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#RethinkSchool: Family Relationship Opened Door to “Synchronous Learning” Between Colorado Schools

“When I was a student at Arickaree High School, we didn’t have a clue as to what was going on in the real world,” said Gregg Cannady, who today heads collaborations and concepts development at STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado, about 100 miles from his former high school in Anton. That was in the 1970s. “I went to college and found out I was totally unprepared,” Cannady said. “I really didn’t understand any career that wasn’t something that I’d not seen out on the farm.”

You might think that in the 21st century, things would be different in rural education from when Cannady was in high school. But, according to Cannady, a music teacher with 30 years of experience, engaged, job-related education is still lacking in parts of rural America.

When Cannady took his education positon at STEM School in Highlands Ranch, it was to create a music program. But Principal Penny Eucker and the Nathan Yip Foundation, a sponsor, urged Cannady to do something also for the state’s rural students.

A photo of eighth-graders from STEM School Highlands Ranch (shown in the classroom) collaborating with rural students from Arickaree High School (shown on large video monitors) using 3D creation in computer science.

Eighth-graders from STEM School Highlands Ranch (shown in the classroom) collaborate with rural students from Arickaree High School (shown on the video monitors) using 3D creation in computer science. Sharing a lesson on a room-sized screen brings the lesson to life in real time at both locations. (Photo credit: STEM School Highlands Ranch)

At the same time, Shane Walkinshaw, Arickaree School District superintendent, was looking for STEM opportunities for his district’s just over 100 students. It happened that the Walkinshaw family lease farmland from Cannady’s father. This family relationship led to conversations about greater opportunity for Arickaree students and was the start of the synchronous learning partnership between the two schools.

“Synchronous learning,” as Cannady explained, is “a two-way collaboration of engaged learning that guides students to real-world problems that they can solve together in real time.” The technology requirements are an internet connection and large viewing screens at each participating location so that, Skype-style, a teacher-facilitator and students at one location can interact in real time with students who are a great distance away.

As an example, Walkinshaw said, “Today we were working on a song together with a school in Mexico. Traditionally as a teacher, I would sit in front of the class and lay out everything we were going to do. But today I came in and asked the students questions like, ‘Where are we at in the process?’ And they got right into trying to perfect the song.”

A picture of high-school students at STEM School Highlands Ranch (shown in the classroom) and Arickaree High School (shown on a large video monitor) divided into small groups and challenged to build aqueducts like those built by the ancient Romans.

High-school students at STEM School Highlands Ranch (shown in the classroom) and Arickaree High School (shown on the video monitor) were divided into small groups and challenged to build aqueducts like those built by the ancient Romans. Each group’s model was judged on its ability to carry cups of water over the longer distance. (Photo credit: STEM School Highlands Ranch)

Synchronous learning is different from online learning. Cannady calls online learning “the talking head” with teachers talking at students. “[Arickaree] Superintendent Walkinshaw told me,” Cannady said, “it’s not engaged learning. So it’s not synchronous, meaning real-time interactions student to student.”

Neither Cannady nor Walkinshaw is suggesting that synchronous learning should, or even could, replace human relationships. Rather, synchronous learning is “our next-best thing to being there. The first thing we did with Arickaree is we went there; we tried to build relationships. You go meet them in person,” Cannady said.

Looking ahead, Cannady said that the global learning crisis people talk about is real, and the need for action is now. He drew an analogy from his childhood. “Being raised on a farm, you feed the cattle. We didn’t talk about feeding cows. We didn’t write a book on how to feed cows, whether we should feed cows or not feed cows,” Cannady said. “When the cows were hungry, we fed the cows. These kids need us right now. It’s time to stop writing the manual on what to do ‘if.’ It’s time to just do it.”


Joe Barison is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Outreach.

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Note: This is a post in our #RethinkSchool series. The series features innovative schools and stories from students, parents and educators highlighting efforts across the United States to rethink school. Check back on Thursdays for new posts in the series. The #RethinkSchool series presents examples of approaches schools, educators, families and others are using to rethink school in their individual and unique circumstances. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. The Department of Education does not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

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