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Anchorage School District faces the next distance-learning challenge: Many students aren’t logging in

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Last week, more than 2,000 Anchorage high school seniors — about 62% — did not log in to their new online classes.

That’s according to data presented by the Anchorage School District’s deputy superintendent Mark Stock at Tuesday evening’s school board meeting. Stock and Superintendent Deena Bishop apprised the board of progress made in the three weeks since the district’s massive effort to switch its 45,849 students to distance learning. The shift began amid a statewide shutdown of school buildings meant to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

The district’s move involved a coordinated effort to train all teachers in online education, expand the district’s use of its preexisting online platforms, streamline coursework and lend thousands of students laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots.

Now, the district is examining the only clear measure of success it has right now — how often those students are logging in and accessing courses.

“Normally we would be doing outcome monitoring," said Stock, meaning assessing data like standardized test results, grades and graduation rates.

Instead, the district is looking at inputs, calculating exactly how many students in each grade are accessing its online coursework each week. Stock’s data show that while large numbers of students are logging in, many haven’t engaged in online learning so far.

The numbers were better during the first two weeks: About 72% of the district’s 3,294 seniors logged in to their classes and almost 66% submitted assignments. Of high schoolers, freshmen were the most engaged, with more than 88% logging in to online learning platform Canvas and more than 84% submitting an assignment.

The drop in engagement is possibly the result of long-term projects and “asynchronous” coursework that allows students to do work at their own pace and on their own time, Stock said. During week three, log-ins and submitted coursework dropped significantly over all high school grades.

But the drop also points to an issue affecting schools nationwide as school districts struggle to engage kids in online learning programs that were never in their education plan in the first place.

“It’s a challenge,” Stock said. “Being forced into online here without the preparation time for people to think through all the those pieces — there’s an impact there.”

Teachers are usually dependent on face-to-face interactions with students as a means to encourage and engage them in learning, Stock said.

“The switch to online environments require a complete mind shift of accountability over to sort of an individual, independent person who’s driven by responsibility or who has someone at home who’s monitoring and pushing them,” Stock said. “Face to face, teachers have a lot more leverage in terms of accountability.”

Engagement numbers for middle school students were more even than for high school students, with just over 77% of sixth-graders logging in during the first two weeks and 70% in the third week.

The district also surveyed teachers on their perceptions of student engagement and barriers to remote learning. For middle school and high school, teachers said that the majority of students were “a little engaged” or “moderately engaged,” according to Stock’s presentation.

Student access rates are similar across all ethnic groups and across income levels, Stock said.

Mike Fleckenstein, chief information officer for the district, said 9,096 laptops and 804 hotspots had been distributed to students facing connectivity issues.

“It’s just that people are choosing not to engage for other reasons,” Stock told the board. “It has nothing to do with devices or poverty or anything to do with culture or ethnicity.”

“We have a lot of kids that are in highly stressed homes,” board member Andy Holleman said during the meeting. “Parents may be very busy, they may be very caught up, things may not be going well in the house. And we don’t really differentiate our expectations out of the kids based on that.”

Regardless, lack of engagement will result in a slip backward for students.

“We do acknowledge that there will be a loss of learning for kids in this nine weeks,” Bishop said.

The school district is considering ways to approach that dilemma come fall, Bishop said.

“Nationally, it’s one of the great discussions about what effect does this have on the entire nation’s class of kids that are in this boat right now? We don’t really know,” Stock said.

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