By Jennifer Neville, Of The Catholic Virginian

A pilot distance-learning course between Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School in Virginia Beach and St. Pius X Catholic School in Norfolk is paving the way for new methods of instruction, and that road to innovation is “awesome,” according to the high school’s assistant principal Daniel Miani.

St. Pius X School, which teaches children from pre-K to eighth grade, piloted the program with the high school in January when Mr. Miani taught ten eighth-grade students the statistics unit of their algebra class without ever leaving his school.

Each morning for nine school days, the students gathered in their classroom at St. Pius X, donned their headsets and called into Bishop Sullivan with their computer devices for a 45-minute virtual class. They could see and hear Mr. Miani, and he could see and hear them, allowing them to ask questions and to see examples as he wrote them on a white board. It was a trial run of Connecting Crusaders, a program that will allow Bishop Sullivan teachers to teach Catholic middle-school students high-school curriculum without ever having to travel, Mr. Miani said.

St. Pius X eighth-grade math teacher Sheila Weidman said the students’ “eyes lit up” at the practice session, and the students remained enthusiastic throughout the course.

Student evaluations attested to that.

“What I like about distance learning is that we’re learning brand new lessons in a fun yet informational way,” Maggie wrote in her mid-course evaluation. “It’s a chance for us to experience different ways of learning with a different teacher that teaches in a different way we’re used to, in a good way.”

“Plus I think it was awesome to tell my older brother that I was doing the same math as him,” she confided in her end-of-session evaluation.

Because the virtual statistics class was a pilot, the students could choose which computer device they wanted to use – a laptop, Chromebook or tablet. The stipulation was they had to have both a camera and a microphone. Mr. Miani said the Chromebooks worked best and were the most cost effective and headsets with microphones worked better than computer devices with built-in microphones. He also learned that having a teacher actually conduct classes through distance learning is more fulfilling and effective than just having the students take an online class.

“I was able to teach the material while the students were able to take notes and ask questions in the same manner as if we were face-to-face,” Mr. Miani said. “Since the students were on individual devices with individual headsets and microphones, the experience was essentially a virtual one-on-one lesson.”

The high school provided each of the students and Ms. Weidman with myCRU accounts, the high school’s learning management system. With myCRU accounts, the students were able to access course materials, complete homework, complete digital assignments, and access grades. Those grades will be averaged in with their other math grades for the second trimester.

“To be honest, it was scary at first, but then I got used to it, and it was really fun,” Rachel wrote in her evaluation.

Mr. Miani described the experience as “nothing less than exceptional.”

“I learned that if you have a group of students who are willing to learn, you can teach anything anywhere,” Mr. Miani said.

Teaching virtual classes to schools in the diocese is just the tip of the iceberg, administrators and teachers at the diocese and local levels say. To eliminate travel time and expenses, some of the centers are already being used for teacher and curriculum development, and clergy have had virtual meetings as well. March 22 Bishop Sullivan High School will use its center to host speaker Rebecca Baelen, a doctoral student in education policy at the University Pennsylvania whose research focuses on the role and impact of mindfulness-based interventions on teachers and students. This presentation for Bishop Sullivan teachers will cost about a fourth of what it would cost to have her present in person because the school doesn’t have to pay any travel expenses.

Other possible uses of the centers are to offer high school and college courses in Catholic schools in the diocese and to allow teachers to partner with educators across the country and globe to give students a broader perspective on a subject or to give students the opportunity to do group work with students internationally, according to Ray Honeycutt, Superintendent of the Office of Catholic Schools.