Jun 08, 2016

Why the Online School Environment Matters

When a new school building is constructed, districts put a lot of time and money into the physical design of the building. Districts spend months on design and years on construction, at costs that can easily be $20 million or more. But the online spaces our students, teachers and parents inhabit rarely receive even of fraction of this care. Why is this? And does it matter? 

Investing in the Educational Environment 

We invest heavily in creating outstanding physical space for our K-12 schools. We do so because we believe that the design and construction of a school’s physical space can have a major impact on the success of the school. We make sure that the physical school is safe, orderly and attractive. We work hard to design schools’ spaces so that they support all aspects of school life: classes, athletics, extracurricular activities, faculty meetings, administration and more. The exterior design and grounds are also important—they communicate the school’s commitment to excellence to the wider community.

We pay particular attention to the design of classroom space, shaping it to meet the specific needs of a grade level (kindergarten vs. high school classroom), subject (biology lab vs. art studio) and educational philosophy (open collaborative space vs. lecture space vs. individual learning space).

But most schools have not yet done the same for their online environment – not even close. This despite the fact that school life, even in traditional brick-and-mortar schools, is moving more and more online. a In fact, most kids inhabit the online world almost as much as they do the physical word. 

The “Tent City” Approach to Online Learning Environments

What’s the answer? At eChalk, we believe that the online environment should be just as organized and connected as the physical environment.

Instead of proactively constructing a single, safe, orderly, online environment, we tend to leave the choice of an “online classroom” to each individual teacher. In many schools this creates a “tent city” of different applications for students and parents to navigate. If the online world were physical, many schools would look something like this:

In this environment, students can find some academic resources in scattered online classrooms, some on the school’s website, some elsewhere. A student’s extracurricular activities, if online at all, are usually hosted on a system separate from their online classes. Teachers share instructional materials and participate in district professional development on yet another system or systems. Parents receive school and class notifications through yet another system. The public finds information on the school through a website and social media, which are unconnected to any of these other systems. 

The result is confusion, wasted time, reduced public confidence, and diminished student engagement. The cost can be enormous. Every time a parent can’t find a class resource online, confidence is lost, frustration is created, and a chance for productive parent engagement is missed. When a teacher has to re-create from scratch a lesson a peer has already produced or can’t find a key HR form online, valuable time is lost. When the community and new families can’t see a school’s successes, support and new enrollees are lost.

What’s the answer? At eChalk, we believe that the online environment should be just as organized and connected as the physical environment. Parents, students, teachers and staff should have one central place where they can find everything they need, from today’s homework to district announcements. Your online presence is, just as much as the physical building, how your community experiences your school. In an increasingly digital world, that presence matters.