Jeff Stewart is the District Principal of Distributed Learning, Comox Valley School District, in Vancouver Island, BC. He is blazing the trail for innovative K-12 blended learning.
It was Jeff Stewart’s first year as principal of the brand new Navigate school in British Columbia, and things weren’t going well. With a cutting edge design using elements of distance education, project-based learning, and personalized instruction, and a staff of early-adopter teachers, expectations were high but the school was spiraling out of control. Everyone had big expectations for the program but nobody agreed what they should be. The teachers in the program held onto the philosophies because it promised something new but weren’t great collaborators and used to the demands. “Teachers and parents were unhappy but we plowed through it and we moved on to the second year. In the second year, we had new teachers who held onto the philosophies but started collaborating better with the Fine Arts Academy.”
Navigating Beyond Brick and Mortar
Jeff Stewart is currently a Principal at Navigate Nides on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Jeff has past experience as an elementary, middle and high school principal but he was getting tired of the traditional scenario of a brick and mortar school system. He knew the limitations and that it needed innovation badly. Jeff was working as an elementary principal when the opportunity to become part of Navigate arrived. His past experience as a principal works well with the K-12 atmosphere being offered at Navigate. He embraced the challenge because it was a time in education when it was going places and moving into new forms of learning. He found himself there at the right place and the right time bringing in all of his skillsets to be able to connect with technology and start making a difference. He embraced, distributed and blended learning and realized for the first time he could play with time and space in ways he hadn’t thought of before. It coincided with his province wanting to have innovation in education and didn’t have a set a strict rules and guidelines to follow. Jeff had confidence is the idea and the direction Navigate was going and knew that it was going to have successes and failures. “When you try to innovate it gets messy. There is no playbook when you are sailing way off course, and innovation is worth it when students are thriving.”
It Was Just Magic
We have four learning cycles a year. The celebration for 2015 was called the Festival of Colour. Our gymnasium was transformed into a gallery with stages where student art was everywhere and the students ran the entire assembly. It was so well-choreographed and kids knew their roles and places. It was a magical moment when the students danced around their parents and everything was coming together. I said to the teachers last year we needed more dance in the program. They paid me back because the parents and community were getting up and dancing. It was just magic.
Everyone Has a Unique Brain
Distributed Learning is a platform for students online and to some degree face to face. Navigate has a platform where students can access their course anywhere, anytime and at any pace. Students with mental or physical reasons use distributed learning as their only choice; some students are homeschooled and want the parental involvement. Navigate’s mission is “to support successful learning by providing student-centered, teacher-directed, distributed learning service through the use of diverse technologies and community partnerships.” They focus on community, personalization and innovation as their three main values. Their philosophy is to empower students to learn in their own ways, at their own pace and the best style that fits their lifestyle and learning needs. Navigate also provides guidance, resources and one-on-one support to help their students succeed. The Fine Arts eCademy and The eCademy of New Technology Engineering and Robotics (ENTER) programs follow the 21st Century Learning Theory that each child learns in his or her own way. The Fine Arts eCademy and ENTER students receive three days a week of instruction and two days of distributed learning from home. Navigate realizes every student has a unique brain. Their goal is to be able to teach to that understanding that everyone is unique and has a different way of learning.
A Deep Sense of Community
We try to overcome challenges associated with online learning through technology. We use Blackboard Collaborate for a lot of weekly meetings with parents. Teachers will have a meeting once a week for an hour using Skype or other technologies and make that connection with the students. We also have a lot of community gatherings and social events supervised by parents that draw students together. They really try to create a sense of community. “The advantage of our school is that we have a deep sense of community whether in the three-day or one-day face to face programs.”
Navigate Skills Go Above and Beyond
Students who have graduated from Navigate programs have strong skill sets of self-organization, self-scheduling, self-management, time management and self-regulation. They are able to engage with the curriculum and find not only their parents as resources, but also their community. Community resources help them answer the questions in ways that typically students at a brick and mortar school aren’t exposed to and challenged by.
Embrace the Mess
An important skill set for people involved in the Educational Technology Field is the ability to embrace the mess that comes with innovation. Teachers who are early adopters aren’t fazed by the nature of the platform. They are looking for deep collaboration, use of technology, and they are focused on developing rich relationships with the families. It takes a lot of patience on behalf of the teacher and willingness to focus on the needs of the individual child in what that you don’t typically see.