While the digi­tal world is new for most Ger­man schools, the Penn­syl­va­nia Cyber Car­ter School only pro­vi­des online schoo­ling. We made acquain­tance with its’ headmaster.

by Ron­ja Zemm­rich and Tobi­as Westphal

With regard to digi­ta­li­sa­ti­on, Ger­ma­ny per­forms poor­ly. It ranks only slight­ly abo­ve the EU average in the Digi­tal Eco­no­my and Socie­ty Index (DESI), taking the ele­venth place far behind Den­mark, Fin­land, Swe­den and the Netherlands. 

Given the cir­cum­s­tan­ces, the coro­na­vi­rus has all of a sud­den for­ced Ger­man schools to step into a com­ple­te new ter­ri­to­ri­um: the digi­tal world. Deve­lo­ping con­cepts of how clas­ses can be held from distance was now on the agen­da for the first time.

Due to the fact that Ger­man schools are equip­ped appal­lin­g­ly with tech­no­lo­gy, the lock­down star­ted as a dis­as­ter for most of them. Most Lear­ning Manage­ment Sys­tems, inclu­ding Lern­raum Ber­lin, the HPI Schul-Cloud and Mebis, were not pre­pa­red for the band­width sud­den­ly nee­ded. This resul­ted in ser­vers being inac­ces­si­ble or too slow to use, in order to have a pro­duc­ti­ve school day. Moreo­ver, the regis­tra­ti­on and set up pro­cess wasn’t yet auto­ma­ted. It took weeks for all new stu­dents and schools to be regis­tered by hand.

Tho­se pre­pa­ra­ti­ons should have been done befo­re the world was shut down due to a pan­de­mic. Howe­ver, this was not the case. Only a few schools had their own sys­tems avail­ab­le and were pre­pa­red for three mon­ths of homeschooling.

In a stu­dy, 71 per cent of respondents repor­ted to the rese­ar­chers of appi­nio that they do not belie­ve that Ger­man schools are equip­ped well enough to offer homeschooling.

The polar oppo­si­te to this is the Penn­syl­va­nia Cyber Char­ter School, which only pro­vi­des digi­tal online schoo­ling. We were able to make acquain­tance with Bri­an Hay­den, CEO and head­mas­ter of just men­tio­ned school. We tal­ked to him about the tea­ching methods at his school, as well as how he hand­les the pro­blems we expe­ri­en­ced in the past month.

Ein Mädchen lernt am Computer
During the first lock­down, most Ger­man schools were con­fron­ted with distance lear­ning for the first time and had to make immedia­te preparations.

Herderzeitung: Brian, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Yours is one of America’s first and most advanced total-digital schools. What would you say makes your school unique?

Bri­an Hay­den: We are a Kin­der­gar­ten through twelfth gra­de public school ser­ving over 11,000 stu­dents all over Penn­syl­va­nia. We ope­ra­te digi­tal­ly the same way a tra­di­tio­nal school does: We have tea­chers con­duc­ting clas­ses wit­hin a cyber class­room. The tea­chers lec­tu­re, ask ques­ti­ons, give assess­ments – then the stu­dents respond. They can eit­her talk through their micro­pho­nes or respond via chat. Just like this!

Did the pandemic have any impact on you? Was there an increase in applications?

This was the first year we excee­ded our enroll­ment limi­ta­ti­on – pri­ma­ri­ly due to the pan­de­mic. Even though they are digi­tal, we still have class sizes (24 in a live class­room) to keep the tea­ching mana­ge­ab­le. When school star­ted in late August, we had over 2300 stu­dents on a wai­t­ing list. By law, we must ran­dom­ly choo­se stu­dents so we used a com­pu­ter pro­gram to ran­dom­ly pick num­bers that we had assi­gned to stu­dents. We then offe­red them a seat.

2300 students? Wow, that’s a lot!

Yes, 2300 stu­dents was a lar­ge list. We were ulti­mate­ly able to work through the list. Some stu­dents cho­se to enroll in a dif­fe­rent school, others came here when given the oppor­tu­ni­ty. We no lon­ger have a wai­t­ing list, but that could chan­ge after we return from holi­day break in January.

You are a regular public school. Hence, it doesn’t cost anything to enroll with you. However, it must be expensive to acquire devices for such a large number of students. How is the necessary equipment financed? 

Sin­ce we are a public school, the home school district reim­bur­ses us based on the amount of money they spend to edu­ca­te a stu­dent. Gene­ral­ly, it cos­ts 12,500 USD to send a stu­dent here. The fami­lies pay nothing.

Today, you’re one of the most advanced online schools. What impuls pushed you to open a school that operates purely digitally? Please tell us about the history of your school. 

PA Cyber held its first clas­ses in 2000, so this is our twen­tieth year of tea­ching. We have an inte­res­ting sto­ry. The town we are loca­ted in (Mid­land, Penn­syl­va­nia) had a lar­ge steel mill that clo­sed in the mid-1980s. This led to many fami­lies having to move to find bet­ter work and even­tual­ly they had to clo­se the local high school becau­se they did­n’t have enough stu­dents. For a few years, stu­dents atten­ded school in the next sta­te, Ohio.

When Penn­syl­va­nia pas­sed a law allowing for char­ter schools (public schools ope­ra­ted by a non-for-pro­fit orga­niz­a­ti­on ins­tead of a com­mu­ni­ty), the local lea­ders found this a way to bring their stu­dents back to Penn­syl­va­nia. The first year, the­re were only a few hund­red stu­dents and the­re was real­ly no online cur­ri­cu­lum avail­ab­le so they had to crea­te much of what we do today. 

They swit­ched to an online solu­ti­on becau­se the­re were not enough stu­dents to open a high school buil­ding up. Being digi­tal gave stu­dents out­side of Mid­land the chan­ge to enroll. This meant that all stu­dents could have a full school expe­ri­ence, with many clas­ses to choo­se from, acti­vi­ties, and bet­ter support.

That’s exciting. What was it like for your students in the first weeks? Did the students and parents have any doubts about whether it would work?

For our retur­ning stu­dents, this is just how they attend school, but it has all of the exci­te­ment and ques­ti­ons for any first week of school. For new stu­dents, cyber school can be a chal­len­ge. The fami­lies need to get the tech­no­lo­gy working – we have hund­reds of calls a day for that first week see­king tech help. Fur­ther, they have to under­stand how to access clas­ses, com­mu­ni­ca­te with tea­chers, and sub­mit assign­ments. For­tu­n­a­te­ly, our tea­chers and aca­de­mic advi­sors and tech team are pati­ent and pro­fes­sio­nal, so are able to get them through tho­se first few days. 

Most of our stu­dents beco­me com­for­ta­ble with online lear­ning, but the­re are some who rea­li­ze that this is not the best opti­on for them and return to a tra­di­tio­nal school. We sup­port that decisi­on as we want all stu­dents to suc­ceed, regard­less of whe­re they go to school.

The PAcy­ber mas­cot intro­cues the new students

Was productive online learning assured back in the 2000s considering it’s then existing technology? 

In 2000, the tea­chers did a gre­at job. It was dif­fe­rent, of cour­se, but then peop­le did­n’t have the fast inter­net we do now, were not used to watching vide­os, etc. Most fami­lies had dial up inter­net, com­pu­ters were lar­ge desk­tops, and most peop­le did­n’t under­stand online lear­ning. Today, we have lap­tops, WiFi, and it’s a much more accep­ted way to learn. I think that it met their expec­ta­ti­ons for the time, but the edu­ca­ti­on is much bet­ter now.

What were the public reactions to this not widespread method of teaching?

The media has been real­ly inte­res­ted in how we teach. With so many tra­di­tio­nal schools in the US going to remo­te inst­ruc­tion during the pan­de­mic, we have done many inter­views on how stu­dents can learn bet­ter, orga­ni­ze them­sel­ves, and stay moti­va­ted. We are hap­py to share our expe­ri­en­ces as this is so new, and unex­pec­ted, for so many families. 

Howe­ver, the tra­di­tio­nal schools are very vocal in their oppo­si­ti­on as well as some elec­ted offi­cials. Many of the lea­ders of the tra­di­tio­nal public schools do not like having to pay to send so many stu­dents to a cyber char­ter school and have com­p­lai­ned about that. But we are here to ser­ve any stu­dent who is loo­king for a bet­ter opti­on and the fami­lies should be able to make that choice.

For­tu­n­a­te­ly, we do have sup­port in the sta­te legis­la­tu­re who make sure we can con­ti­nue to teach. Every year we have to make sure that our fun­ding is sta­ble, but we work hard to do that.

Thank you, Brian. What we are also interested in, is hearing about your way of teaching. You explained to us that you use video conferencing systems for face-to-face teaching. Is this experience supplemented by a Learning Management System to exchange assignments and solutions? Also, do you have fixed timetables?

Well, we pro­vi­de a com­pre­hen­si­ve edu­ca­ti­on and our stu­dents con­si­der this to be their school. In addi­ti­on to all of their clas­ses (mathe­ma­tics, histo­ry, sci­ence, Eng­lish, etc.) we have clubs and field trips, dan­ces, par­ties, well­ness pro­grams, just like any other school. 

We pro­vi­de all of our stu­dents with lap­tops, prin­ters, scan­ners and other inst­ruc­tio­n­al mate­ri­als. We also pro­vi­de an inter­net reim­bur­se­ment if they qua­li­fy for it as well as assis­ting with ensu­ring they have a good inter­net con­nec­tion (wifi, antennas).

We have three methods of tea­ching: First, the vir­tu­al class­room: This is like tra­di­tio­nal live inst­ruc­tion. Clas­ses are a set time each day (8th gra­de Ame­ri­can Histo­ry from 10:00 to 10:50. The tea­cher pres­ents a lec­tu­re, stu­dents respond, we can send them to small groups to work, and so forth). When class is over, stu­dents go to the next class. 

Second­ly, the blen­ded class­room. Stu­dents are given assign­ments with dead­lines but can work inde­pendent­ly. An assi­gned tea­cher is avail­ab­le to ans­wer ques­ti­ons, pro­vi­de feed­back, or tutor during the school day. Howe­ver, the tea­chers also have two live clas­ses a week if the stu­dent wis­hes to attend the­se. Stu­dents who like to work at their own pace pre­fer the­se classes.

And third­ly, asyn­chro­nous clas­ses. The­se are ful­ly self-paced. Stu­dents have assign­ments and assess­ments and must com­ple­te the class by the end of the semester.

Brian Hayden
Bri­an Hay­den, the head­mas­ter of the PAcyber

The first method is very similar to usual classes. What do you think are the advantages of teaching via microphone and chat, now that you have enough students that would make building a school profitable?

Our stu­dents come from all over Penn­syl­va­nia so a buil­ding would not be prac­ti­cal. Many of our stu­dents no lon­ger want to attend a tra­di­tio­nal school and pre­fer the fle­xi­bi­li­ty of lear­ning from home. Depen­ding on the type of class­room they choo­se, they can learn when it makes the most sen­se for them as well as play out­side, have a job, or help out on the fami­ly farm. For the stu­dents who real­ly miss the tra­di­tio­nal school expe­ri­ence, they typi­cal­ly return to their for­mer school. Tho­se who stay here are more com­for­ta­ble in this environment.

For us, sports and music lessons sound impossible to execute digitally. Have you found ways to do this, or are they not included in your curriculum?

We do have a very good arts pro­gram. Stu­dents in all gra­des can take cour­ses in pain­ting, digi­tal arts, dance, even thea­ter. We do not have a school orches­tra or groups like that. Our stu­dents do have to take phy­si­cal edu­ca­ti­on, but we do not have orga­ni­zed ath­le­tic teams like bas­ket­ball or foot­ball. They can play tho­se at their home school district.

Thank you so much for your time and for broadening our horizon regarding the topic of digital teaching. 

As Socie­ty keeps deve­lo­ping, digi­ta­li­sa­ti­on is sprea­ding its ten­ta­cles fur­ther into our sphe­res of life, crea­ting new inno­va­tions with huge poten­ti­al to rede­sign con­ven­tio­nal lear­ning. While insti­tu­ti­ons like the Penn­syl­va­ni­an Cyber Char­ter are pionee­ring, Ger­ma­ny is struggling to adapt to the digi­tal age. Many schools weren’t yet able to adopt the­se new tea­ching mea­su­res due to an insuf­fi­ci­ent bud­get and mis­sing know­ledge and thus digi­tal inno­va­tions are mir­ro­red poor­ly in Germany’s edu­ca­tio­nal institutions. 

The first lock­down made us awa­re of the con­se­quen­ces of not adop­ting digi­tal edu­ca­ti­on stra­te­gies to the digi­ta­li­sed world. Ple­nty of stu­dents were left behind, while tea­chers had to face an insur­moun­ta­ble abundance of tasks. Without immedia­te action, reli­able tea­ching and suf­fi­ci­ent sup­port for all stu­dents can­not be assu­red in case we need to switch back to homeschooling. 

It is about time that the government starts to intro­du­ce new digi­tal stra­te­gies to sup­port tea­chers and stu­dents. Incor­po­ra­ting digi­tal edu­ca­ti­on methods into a poli­ti­cal agen­da is the mat­ter for the future and the­re­fo­re requi­res immedia­te attention.

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