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Avoiding the Pitfalls of Virtual Schooling

The learning curve for launching programs is well worth the effort.
Florida Virtual School recently held a photo contest through its Facebook page asking students to submit a photo showing “Where do you FLVS?” One of three winning photos was taken by Maddie Swainhart.

Virtual school programs—especially online high school courses—are gaining traction in school districts around the country. According to a report issued in November 2011 by the National Center for Education Statistics, 55 percent of the more than 2,000 school districts surveyed had students in distance education programs during the 2009-2010 school year.

The number of students enrolled in individual online courses, meanwhile, multiplied to 1,816,400, compared to fewer that 50,000 a decade earlier. These students, almost three-quarters of whom are high schoolers, are taking a wide range of courses—from AP offerings and courses unavailable at their local high schools to credit recovery courses that can remediate failing grades.

Allison Powell, vice president for state and district services at the International Association of K-12 Online Education (iNACOL), notes that, while offering online courses was once the exclusive province of large state, nonprofit and for-profit organizations and companies, districts and even individual schools are now starting virtual schools of their own.

tree studentNot only are more districts launching online courses, Powell continues, but the definition of virtual schooling also has expanded. That includes the growing popularity of “flipped classrooms,” in which students go online for video lectures and demonstrations outside of class and spend class time working with their teachers individually or in groups. Also, the burgeoning “bring your own device” movement in many districts has brought online learning into the classroom, as students search Web sites for information, collaborate virtually, or work on interactive exercises under the direction of their classroom teachers.

A crop of virtual high schools, meanwhile, also has taken root, offering a four-year online education and diplomas. The number of students enrolled in these full-time programs grew from 250,000 in 2010-2011, up 25 percent from 2009-2010, according to the Center for Education Reform, an advocacy organization.

Offering an entire online high school education is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition to districts because the per-pupil expenditure can be a third lower than at brick-and-mortar high schools, according to a study released earlier this year by the Thomas Fordham Institute, an Ohio-based group promoting educational reform. But as district leaders charge ahead with implementing or expanding online programs, they might do well to heed the lessons learned by successful predecessors in critical areas, from course quality and teacher training to technology and administration, where the problems can be anything but virtual.

Lessons From Year One

“The biggest mistake we’ve seen in what virtual schools do is trying to take what they were doing face-to-face in a classroom and putting it online,” iNACOL’s Powell reports, explaining that online environments require different pedagogies, designs and expectations. Jhone Ebert, chief technology officer for the Clark County (Nev.) School District, couldn’t agree more. Clark County’s Virtual High School program, one of the oldest such endeavors in the country, was launched modestly in 1998. More than 10,000 of the district’s students now are taking at least one course online.

While the program has won its share of recognition, including a bronze medal in U.S. News and World Report’s 2012 Education Awards, its administrators have also learned their share of lessons along the way, starting with how to build an online course. “We thought that because in a face-to-face classroom the teacher does the instruction and provides the information, that approach would be the same online,” Ebert admits. “The teacher would build the course, upload it and teach it. For us, it would be one-stop shopping.”

Ebert and her staff quickly learned, however, that not all teachers make good online teachers. “There’s a different skill set involved, and we hired Web and instructional designers who understood online course design,” she says.

At the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Virtual High School Collaborative (VHS)—which since 1996 has expanded to 400 online high school courses offered to more than 15,000 students from 700 schools in Massachusetts and across the nation and world—the very look and setup of its first generation of online courses was cause for concern.

“When the courses came out, they were all over the place. They didn’t have a similar look and feel and would be confusing to students,” according to VHS President and CEO Liz Pape. “We hadn’t given the teachers enough guidance.” VHS replaced the free-form approach with templates and a standardized way of filling them out with content and assignments, as well as a more consistent way of tracking those assignments.

The state-funded Florida Virtual School (FLVS), with its 123,000 high school students from Florida and beyond, has also come a long way in its course design since it opened its virtual doors in 1997.

Improved Teacher Training

Clark County’s Ebert estimates that one-third of the virtual high school teachers in her program’s early years did not pass muster when it came to teaching online, falling short in areas such as building an online community, developing thoughtful questions that could be discussed asynchronously by students, and pacing their courses.

“We didn’t have the tools to select those teachers properly,” Ebert explains, “so we actually changed the questions that we asked in the selection process: ‘How much do you incorporate project-based learning?’ ‘How do you use collaborative student groups in the classroom?’ ‘How do you divide project time among areas such as direct instruction, student research and student collaboration?’”

When it came to teacher training, VHS went further than that. After noticing that its teachers in year one differed widely in their approaches and effectiveness, VHS began codifying what was expected of online teachers. Some expecations included having students collaborate with one another and choosing the materials with which to best collaborate, which became the basis for evaluating the teachers’ courses and performance.

The biggest step that VHS took in improving online pedagogy involved creating a six- to eight-week online course required of all teachers. The course was devised by a team of instructional and Web design consultants at VHS headquarters. Known as NetCourse Instructional Methodologies, the course is available for graduate credit and demands 10 hours a week. It focuses on developing techniques to stimulate and moderate student discussion online, building activities that require students to collaborate with each other, and setting online courses in the standardized template.

FLVS now has a robust training program. “The training has really morphed over the years,” says Claudine Townley, FLVS Global’s director. “It started as a half-day at somebody’s house. We’ve learned that the secret in any type of education is the support the teacher gives the student, and to do that, the teachers have to get training.”

The less formal approach has given way to a one-week orientation for new teachers every summer before the new school year at FLVS headquarters. Those teachers also are assigned a mentor for that year, and they continue their studies through a series of webinars. All FLVS teachers follow another crucial step at the beginning of their courses. “One of the things we didn’t have in the very beginning was a welcome call from teachers to parents and students in which the teacher would tell them what to expect,” Townley says.

FLVS has also made adjustments to the completion schedule of its courses, which, unlike those offered by VHS, do not have a set start and finish date each term. “In the beginning, our motto was ‘Anytime, any place, any path, any pace,’” Townley says. “We learned fairly quickly that we had to provide something to set the pace for students who were not moving along quickly enough. Now we have a pace chart in every single course.”

The charts come in three varieties. Besides the standard pacing for courses, an advanced pace chart allows students to go at double speed if they can handle the load, and then there’s an extended pace chart for students who need more time to complete the course. “There’s still wiggle room, but now we stay more closely to those pace charts,” Townley says.

Lessons for Administrators

In the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Unified School District, meanwhile, the administrators of Scottsdale Online Learning (SOL), which debuted in the summer of 2011, encountered an entirely different set of difficulties. During the 2011-2012 school year 1,500 students across the district took courses, but not without some initial difficulties, recalls Chris Thuman, SOL’s executive director. A single counselor at each of the district’s five high schools served as the coordinator for students enrolling in virtual courses, and this job sometimes got buried in the myriad other responsibilities of the counselors.

As a result, the message did not get out clearly enough to prospective online students and parents about what to expect and what they needed to do, and there was widespread confusion about when courses would start, who was teaching them, how to register for them, and whether there even were online courses available. “There wasn’t buy-in at the site level,” Thuman explains, “and there also were a lot of mistaken ideas of what online education should look like versus what it really would look like. We needed to get the correct information out. Looking back, we should have spent more time involving site administrators—principals and assistant principals—from each high school, as well as a counselor.”

Thuman has made up for lost time by getting SOL included on the agenda of the monthly meeting of Scottsdale’s school administrators and by sending out a weekly electronic newsletter to them. “Online schooling is much more in the main vocabulary of the district now,” he points out. “It’s the same as nutritional services or special education.”

SOL also has posted more information for parents on what to expect in their children’s online learning, from homework to the role of the teacher. Because SOL’s administrators have learned from the mistakes of the past year, the participating school counselors are now up to speed. Thuman notes, however, that if the district could afford it, he would hire a full-time person in his office to interface with the district’s five high schools.

John Olsen, executive vice president of operations for institutional business at online education provider K12, offers another administrative caution. K12 operates virtual charter public schools in 30 states and has 2,000 districts as clients, many of which enroll students in just the individual courses that K12 offers.

Olsen says K12 has increased that client base by providing the management that was lacking in districts’ original forays into virtual schooling. “A mistake many districts made early on was not having a dedicated manager accountable for supporting online learning and the outcomes of students,” he points out. “That responsibility became item number 5 on the agenda of an administrator.”

Avoiding Pitfalls

Front and center at Charlottesville (Va.) City Schools is how to steer clear of technology pitfalls as the district prepares to test seven online courses—from creative writing and AP government to biology and geometry—in the new school year. With a total of 24 courses planned over the next several years, Superintendent Rosa Atkins notes, “We’ll have enough courses for students to earn a high school diploma.” This will help the district reach a growing population of homeschoolers, as well as students in other districts.

Stephanie Carter, Charlottesville’s program administrator for virtual education, says one of her first discoveries was that the classroom teachers needed additional support to create courses with essential Flash segments on various content areas. Carter purchased Flash activities and videos from a local public media outlet to streamline development. Dean Jadlowski, the district’s director of technology, has been busy scaling up Wi-Fi capacity at Charlottesville High School, adding access points, bandwidth and switches that will prioritize the virtual course content so that students could access them promptly. Jadlowski wants to ensure that Internet access is reliable. “It doesn’t take students long to abandon tools that are not working,” he says.

FLVS’ Townley knows, however, that the best-laid plans can go awry on all fronts and that there will always be something more for virtual schools to learn as they evolve and as their leaders adapt. “You have to be comfortable being in a state of flux,” she says. “That’s not comfortable for a lot of people.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer to District Administration.