Imagine going from classroom to classroom through an entire day without leaving the couch.

As the new school year begins, kids are now well-versed in virtual learning, but new technology will provide virtual learners in the Mitchell School District with a bit more structure.

Rather than teachers posting lessons online for students to review at their leisure, each Mitchell classroom will livestream lessons for students to watch in real time. When one class ends, they click on the link for their next class just as if they were attending school in person.

After experimenting for the last few years, Mitchell purchased Swivl technology for each classroom in the district. Teachers wear an electronic device around their necks, which allows a tablet mounted on a Swivl hub to follow them around the classroom.

“We want students to be working through their normal school day,” Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves said. “If first period begins at 8:15 a.m., they should be at their computer, watching that lesson live. In elementary, you may have your reading period and then it breaks off when the students go out for recess. At the middle school and high school, it’s much simpler.”

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Roughly five years ago, Mitchell High School Principal Joe Childs stumbled across Swivl while doing research for his specialist degree. He purchased one for his own work through the University of South Dakota, enjoyed it and purchased some for veteran high school math, science and English teachers.

Mitchell has since used them for athletes that missed classes due to an away sporting event, allowing them to view the lesson first-hand rather than finding notes from a classmate.

It also came in handy when a teacher was absent. Rather than preparing a lesson plan for a substitute, the teacher could record a lesson or use one that was recorded from a previous year. In certain cases for older high school classes, Mitchell did not have to hire a substitute in such an event. Instead, kids were dismissed to the library to watch the lesson online.

“It was easy to use, it wasn’t extra work or a burden on them,” Childs said. “Students that needed a little extra help when they got home could go back and watch the video or they could watch it on a bus to and from golf or tennis. The feedback was very positive.”

The middle school eventually purchased a Swivl, as did both of the elementary schools, but it did not prove as effective as it did for high school teachers and students -- until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Gretchen Smith instructs her class while sharing the computer screen virtually with students who are learning from home in Smith's English Honors III class on Thursday at Mitchell High School. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Gretchen Smith instructs her class while sharing the computer screen virtually with students who are learning from home in Smith's English Honors III class on Thursday at Mitchell High School. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Shortly before the pandemic shut down schools, Childs was working with the state on a grant to purchase Swivl devices for “all but a handful” of high school classrooms. After the shutdown, Mitchell purchased devices district-wide for $756 apiece.

Each student and teacher can access video from the district’s Google Classroom Suite to view a lesson live for virtual learners -- Mitchell High School will have around 50 to begin the year -- or to listen to it again if needed.

“This is a tool that works now for the situation that we’re in, but it’s also just a great educational tool beyond this,” Childs said. “This isn’t a technology that’s just in place because of COVID, it just works well with the situation that we’re in. It will continue to pay enormous dividends beyond this.”

Exploring multiple platforms

Mitchell will not be the only school using virtual technology in classrooms.

Chamberlain Superintendent Justin Zajic, who was Mitchell Middle School's principal until being hired for the new role in February, says his new district will not only use Swivl, but a variety of other video-based systems.

While Chamberlain used some of those systems prior to Zajic’s arrival, each student from kindergarten through 12th grade will have a computer so they will have access to online content for the 2020-2021 school year.

Chamberlain, which is planning to have 10.3 percent of the district’s enrollment e-learning to begin the year, does have some Swivl devices, but it will also incorporate Elmo, which is comparable to a modern version of an overhead projector. It allows teachers and students to work on math equations or word problems and it can then be uploaded to YouTube.

“It has more functionality than Swivl, but it also has less, because you can’t record the whole room at once,” Zajic said. “You can move the Elmo camera up to capture the classroom, but it does not follow you around.”

Like Mitchell, Chamberlain will have live virtual lessons, but it will depend on the age of the student.

Zajic says it is unreasonable to think an elementary school child would be able to sit in front of the computer for the duration of a school day, so lessons will be posted online. It also allows for those students that may need assistance to work on lessons when their parents return home from work.

Middle school and high school students, however, will be expected to answer questions and participate in discussions, and once the period is finished, they move on to the next digital classroom. Such a decision came from a poll the school took from parents, who express a desire for their children to continue to learn in a structured environment, even if it was not in school.

“Very much at the middle school and high school levels, parents wanted students to be accountable for every period,” Zajic said. “They wanted them to have that set schedule. We found last year that without that set schedule, kids just put it off and put if off and pretty soon they’re so far behind, they don’t know where to start.”

Adapting to virtual obstacles

It may be easy to envision a student participating in a math or English class from home, but what about interactive subjects like physical education?

Mitchell Middle School personal health and wellness teacher Cheryl Miller does not conduct a typical gym class. In fact, she had been dabbling in Swivl for a few years prior to COVID-19. When Zajic purchased a few Swivl devices for Mitchell Middle School during his tenure, Miller was immediately intrigued by the prospect of diversifying her classes.

Initially, Miller used it to teach American Red Cross CPR to her eighth-graders and it required them to complete each step in succession. So, she would record her classes for students that may have missed a class in order for them to keep pace.

“I would record that information that day in class, download it to the Swivl library and it generates a link,” Miller said. “I would send that link to my student that was gone in an email and tell them to watch the video. So, when they would come back to class, they would already be caught up. It’s a great tool.”

This year, Miller intends to spend as much time outdoors as possible during instructional time through October, but she still has a plan for virtual learners.

Outdoor activities will not be recorded live, but instructions on how to do each activity will be recorded and uploaded online. Some classes will have a cycling unit -- livestreamed instructions at the beginning of a lesson -- with a certain expected distance and they will take a photo of a landmark on their route to send to Miller.

If a virtual learner does not have access to equipment used during the class, Miller has alternative options for them to meet the requirements for class.

Students are required to complete 30 minutes of physical activity per day, which could be walking a dog or playing basketball in the driveway. Like Miller, the students will have to be creative and adapt to the situation.

“Since (COVID-19) began last March, it has encouraged me to go out and learn new and different ways to teach,” Miller said. “I still have to do my job, regardless of the situation we’re in as a society. I started watching webinars all summer and reading and reaching out to people to find the best teaching practices available. Is it nerve-racking? Yes. But can we, as educators, do this? Absolutely.”