Digital Learning Annual Conference 2024

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by Kevin J. Gray, President

Last week (February 26-28, 2024) the Digital Learning Collaborative hosted DLAC in Austin, TX. Now in its sixth year, this annual gathering of online and hybrid schools, school groups, and suppliers continues to evolve to meet the needs of students not served by traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Student engagement was a major topic this year. Online students do not have the same opportunities to engage with others in the liminal spaces during the school day—such as talking as they walk between classes or dropping by a teacher’s room in the morning before school. Yet, I met several educators who were charged with creating alternative methods for students to connect. For instance, a panel hosted by online school provider Stride, Inc. titled “Connecting Beyond The Screen” provided best practices for engaging students through family outreach and extra-curricular programs.

Connecting students and connecting to students in authentic ways extends into the classroom as well. I attended multiple sessions that demonstrated how culturally responsive teaching methods engaged learners in a given topic and worked to create online communities where students felt seen and recognized. Of particular interest was a session from Northern Star Online that discussed how AI policy relates to culturally responsive teaching and engagement.

Similarly, there were several sessions on best practices in Project-Based Learning (PBL) and how it, too, can be a catalyst for students’ connection to the content and to one another. Educators from Deeper Learning Virtual Academy provided case studies and lessons learned in developing PBL targeted at elementary, middle, and high school students.

This year’s conference also included an emphasis on international schools. Tuesday morning’s Private/International Digital Learning Symposium focused on identifying common skills, knowledge, and mindsets that all students, regardless of geography, will need to be successful. In several breakout sessions with luminaries from leading international programs, we discussed regional differences in culture and accessibility and how these relate to the aforementioned traits of a 21st century learner.

Finally, as the father of several International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme students and as the head of an organization that develops materials for IB PYP, MYP, and DP courses, I was particularly interested in the sessions around the online IB Diploma Programme pilot. Launched two years ago by the IB in conjunction with Dwight Global and King’s InterHigh, the program will see its first year of graduates this May. It was interesting to see the rigor and intentionality of the IB DP, traditionally a brick-and-mortar program, translated into the online realm, and it was encouraging to learn that this pilot is extending to a total of seven schools around the world next year.

Westchester has developed programs for both online school providers and online schools themselves, so this conference was also a great chance to catch up with clients and see how they were marketing the work we’ve built for them. With about 1800 attendees, I made quite a few new connections, but the show was small enough that it was possible to have involved conversations without rushing off to the next meeting. We look forward to being in Atlanta for the conference’s 7th iteration next year.

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