March 22, 2018

​A Phillips Academy classroom goes abroad

PA faculty are partnering with SYA to pilot a hybrid calculus course to students in Spain—and feedback is encouraging
by Jenny Barker

Recently Ellis Clark, a senior at St. Paul’s School who is currently studying abroad with SYA in Zaragoza, Spain, met up with Matt Lisa, Tang fellow and math instructor at Phillips Academy, for an extra help session. The outcome of the conversation was similar to that of a traditional session in a teacher’s office, said Clark, in that he walked away with strategies to work through challenging problems and with extra resources to augment his learning. But the format was anything but typical.

Clark was seated in a bustling cafe in the heart of Zaragoza center when he placed headphones over his ears and clicked into his iPad to “Zoom” video conference into the help session with Lisa, who was at Andover.

“I was instantly transported to the other side of the ocean, into an Andover classroom, with a teacher I know, who was ready to help me and guide me through materials,” said Clark during a video conference from his host parents’ home in Spain.

Tapping the Potential of Online Learning

During the past few years, Phillips Academy has been exploring the potential for online and hybrid learning activities to complement traditional learning experiences across various disciplines and audiences. Three hybrid courses launched in partnership with Andover Summer Session 2017; another set will run this summer.

It is exciting to see our commitment to non sibi thrive online, while we also consider the role of online resources in our own curriculum.

John G. Palfrey Head of School, Phillips Academy

Students participating in the "hybrid" classroom experience in Zarazoga, Spain.

In the Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science Department, faculty members have been working, along with some help from students, to curate and create online materials for high-school level courses. In recent years, they have developed online resources in AP Calculus and AP Statistics for Khan Academy that were key parts of an AP learning platform that College Board and Khan Academy rolled out to their millions of online learners. Andover teachers have also used portions of these materials in the context of their classrooms and  in-person teaching.

“We’ve really begun moving away from using a textbook in many of our own classes and instead use a lot of our online materials as we develop course curricula,” said Lisa.

As Andover considered additional opportunities to develop  high-impact, hybrid learning experiences, a partnership with SYA presented an exciting model for piloting and assessing a full, hybrid program in math, with potential to benefit students from various schools. Eleven students from PA and other independent and public schools were enrolled in the SYA program and ready for some form of Calculus instruction.

"I have a strong belief that courses like this really have the ability to change the way students experience education moving forward," said Clark. "I don’t know how much these changes will affect me. But when I have my own kids these courses could be common place and normal. Being able to test drive something like this is exciting. Andover is clearly a force in the future of education."

Designing the Hybrid Experience

The idea for the hybrid experience quickly developed into reality, together with planning partners at SYA, including Aric Visser, Head of Schools and Programs at School Year Abroad. Lisa began teaching  the class in fall 2017, using the same online materials as he had used with PA students on campus. His aim, throughout the full-year course, has been to replicate the Andover experience as much as possible.

Instead of standing physically in front of the class, however, Lisa is seated in a room in Andover’s Polk-Lillard Center with a white board and a camera. The classroom in Spain has two, large screens: one displaying Lisa and another displaying online materials. Through Zoom video conferencing Lisa is able to screen-share documents from his computer, just like he would with Andover students. He has also created online “breakout rooms,” in which students, broken up into teams of three, can ask him direct questions. Similar to an on-campus, Andover experience, students collaborate on classroom work and provide peer support as they advance their understanding of calculus. Will Orben, an instructor in mathematics at PA, currently on sabbatical and serving as a math teacher at SYA and a collaborator on this project, is in the room to offer further guidance and support.

For homework assignments, students scan and submit their completed work through their phones, and Lisa then uses a stylus to mark up their work with detailed feedback. Lisa also designed an online discussion board for the class on Canvas, so that outside of class kids can post questions and help answer their classmates’ questions.

“Students are given access to various resources and are getting extremely timely feedback--lots of it,” said Lisa. “Even more than they might in a traditional class.”

For extra help sessions, Lisa offers online conference periods, similar to how he offers regular conferences to Andover students. He has carved out 45 minutes, four times a week in his schedule and encourages students to make appointments with him. Lisa has also traveled to Spain to meet with his students in person twice so far this year, which he said has helped grow the relationship.

Overall in surveys and through direct feedback, Lisa’s students have responded favorably to the new format.

“This is definitely a format that allows everyone to work at his or her own speed but find a common goal in time for assessments,” said Clark. “We are also empowered to take control of our own learning, using our online community and readily available resources. I feel sometimes like I am learning more through this hybrid class, even with our teacher six thousand miles away, than in a traditional school setting with so much else going on.”  


Key Components of the Pilot

  • In-person connection: Lisa’s visit to Spain enabled him to develop a deeper relationship with the kids.
  • On-the-ground help: Lisa has the benefit of a collaborator in Spain, his colleague Will Orben, who works with the kids in-person.
  • Support team: A flexible and knowledgeable support team at PA--including Eric Roland of the Tang Institute; Educational Initiatives Director Erin McCloskey and Instructional Design Lead Jen Dick; and a technology team--were on hand to troubleshoot, buy and ship equipment, and help build the curriculum, among other work.


Good Teaching

Asked about future iterations, Lisa says he is involved in conversations about developing additional versions of these materials, for use in PA’s mathematics curriculum and elsewhere, along with a team comprised of members of the Tang Institute and Educational Initiatives Director Erin McCloskey and Instructional Design Lead Jen Dick, who have served as key design and support resources for Lisa.  

At home, in his courses on campus, Lisa and faculty colleagues, including the Department Chair, are also thinking through new ways to bring some of these approaches and learning into the Andover student experience.

“Good instruction that will help kids is just simply good teaching,” said Bill Scott. “And in the end this is just good teaching. Why wouldn’t we do all of this at Andover too?”

Developing a Framework

In collaboration with the Educational Initiatives team, Lisa is developing student-user stories to illuminate how students are responding to the hybrid course and turning his notes into one possible framework for how to collect homework, give feedback, and maximize Khan Academy tools.

“The lessons gleaned from the SYA-Tang partnership provide an exciting entryway into the next stage of design, development, and growth for the course and for hybrid teaching and learning efforts more generally, while also informing and complementing the work of colleagues in math and other areas,” said Eric Roland, Director of Precourt Partnerships at the Institute.

Lisa is engaging with others on campus who are also exploring and developing online content resources that could serve various purposes at PA and in school communities that are unable to provide certain offerings. Other potential student audiences, says Lisa, include athletes when they are on the road for games.  

Our ultimate goal in this work, is to deliver a quality Andover course to students who can benefit, in a format that’s extremely flexible and accessible.

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