When the Coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, many professional learning courses across the nation came to a screeching halt. But after some planning and pivoting, many learning opportunities reconvened using an online or “virtual” approach to teaching participants.

At Heartland AEA, this was the reality for many professional learning activities. Instructors who were used to teaching face-to-face courses quickly became versed in virtual teaching methods and became fast friends with the Zoom video conferencing tool.

One of the courses that took on a virtual transformation was the Agency’s Substitute Authorization or “Sub Auth” course, which provides individuals with the knowledge they need to be a substitute teacher. With the pandemic, different requirements were put in place for substitute teachers in order to draw more people to the pool of subs during a time when districts need more hands on deck. This change in requirements and transition to virtual learning has meant more interest in the Sub Auth courses from individuals all over the state.

Image of Nichole Coe & Mark CradyNichole Coe, Professional Learning & Leadership Consultant, and Mark Crady, Coordinator of C4K Training Cadre, have been the friendly faces in the Zoom grid teaching the Sub Auth course. Since May 2020, they have spent over 500 hours teaching the online Sub Auth course to 28 sections which included 910 participants. By the time they hit the one-year mark of teaching virtual Sub Auth courses, they will have relayed the ins and outs of how to be a substitute teacher to over 1,000 eager minds.

Nichole and Mark answered some questions about what the transition to online teaching has been like over the past rollercoaster of a year.

Can you describe how the substitute authorization course transitioned to virtual delivery?

Nichole: In May 2020, I met with Sue Ford (retired Professional Learning & Leadership Consultant, whose position Nichole was moving into), and we planned how to do the course all online. I took advanced Zoom trainings to learn how to make the online learning interactive and what tools worked best using Zoom. Beginning in June, we offered the course twice to a small group of participants, where Sue and I would team teach via Zoom, and I would ensure the participants could access the materials online. In July, I taught the class independently to a small group of participants and realized that in order to meet the demand, I needed to increase my offerings and class size; however, this was difficult to do independently.

How did you work together to design a course that could be taught completely online?

Nichole: In August 2020, Mark began assisting me in delivering the materials and problem solving how to streamline the process of disseminating the course materials, as the course was in high demand. Following a Professional Learning & Leadership Consultant (PLLC) meeting in August, I created a virtual classroom and adjusted how we would share information with the participants. Mark and I continued to adjust how to make the course interactive while teaching online with larger classes and participants from all across Iowa.

Nichole, what was it like to begin a new position during a pandemic and to begin teaching virtually?

Nichole: It has been a steep learning curve to learn the material and learn how to teach via Zoom to participants across the state, both at the same time. I took additional courses and reached out to other PLLCs within the Agency to learn from, while adapting the information to my unique clientele.

 Mark, how did you get involved?

Mark: Due to COVID, my statewide responsibilities with the AEA/DE system changed, and I had time in my schedule for another project. Dr. Sheldahl indicated to me that the Heartland AEA Professional Learning Office was seeking assistance due to the increased volume of substitute teacher trainings. Nichole and I had been in the same advanced leadership program at Drake; thus, I was aware of her strengths as a teacher and leader. The opportunity seemed perfect to allow me to utilize my past administrative experiences, learn more about the online learning process and work with an excellent training partner.

What is one positive about the course being all virtual? What is one downfall?

Mark: Offering this class virtually has allowed more working adults to participate, which translates into more substitute teachers available to support students in the classroom. Also being able to teach participants across the state has enhanced the learning for all participants.

Nichole: One downfall is the Internet connection and the availability of computers. Participants who take the class with iPads, Chromebooks, phones or tablets may experience a difficult time, and we are limited to how we can assist them through Zoom. However, it does provide us an opportunity to help them feel more comfortable with the technology experience.

What is the best part of teaching the Substitute Authorization course?

Nichole & Mark: We have really enhanced our online teaching skills. We quickly realized we had to think differently about the online experience and adjust how we interacted with participants, how we presented materials and how we met the needs of participants to work collaboratively with peers in a virtual classroom. At the end of each class, we ask for feedback on how to improve the experience, and we have been able to incorporate many of their suggestions into our current delivery model.

Going forward, do you see a virtual course always being an option?

Nichole: We believe the online experience really works well for many people and hope that in the future both in-person and online will be available for participants.

What kind of comments have participants had about their virtual course experience?

Nichole: We have feedback from over 600 of our participants. Many of their comments have both informed us and left us glowing by their support of the class. Here are a few recent responses:

“You guys are so personable and really engaging, and it makes me want to be more involved and excited about the class and my future. I LOVE the Zoom room with all the links, documents, etc. I’ve never seen it done that way, and it has really made a great impression.”

“I usually don’t enjoy group work but all the breakouts I was involved with were so kind and supportive, and I really believe that’s a testament to the teaching and leadership model you provide.”

“I was nervous at first using the online format, but Mark and Nichole made me feel at ease immediately.”

“You two are great! I loved the atmosphere you created. We may be separated by distance but that didn’t keep us separated from the knowledge!”


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