years of emergency preparedness combined with insights from students and teachers would help us respond quickly to a global pandemic,” says Ferguson. “Our student engagement rates remain high, and that is thanks to our amazing teachers, technology partners, and engaging virtual learning environments.”

Creating the Best Possible Scenarios

When it comes to virtual learning, Ferguson offered his top five recommendations to create the best possible learning scenarios.

___ Solve for the issue at hand and look for other solutions along the way. Build Starter Courses. Too many times we try to build something perfect but that stops progress. Teachers will have vastly different perspectives on how to teach any concept. The goal is to give them a full functioning and customizable starting place.

___ Identify your key stakeholders and work with them to find the right approach. Every project starts with getting the right people together. Roles and responsibilities will evolve with the project but people will always be the most valuable resource. The right people will produce a product that reflects their teachers and students.

___ Communicate regularly and often. People don’t mind bad news, but they hate surprises. Ferguson and team had their share of learning opportunities and setbacks. Constant and quick communication helps make sure teachers, students, parents, and the team are informed and involved in the process.

___ Test, verify, and test again. Technology and change require an adventurous mindset. Teams will spend a considerable amount more time building the first course in a series because that allows them to develop scalable systems and structures.

___ Take a people-first approach. Teachers, Students, Content. When designing a course, start with two questions: “Who is the student taking this course?” and “Who is the teacher offering this course?”. Then, design every element with them as the focal point. Students who see themselves in the content will be more invested and connected with the course overall.

As more people focus on building virtual learning environments that work best for their students, we will learn together and identify even more ways to optimize online learning. Until we can all be in the classroom again, it’s heartening to see the many different approaches taken by student-centric educators and administrators.

Carl Dawson is Chairperson & Co-Founder of Construct, a global leader in learning design. Carl works directly with clients, partners, and senior management to ensure the delivery of high-quality learning content. He has worked in the workforce skills and education sectors for nearly two decades. His personal work in government, nuclear engineering, and cloud networks have all largely been focused on bridging the gap between education and employment.


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