There are some serious efficiencies if you don’t have to pull 200 teachers out of their schools and bring them to a central location for leadership training…Ken Weipert, Principal, CBe-learn
Responding To An Extraordinary Situation
CBe-learn is the Calgary Board of Education’s online middle and senior high school. Its traditional role has been to provide flexible distance learning for students in grades six through 12. Most of these students are registered full time at a school in their community and take additional classes with CBe-learn to supplement their in-person education.
However, in the past three years, CBe-learn has begun to see a significant increase in demand for its online programs—a trend that was accelerated even further when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020.
“Take our summer school, for example,” says Ken Weipert, Principal of CBe-learn. “Three years ago we had 900 students; this year, it’s nearly 6,000. We have brought in about 100 teachers to teach summer school with us online, and many of them don’t have experience teaching in a strictly online environment. That’s been a big challenge for us.”
He continues: “Training them on the technical side of how to use our online platform is fairly easy, but the pedagogical side is more difficult. For example, in a classroom setting, experienced teachers can tell how students are feeling from their nonverbal behavior and body language. But when you’re teaching online, you need to learn to recognize totally different cues. It’s not as simple as just taking your text-based course content and putting it on a website somewhere!”
The same is true for students who are new to online learning—CBe-learn needs to help them adapt to an asynchronous teaching model where they don’t get the same kind of instant feedback from teachers as they expect in the classroom. Equally, when the pandemic hit, CBe-learn realized that many students lack access to computers and reliable internet connections, making it difficult for them to access online education services.
“These are not just short-term issues,” says Ken Weipert. “The demand for distance learning technologies was growing before COVID-19, and we think that trend will continue. How do we prepare our educators to support that? Ideally, we would be able to offer a blended learning environment in every single school throughout Calgary, but we’ll need a lot of investment and professional development to make that really successful for 126,000 students.”
Continuity In A Time Of Crisis
In response to the pandemic, CBe-learn decided to make all of its existing course content available to classroom teachers who were struggling to deliver their classes online. D2L’s Brightspace learning management system was the key to this initiative.
“We quickly moved all of the course content from our junior and senior high programs into Brightspace Learning Repository using dynamic linking. The Learning Repository’s dynamic linking feature allowed us to update and adjust the content centrally, without having to edit thousands of individual courses by hand. It also gave classroom teachers a starting point, so they had the content to support their transition to online learning in the early stages of the pandemic.” — Ken Weipert, Principal, CBe-learn
To help address students’ accessibility issues, the Calgary Board of Education loaned out over 5,000 laptops and other devices to students and encouraged local internet service providers to provide free internet access for students who needed it.
Meanwhile, to help classroom teachers get up to speed with both the technical and pedagogical aspects of teaching online, CBe-learn adopted a “train the trainer” strategy. Its experienced educators and course design experts have helped a group of lead teachers gain the necessary skills, and they will now act as the first point of contact and support for other teachers on their teams.
Ken Weipert gives an example: “Courses like career and life management are required for graduation, but they don’t always fit well into a school’s 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday schedule. We used Brightspace to train a group of teachers to teach them in a blended way within community schools. It enabled us to reach thousands more students without adding more teachers to our team.”
Going forward, the Calgary Board of Education is also planning to work with CBe-learn to increase its use of the Brightspace platform for teachers’ professional development.
“There are some serious efficiencies if you don’t have to pull 200 teachers out of their schools and bring them to a central location for leadership training—and during pandemic conditions, we can’t do that anyway! So, we expect our use of Brightspace for professional development will continue to grow.” — Ken Weipert, Principal, CBe-learn
Students love working with the Brightspace tools, and the work that our teachers have done has created a really great environment for them. It’s easy to use, and all the tools are built in, from content and communication through to assessment and grading.Ken Weipert, Principal, CBe-learn
Enabling Students To Flourish
As the number of students enrolling in courses with CBe-learn has doubled or tripled each year, D2L’s Brightspace platform has helped CBe-learn to do more than keep pace with demand—it has helped them to get ahead of the curve. The school is always eager to engage with D2L to suggest and test new features of the platform.
“D2L has been a fantastic resource—we’ve been working with them since 2005, and they’re always extremely responsive to our ideas,” says Ken Weipert. “Brightspace works exceptionally well, and every year it gets a little better as the functionality grows. For example, the work that D2L has put into the Brightspace Parent & Guardian tool is quite exciting. Being able to communicate directly with parents about the work that students are doing in Brightspace will be hugely beneficial.”
He adds: “Students love working with the Brightspace tools, and the work that our teachers have done has created a really great environment for them. It’s easy to use, and all the tools are built in, from content and communication through to assessment and grading. Students only have to access Brightspace and they have access to their entire learning environment.”
The results suggest that students flourish in CBe-learn’s online courses. In last year’s summer school group, 90% of students completed their online courses and got the grades they hoped for. This level of completion rate and success is amazing to see given the independent nature of many online courses and the compressed timeline during the summer for covering all of the learning outcomes in the program of study.
Ken Weipert comments: “I think what students really love about our courses is the option to focus on their schoolwork whenever is right for them. It’s really good for students who have jobs or are passionate about athletics, music, dance or theater, because they can work, train or practice as much as they need to and still fit their studies into their schedule.”
He concludes: “As an independent school supporting a relatively small group of students, Brightspace has been a key part of our success. In the future, I think it can help the Board of Education support hundreds of schools and teachers in a transition to a more blended model of education for thousands of students across Calgary.”