Learning to study, and teach, in a virtual world

Lisa Chen, director of virtual learning at Louisa County Public Schools.

To launch its first entirely virtual education program, Louisa County Public Schools turned to a familiar face.

Lisa Chen had served as Louisa County Middle School principal and assistant superintendent of instruction before she moved to Botetourt County to be that county’s top educator in 2019. 

That locale proved to be too far away from Chen’s parents in Chesapeake. So when Superintendent Doug Straley asked Chen if she wanted to be the schools’ first director of virtual learning, she didn’t hesitate.

“To design a school from the ground up? Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?” said Chen.

“I learned a great deal from my position [in Botetourt], but there’s nothing like being back at home,” she said. “I will always be grateful for Louisa.”

Chen now heads up an ambitious effort to enable some 1,200 students, a quarter of the entire student body, to participate in classes from their homes five days a week. While other students will attend class in person twice a week, their counterparts in the virtual program will only interact with teachers online.

To make the virtual program operate, the schools tapped a core of tech-savvy educators who were already on staff. Chen said that often schools and other institutions have to hire more people to make a distance learning program work.  

“These are seasoned teachers handpicked by their principals for their [knowledge] and level of interest,” she said. 

The teachers in the virtual program will be working in the school buildings five days a week, just like their colleagues who will teach students in-person twice a week. 

The schools followed best practices in online learning and considered how to ensure students don’t lose focus from too much time online. Virtual face-to-face sessions for students with teachers will be limited to 30 minutes. Teacher-created videos are also limited in duration—no more than seven minutes for elementary-aged students and 15 minutes for older students.

“We heard parents say that they didn’t want children glued to the internet 20 hours a day,” said Chen. “So we gave our teachers this guidance, to ensure students are as engaged as they can be.”

At the elementary level, all forms of instruction available to students who attend school in person twice a week will also be provided to kids who stay at home. Some courses at the high school level aren’t options for students in the virtual program, like a lot of career and technical education courses that require hands-on access to equipment at the high school.

Like students who attend school in person twice a week, those in the virtual program will receive iPads or Chromebooks to take home, depending on their grade level. But virtual students must have access to an internet connection at least twice a week to interact with their teachers. 

The schools are aware that sometimes families have to resort to traveling to relatives’ houses or other solutions to find good internet. Teachers will make weekly assignments available at the start of each weekend, to give students and families time to prepare.

“We did not want to exclude people who did not have good internet,” said Chen. “For some kids, it might be a Wireless on Wheels unit or the library  [parking lot], but most of these students have good access to the internet at home.”

In the first two weeks of school, all students will receive lessons in what it means to be a good digital citizen and about cyberbullying. Those lessons will likely be valuable even when students return to in-school learning.

“We know the world is getting smaller and information is processed a lot quicker,” said Chen. “Kids need to know how to discern between truth and biased information, and how to work with others collaboratively in a virtual world. Eventually we’re going to be doing a lot more things using technology constantly.”

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