NC Virtual Public School offers remote learning tools, webinars and more to help students, educators

As schools across the country shift to virtual learning, the staff at the North Carolina Virtual Public School is using its experience with distance learning to help ease the transition for students, parents and educators. Resources like webinars, online classes, peer tutoring, and virtual office hours can help answer questions and fill in gaps left by school closures.

Posted Updated
Abbey Slattery
, WRAL Digital Solutions
This article was written for our sponsor, the North Carolina Virtual Public School.

These days, the typical classroom looks different than usual. With closures caused by COVID-19, schools have pivoted their operations to the online world, and many institutions are adjusting to virtual learning for perhaps the first time.

At the North Carolina Virtual Public School, however, online learning is nothing new. The program offers online classes for students who attend schools all across the state, and in doing so, they're able to fill in holes in the curriculum, providing students with access to classes they might not otherwise have.

Now, with a number of students struggling with or missing classes due to the pandemic, NCVPS aims to help them catch up and stay on track, all while providing a personalized learning experience. Online learning does, however, come with plenty of challenges. Through their multifaceted resources, the NCVPS staff hopes to be fully equipped to address each student's needs.

One such resource is its nationally recognized Peer Tutoring Center.

"It's a pool of about 75-plus former and current NCVPS students," said Elizabeth Seastrunk, an NCVPS teacher and one of four of the center's instructional leaders. "They have to have taken at least one online course through us, and their teacher has to recommend them. It's nice, because it's peers that are helping fellow peers. Instead of a student who might be intimidated to go to their teacher or an adult, they may feel more comfortable approaching and asking questions of a student."

Operated through a platform called Upswing, peer tutoring is available for course-work help in all NCVPS courses, but the PTC encompasses more than just tutoring. Through the Virtual Buddy Program, students can sign up for a one-on-one tutor to help coach them on soft skills like time management and focus; the writing center is staffed with tutors who not only offer feedback on papers but also coaching on resumes and cover letters; and the College Readiness Service provides online seminars and study tips for students gearing up for standardized tests and college applications.

For Seastrunk, the success of the PTC is all thanks to the initiative of the tutors.

"These additional programs that have come out of the Peer Tutoring Center are not created by the instructional leaders. These are tutors coming to us and saying, 'Hey, I see a need for this.' It's fun to see how you can empower them to take off running and pursue whatever their idea might be," Seastrunk said. "We also have a Tutor Talk blog that was started by a tutor and is now maintained totally by tutors. I oversee it, and I make sure they're meeting their deadlines, but I don't do anything beyond that. It is self-run. With so many of these programs, we get out of their way and just support them and let them go with it."

Since NCVPS has been ahead of the remote learning curve for a while now, it's started using the tools and resources it's cultivated to help other schools who have been forced to make the pivot to virtual learning.

In particular, their "Face-to-Face: Your Transition to Virtual Learning" webinar series has exploded in popularity over the past few months.

"We had planned for two webinars, and we thought that would be a real boost for teachers new to remote learning," said Mia Murphy, the chief operating officer at NCVPS. "Then I saw the numbers for registrants, and I was like, 'Guys we're at 300. OK, what are we going to do?' So we decided to offer five instead of two, and I don't think we had any session that had less than 600 registrants. Now people tell us we are their go-to on how to do this. They look forward to the webinars and have developed relationships with our presenters — which right now, our presenters are primarily our teachers. These are experienced, online teachers, but they were new to this once, too. They know what it's like trying to figure things out, taking it step-by-step, doing right by the kids and finding balance, and that's one of the reassuring and calming aspects of it."

Since the webinars have been wildly successful — and schools likely won't be returning to normal sessions anytime soon — the staff at NCVPS plans to continue offering them through the month of May. Some webinars have even reached more than 1,000 participants at one time, largely because the information they're offering is so timely and valuable not only to other educators but also to parents and students.

"Everyone's attempting live sessions with students, but do you know what you're doing?" Murphy asked. "We, just last week, had two great webinars on how to conduct live sessions. What are some tools? What are some best practices? What are some easy and engaging methods? Some of our biggest webinars have been about content like social studies, art and world languages, which, how do you teach a language online? We also had P.E. online, and I think every P.E. teacher that could, went to that."

"We knew that we had a body of knowledge and expertise, so it's been a process of figuring out the best way to share it," she finished. "The webinars were very organic in the beginning, and now they have evolved into a really sought-after program."

In addition to their online class offerings and webinars, the instructors at NCVPS also provide office hours, where other teachers can attend and ask any questions on their mind. Originally, office hours were capped at 160 people, but due to the increased demand, that number was raised to 300. Eight sessions are offered per week, each covering a different subject ranging from how to operate virtual tools like various online meeting platforms to best practices for creating virtual lessons.

"We have multiple repeat teachers who are going to different sessions, and that alone just speaks volumes of the volume," Seastrunk said. "Teachers don't go where they don't find value unless they're forced to because there's nothing worse than going to a professional development webinar, spending an extended amount of time there, and coming out with nothing. We've taken the tools that we've found effective in our own classrooms, and we show them that there is quality content out there that they can pull from. The main thing for us is showing teachers the effectiveness of those tools and how to use them with their students, instead of just throwing out a gimmick."

"We've been teaching online since 2007, so there's a track record there — we have, over the years, investigated and learned and researched what works," she finished. "If other teachers will go to the website, ask questions, come to the webinars and the office hour sessions, and learn from the ones that have already been in the trenches, I think it'll make their transition just a little bit smoother."

This article was written for our sponsor, the North Carolina Virtual Public School.

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