Michele Eaton

Recognized for Leadership in Blended Learning

High-Quality Online Learning Is Possible and Indiana Leader Wants to Prove It

By Michelle R. Davis   |   February 21, 2018

Michele Eaton didn’t really believe in the promise of online learning, until she experienced it.

As a 2nd grade teacher in the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indiana, Eaton considered virtual classes isolating, rudimentary, and “a subpar, cheap imitation of what real education looks like,” she said. But then she decided to pursue a master’s degree in education with a focus on technology through an online program.

She was amazed by how much she could accomplish working at flexible times. She found the learning experience rich and was surprised by the strength of her virtual connections with fellow students and her professors. She was so inspired she ended up designing and teaching some higher education online courses and began to focus more on technology in her classroom. And she saw the potential in her own school district, not just for students, but also for teachers.

Fast forward a few years, and Eaton, 32, is now the 16,000-student district’s director of virtual and blended learning. She’s all in on the idea of online and blended instruction, especially personalized learning. And she’s realized it’s unrealistic to expect teachers to do all those things successfully if they haven’t experienced the best version of it themselves.

“If we want students to have a voice and a choice in their learning and we want them to be in the driver’s seat, we have to allow teachers to do that same kind of learning,” she said.

Lessons from the Leader

Toward that end, Eaton has created a customized professional-development program for the 60 teachers in the district’s Achieve Virtual Education Academy and has spread many of the professional-development techniques for virtual and blended instruction to brick and mortar teachers in the district. And she’s taking what she has learned to a wider stage, with statewide roles supporting Indiana teachers, as well as leadership positions with national educational technology organizations.

“She’s not a linear thinker. She’s creative in her work,” said Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts. “Her ability to process things in unique ways helps her model what we want our teachers to do so they can integrate that into the classroom.”

Individualized Learning for Teachers

On the west side of Indianapolis, the students in the Wayne Township district are mostly Latino and African-American, and 75 percent of them qualify for free and reduced-price meals. With a significant commitment to technology, blended-learning programs are woven throughout the district, and nearly all students have access to devices. The district boasts the only public, noncharter virtual school in the state with about 250 full-time students and up to 500 part-time students during the school year, from around the state. In the summer, part-time students spike to about 2,000.

All that means that in the Wayne Township district, change and evolution of the learning program is the norm, and Eaton will be the first to tell you she’s not afraid to fail. She believes wholeheartedly in the idea of iteration.

A project that began with an attempt by teachers in the district’s alternative extended-day program—an online program with a face-to-face computer lab evening component—to personalize learning for students, didn’t get off the ground.

The problem, Eaton concluded, was that teachers hadn’t experienced successful personalized learning firsthand. So two years ago, she launched a personalized-learning initiative for the district’s virtual school teachers.

The initiative was risky in that virtual school teachers are not full time (though many are full-time teachers in the district’s brick and mortar schools), and professional development for their virtual duties is not mandatory. With Eaton’s guidance, teachers crafted their own learning plans, setting goals tied to state standards and mapping out their own activities to meet those goals. Each activity—webinars, online classes, podcasts, twitter chats, face-to-face reflection—was equated with a number of points, so Eaton could easily track whether teachers were progressing.

Eaton built a template for all this, incorporating it into the Wayne Township district’s learning-management system, where many professional-development courses she had created are already stored, and she eliminated most regular face-to-face staff-development meetings and webinars in favor of the individualized system.

At the end of the school year, teachers concluded the idea had promise, but hadn’t lived up to its potential. Participation numbers hovered around 40 percent, and they said they struggled with such an open slate of PD options. They said they needed more deadlines to make sure tasks got completed throughout the academic year.

After teachers laid out their concerns, Eaton asked them to suggest how to make improvements.

This school year, with a revamped program based on those suggestions, Eaton provided more structure for professional-learning options, produced individual teacher plans for each quarter, and set deadlines throughout the year. More than 80 percent of teachers participated—nearly doubling numbers from the previous year. Many teachers did significantly more hours of professional development under the new system than they would have been asked to by the district, she said.

James Totton, a social studies teacher in Achieve Virtual, also works in the district’s evening blended-learning program. He said he learned “a master’s level worth of knowledge in teaching and technology.”

Maximizing Good Instruction

Eaton emphasizes that technology is not the point—it’s about maximizing good instruction, Totton said. The individual learning plans allowed him to get professional-development credit for learning opportunities he wanted anyway—read certain books, listen to podcasts on instruction, attend conferences. He said Eaton’s positive approach, her deep knowledge, and her ability to make trying something new fun, had him embracing the virtual school professional-development process, even though it was voluntary.

“She’s very Type A in the best possible way,” he said. “She’s a constant advocate for what she thinks is right.”

The process is having impact, said Achieve Principal Derek Eaton (no relation). To help virtual teachers understand the potential of their online environment, Michele Eaton also created a course for them within the Wayne Hub, the district’s learning management system. The Achieve Virtual teacher workroom is a self-paced, asynchronous class that uses the same types of discussion boards, peer assessments, and online surveys teachers use with their students in the virtual setting.

After some encouragement and modeling, Eaton said once-isolated teachers began connecting virtually and having productive discussions, and she saw those techniques transfer into their online classrooms.

High-quality online instruction “is something that’s hard to wrap your head around,” she said. “When most of us have experienced less than stellar examples, it’s hard to create a positive, rich experience for students if we don’t know what it looks like.”

Principal Derek Eaton said he has noted better engagement between students and teachers and a greater ability to keep students committed and on track. However, by some measures, Achieve’s virtual students continue to struggle. Each school in Indiana is rated on an A-F scale, and nearly all online schools in the state have earned an F. Achieve Virtual received a D grade last year.

Everyone, from the superintendent to Principal Eaton, emphasizes a belief that the state’s assessment tool doesn’t work well for online schools like Achieve, where the majority of students are enrolled because they weren’t successful in a traditional system, and many are adult students. For example, the school’s state grade is calculated looking at full-time students only, but the district has a course-passage rate of close to 90 percent for part-time students across the state taking the virtual classes. In addition, since the virtual school opened in 2011, the number of full-time online students graduating annually has gone from six to nearly 30 last year.

“I’m proud we’re part of a school that says, ‘No excuses,’ ” Michele Eaton said. And that means asking teachers to continually up their game.

No Silver Bullets

Colleagues describe Eaton as indefatigably cheerful, with a personality that sparkles and an intense drive for knowledge. Her office shelves are crammed with books on personalized and blended learning, online course design, and digital leadership, alongside tomes on the dynamics of women as leaders.

As a child, Eaton was most interested in engineering—her father’s profession. But as she progressed through school, Eaton said teachers subtly discouraged her from studying science and technology, sometimes with sarcasm indicating her perfectionist tendencies wouldn’t be a fit for the field. When choosing a career path, she felt strongly about being a teacher so she could encourage students to pursue their own interests.

If we want students to have a voice and a choice in their learning and we want them to be in the driver’s seat, we have to allow teachers to do that same kind of learning.

She spent four years in the Wayne Township district as an elementary teacher, deliberately choosing a low-income school system where she felt she could make the biggest difference. In 2012, she was plucked from the classroom by Chief Technology Officer Pete Just, a mentor who was an adjunct professor in her online master’s program. She started as a virtual education specialist, then at the end of 2015, was promoted to her current position.

“Most of us look for the standard way of doing things,” Just said. “Michele is looking for the best way of doing it and how to make it fun.”

Eaton has many responsibilities in the district. She helps manage the learning management system, creates professional-development courses, writes the virtual school’s blog, runs the district’s professional-development Twitter chat, and is working on the issue of interoperability to make sure district software and technology work together seamlessly.

Her work with teachers isn’t limited to the virtual school—but that work is considered a prototype for what can be done with teachers in traditional classrooms, Just said.

To that end, Eaton helped 4th grade teacher Amanda Moore institute a blended-learning program in her classroom at Wayne Township’s Chapelwood Elementary School. Last spring, Moore proposed a short, blended-learning project to try to boost her struggling students’ reading skills and help differentiate instruction, particularly those who were struggling. Moore was inspired by a session Eaton had given teachers at the beginning of the year.

Eaton helped her design the weeklong station-rotation initiative, provided examples of high-quality online content, showed Moore how to make sure the online content and the face-to-face learning were connected, and encouraged her to start a blog to share students’ work. Eaton even helped her co-teach, Moore said. It was so successful that Moore used the model with the whole class for the rest of the year and expanded into math this year.

Eaton’s “excitement is contagious,” Moore said. “She has such an open mind, and her way of thinking is that anything can be used a solution.”

Her reach extends beyond the district’s borders. A guide she wrote to map out what a high-quality digital content looks like was adopted by the Indiana education department. After being selected by the Consortium for School Networking as a 2016 Next-Gen leader, Eaton remained active with her fellow leaders and has helped build a professional network among winners. She also serves on COSN’s diversity taskforce. A frequent conference and webinar presenter, Eaton is the past president of the Online Learning Network for the International Society for Technology in Education.

She played a major role in revamping the annual conference held by the Indiana Connected Educators organization, known as ICE, said Anastasia Trekles, its board chairwoman. Eaton was the conference chair this year, reorganizing and updating the event’s structure—which some had seen as waning. She created an app for the event with notifications to generate buzz around new sessions, and attendance spiked, Trekles said.

Many of those sessions focused on personalized learning and blended learning. Eaton realizes there is skepticism around those strategies and thinks they can falter when not implemented properly.

“Where we fall into a trap is when educators think ‘personalized learning’ is going to save education like some kind of silver bullet,” she said. “To ask, ‘Does personalized learning or blended learning work?’ is the wrong question—it’s like asking if a textbook works.”

But that question just means that Eaton has to work harder to show teachers the potential.

She’s ready.