John Ross was thinking about Viking history, not instructional design, when he toured with a Virginia Tech study abroad program, Northern Lights on the Saga Road in Iceland, during the week of March 8. But then, the group learned that all Virginia Tech classes would be moving online.

As Ross, who received his doctorate in curriculum and instruction in 1999 from what is now the Virginia Tech School of Education, processed this information, he realized that the trend would affect more than universities, but also K–12 schools. As an instructional design consultant and author, he knew his expertise could help others.

He assisted Jeff Mann and Jane Wemhoener, faculty members in the Virginia Tech Department of English and co-leaders of the study abroad program in Iceland, navigate getting the students home before international borders closed because of COVID-19 concerns. At the same time, Ross thought about ways to help the professors replicate their book-discussion-based course online. 

“John brought his expertise in education and technology to bear on our group of students, faculty, and friends in Iceland — and back again!” Wemhoener said. “John also began providing mini-tutorials for Jeff and me. We’re both in-person, on-the-ground teachers, and online instruction was ‘foreign,’ at best. But not any longer. John watched how we worked with our students, had us practice online connections, and was on hand for our early classes to ensure things went smoothly. He directs his skills at helping others do what they need and want to do, rather than what they think they must do; he’s a real educator.”

Also joining the tour group was Cynthia Burack, a professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State University. She is teaching a graduate-level course, and Ross helped her with tutorials on how to add audio to PowerPoint presentations, so her students could continue to do assigned presentations.

In addition, as a volunteer, Ross is co-leading an online session for Dell Technologies. As an independent contractor through Advanced Learning Partnerships Inc., he often works with Kendall Latham, an educational strategist for Dell. Together they do educational technology planning and implementation. 

Ross noted that the corporation is a large contributor of technology in schools, but it does not offer training. Instead, it uses professional developers, such as Ross, to train teachers and coaches. 

When the coronavirus pandemic began, Dell’s education department wanted to show how it could provide services to schools that others could replicate. It reached out to its education contractors to offer a series of free webinars. Ross agreed to help. He and Latham will focus on how to develop community online. 

“We want to ensure teachers don’t forget all those important social and emotional connections they need to make with students,” Ross said. This involves modeling certain behaviors because students act and react differently online than they do in person. Online class environments and expectations differ from how students engage in social environments such as TikTok, Snapchat, or Instagram. Teachers need to model proper online interactions with students.

“It’s not about focusing on the technologies, but on people,” Ross said. “It’s about the teachers’ comfort levels. Some already create class communities and circles involving group discussions offline, and they have protocols for doing that. We want to remind them to continue to do that in their online classes.” 

And then there is Ross’ passion project — advocating internet connectivity for all students, with a focus on rural areas that lack resources. Through his work with the Virginia Is for Learners Innovative Network, the instructional coaches in the network discussed areas of educational concerns and how they could each make a positive impact during the pandemic.

Ross concentrates on school divisions in Southwest Virginia, where he bases his home office. Although some schools are acquiring devices that students could use while out of the physical classroom, Ross knew the problem was larger. Many people in his area rely on internet connections through phones, if they have access at all. And even though some telecommunication companies offer low-cost connections, the rates may not be feasible during the pandemic.

“If you’re a family in poverty,” Ross said, “and you can’t afford to have two weeks of food stocked up, then you don’t have $9.95 for the internet.”

Although his quest is in its early stages, Ross is reaching out to local and state governments as well as telecommunication companies. He is also taking his message to social media through blog posts, LinkedIn, and Twitter

The governor recently invited the president of Ross’ consulting group, Amos Fodchuk, to join an advisory panel about K–12 educational issues. Because of Ross’ advocacy for internet options for those in need, Fodchuk asked him to find resources for the advisory panel to consider. 

Ross believes one solution might be that companies, such as Verizon or Comcast, add a donation option to cable and internet bills, like other utilities do, so customers can donate $1 to help make internet available to those in need. Although he knows his project may take longer than the few months left in the school year, he hopes that his efforts will help pave the way for a more internet-accessible future when other crises arise. 

“I’m advocating because I know internet connectivity is a need,” Ross said. “It’s always been a need, but it’s now even more so because it’s become an equity issue. Most of the students who don’t have access are either in rural or high-poverty areas. And we all expect a free public education. Teachers and schools are trying to keep that going, but without free internet accessibility for all their students, they can’t do it.” 

Written by Leslie King