Online learning at WDMCS is ‘just another venue’ to better prepare students for the future
As online learning coordinator for the West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS), Carrie Jacobs’ No. 1 goal is preparing students for whatever comes next in life.
Through collecting and researching data on online learning, she knows today’s students will have some type of online learning experience beyond high school. Whether it’s on-the-job training or completing coursework in college, students will need to know how to learn online. About 33 percent of college students are taking at least one course online, according to a 2018 survey by the Babson Survey Research Group. Last year, 41.8 percent of the enrolled student body in Iowa took at least one course online.
“What better way to learn online than in school right now, where it’s free? If students take that online course in college and don’t know how to learn online, it’s a really expensive failure if they don’t get through it or if they’re struggling,” Jacobs said. “It’s just another venue for us as teachers and as K-12 institutions to better prepare them.”
Watch: Get to know Carrie Jacobs
Jacobs was part of the first WDMCS Online Learning Committee in 2014, which explores and expands online learning options for students in the district. At the time, WDMCS had offered “blended” courses—a combination of face-to-face instruction, digital online instruction, and individualized one-on-one time. And last school year for grades 9-12, WDMCS provided its highest number of online learning opportunities: two courses at Valley Southwoods Freshman High School and nine at Valley High School.
But Jacobs said fewer blended courses are being offered this year in response to students’ desires.
“Once we started trying the blended courses, it’s not what students were wanting. Students are wanting fully online,” she explained. “Students—especially younger students—are wanting that advanced route. They want to be able to get high school credits when they’re maxed out of their elementary standards.” Jacobs used math as an example, where students needing to take pre-algebra or algebra in the past were bused to the school or used Edgenuity. Now, they are able to take it online, forming a relationship with the teacher for feedback teacher and saving the district on busing costs.
Additionally, Jacobs said students are opting for homeschooling and online learning due to a variety of reasons, like health and family situations.
“We’re losing those kids to open enrollment, and that’s where the push to develop these fully online courses came about,” Jacobs said. “We hope to better serve all students and the population that needs something different than the traditional, sit-in-the-classroom way of doing things.”
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In September, WDMCS announced a partnership with the city of West Des Moines, Microsoft, and T-Mobile, where mifis—portable wireless devices for internet access—were provided to about 200 low-income Hillside Elementary School students. The partnership is part of a larger initiative with the city and Microsoft to address broadband accessibility and affordability for students and residents in the Valley Junction neighborhood.
Jacobs hopes WDMCS continues that process, eventually being able to provide resources for all students at all schools. Over the past few years, she’s compiled a comprehensive list for students and families outlining all of the local businesses, restaurants, libraries, and other places in the area that have free Wi-Fi.
Until then, how can students overcome obstacles when completing internet-based tasks away from school? That’s where Canvas, the district’s official learning management system, comes in, Jacobs said.
“One of the reasons why we chose Canvas is that Canvas has an app, so if a student does have a smartphone, there is a Canvas app for students, parents, and teachers,” she explained. “Sometimes if a student might not have internet at home, they have a smartphone that they can do work from.”
Another hurdle is making sure students stay on track with their online coursework. Jacobs said online courses have the exact student-to-teacher ratio that WDMCS has in its current class offerings. The online courses will also be taken in either first or eighth periods.
“The teacher that teaches these online courses, they will have that period as their office hours so the student isn’t floundering on their own,” Jacobs said. “They have a teacher that is there and able to support and help.
“We’ve built in a lot of levels of support to help these students find success and support the teacher.”