• Distance Learning
    Boosts Student Options

    Posted by Josh Flory on 11/28/2018
    Math teacher Brandi Finchum talks about coding with her class at Farragut High School, while students from West High School watch through a video conference.
    Math teacher Brandi Finchum talks about coding with her class at Farragut High School, while students from West High School watch through a video conference.

    When Brandi Finchum walked into Farragut High School on Halloween morning, she was wearing the patterned tie and scarlet-and-gold scarf of Harry Potter’s Gryffindor house.

    It was an appropriate costume, since Finchum was pulling off a magic trick of sorts: appearing in two classrooms at once.

    Finchum is a math teacher at Farragut, and her schedule includes a course called Honors Math Computer Apps. On this particular morning, students filed into her class, took a MacBook Pro from a locker, and set it up on their desks to begin work.

    But at 7 a.m., TV screens in the front and back of the room began showing a livestream from West High School, where students had gathered to participate through video-conference. Finchum asked a West student to move a podium which was blocking her view, and then both classes jumped into an introductory coding exercise.

    The Computer Apps course is part of the KCS distance learning program, known as QuEST, which lets students from one school take courses at other schools within the district.

    The classes are offered in two ways: “synchronous” classes, including Finchum’s, offer real-time instruction using video-conferencing tools, while “asynchronous” classes are offered through the Canvas online learning system, with recorded materials that can be accessed at the student’s convenience.

    Cheryl Sheridan is coordinator of the QuEST program, which stands for Quality Education For Students Using Technology. Sheridan said the program is growing, and that one of her goals is to increase awareness of it among students, parents and teachers.

    In the current school year, QuEST offerings included synchronous courses in several math-related subjects, including AP Calculus and AP Statistics offered by teachers at Fulton High School and Powell High School, as well as asynchronous courses in subjects including history, genre literature, economics and psychology.

    Jonathan East, an assistant principal who oversees distance learning at West High School, said it’s not uncommon for one school to offer a course that could benefit students from other schools.

    So while some West students take Finchum’s class at Farragut, West teacher Lou Gallo teaches an AP European History course that is offered as an asynchronous QuEST class to students at other schools.

    “It’s a give-and-take,” East said, “and it expands our students’ opportunities outside the four walls of our school. That’s just a very powerful approach to education.”

    One of the ongoing priorities within QuEST is recruiting teachers who have an interest in distance education and are excited to offer new courses. Sheridan said foreign languages are one area where the interest in distance learning is higher than the supply of available teachers.

    When it comes to identifying teachers, she said organizational skills are at a premium, particularly in asynchronous classes where the teacher has to arrange one-on-one meetings with students, either through a Google Hangout or an in-person meeting.

    In the past, Sheridan said, “we have experienced more than once teachers that were kind of ‘volun-told’ that they were going to do distance learning. It never worked … It has to be a teacher that desires to see this type of program grow and is willing to put in the time and hours that it will take to make it work.”

    Finchum is a fifth-year teacher who is in her second year participating in QuEST. She said it’s sometimes tricky to work around scheduling challenges, especially if a student misses a class and has to make it up. But for the most part, she just pretends like her QuEST students are right there in the classroom.

    Technology makes that relatively easy. Finchum writes on a smartboard that is visible in both schools, and conversations in one room are easy to hear in another. At one point, she turned to the video camera and asked “West guys, are you okay?”, but mostly the experience feels relatively seamless.

    The Apps course focuses on the Java coding language, and Finchum said she’s thankful for the chance to teach it.

    “It’s not something that they’re used to seeing … Coding is its own entity, and I like to expose them to new things.”