No Art History? No Problem: High Schools Share Courses with the Jesuit Virtual Learning Academy

by Elspeth Green

Jesuit Virtual Learning Academy Can you describe what the Jesuit Virtual Learning Academy (JVLA) does and talk about your involvement in it?

Jeff Hausman: There's a network of 59 Jesuit secondary schools around the U.S., and a little over 700 around the world. We've created the JVLA infrastructure to harness collaborative capacity around the network. It's designed to focus on three things. One is credit-bearing coursework that may not be available in a traditional school if there's not enough student interest or no appropriate teacher in the area. We're not doing courses every school has like Algebra I or Biology. Instead, we've got things like AP Art History and AP Music Theory, things that are more specialized and unique.

The second part of JVLA is professional development for our faculty. We have a really unique program for that. Being online enables us to take a three or 4-day conference experience and stretch it out over a period of weeks. We use that time to connect more deeply and give educators opportunities to experiment with more tools. That leads to a better outcome.

The third piece of our program is building the technological infrastructure to start connecting folks, giving our teachers the opportunity to work with their colleagues at other Jesuit schools. The infrastructure is built around four core academies - Science, Technology, Engineering & Math, Faith & Philosophy, World Studies, and Arts & Letters. So there's a home for teachers to engage in activities working on common projects and vetting content while they're connected to resources within those communities. It's sort of a central network for teachers.

JH: Exactly, and beyond that there's more of a formal professional development level. We have actual courses. Educators enroll in them, work on them beginning to end, and then they're taken back into the community where they can share what they've learned. Is it similar for students?

JH: The students have more traditional courses using a learning management systems (LMS) like they'd experience at a university. The courses are teacher-led but much of the student work is done asynchronously. Still, we want to build a community, we want people to engage in conversations, and the mechanisms are in place to do that. We place a significant amount of value on the concepts of community and sharing. You mentioned a large network of international Jesuit schools. Do you have any plans to extend the Learning Academy?

JH:Connecting with our international schools is a priority, and we've dabbled in that in some very small ways. We don't want to impose our model on international schools. Rather, we want to be able to take our experiences and share what we've learned, recognizing that our model may not wholly meet the needs of many of these schools. Do you feel that getting people to sign on to the JVLA has been your biggest challenge?

JH: The hardest part is getting people to think differently. What they see right now is a world in flux. They're not sure what they need to be doing which has led many to tread very lightly particularly around new technology. I think we're now coming out of that a bit and people are getting a little more comfortable with some of the technology that's been added in. So our approach has been to use tools that have reached their point of maturity, where most people are using them already; they're not 'flash-in-the-pan'-type things. I don't want to cast aspersions on our leaders, because they are tremendous. It's simply like any business adoption cycle. You have your early adapters and you have to persist through that cavern. I think we're getting close. What's the most rewarding part of your experience?

JH: I think it's about what's happening for teachers. With technology in schools 15 years ago, there wasn't a lot of content or educational tools available so teachers couldn't find much value. Now we have the opposite problem; there's so much that it's really hard for teachers to engage with it. The beautiful thing about our network and our mission is being able to figure that out together. It's fabulous work.

As a starting point, we're introducing a core set of simple tools that are low-cost or free; and we'll help teachers learn how to use them. We want to enable our teachers to take small risks, and we give them the space to do that. Sometimes that's all it takes. And teachers give their students permission to introduce some things too. It's a completely new thought process and it's really neat.

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