Fast and Furious

While driving rapid change in education, creating an effective virtual school program.

GUEST COLUMN | by Carol Ribeiro 

CREDIT theVHS.orgIn the past several years, we have witnessed a tremendous acceleration of transformative policies and practices driving customized learning in the K–12 education space. Many state, district, school, and classroom leaders recognize that the greatest promise for this powerful approach lies in online learning. Statistics show a steady enrollment growth in virtual courses and online learning. This is certainly true for The Virtual High School (VHS, Inc.). We began in 1996 with a cohort of 30 schools, which has since expanded to more than 600 schools!

One of the advantages of taking a virtual course from a global provider is that our students are from schools around the world, so they learn with, and from, a diverse group.

Virtual courses give students options they’ve never had before. Online learning provides them access to highly qualified teachers regardless of their geographic location. Most commonly, these schools and districts enroll students to offer a wide range of courses that are not available in their current on-site curriculum.

While some schools and districts are fully invested in online learning and virtual programs, other K-12 administrators are eager to learn how to take those first steps into cyberspace to ensure they have a high-quality program for students. The latter have a number of choices and issues to consider.

Choices, Choices

The choices begin immediately. If a statewide virtual school is available, districts may take advantage of that option. They can also partner with a provider like VHS, a full service non-profit virtual school that allows administrators to take advantage of online education within a robust consortium of schools. An added benefit to working with a full-service non-profit organization such as VHS is the extensive training provided for on-site coordinators and local teachers, who can elect to teach a course within the consortium if they choose. We have seen a trend of traditional schools using virtual school programs to supplement their curriculum, and having local resources knowledgeable about online learning helps schools make better decisions and better understand their educational choices.

One of the advantages of taking a virtual course from a global provider is that our students are from schools around the world, so they learn with, and from, a diverse group. For example, in our AP Environmental Science course, students conduct experiments locally and share their results within a global “classroom,” so they see environmental effects from a variety of locations.

Another consideration is a virtual program’s collaborative network of schools. Do they form a generous community, sharing resources that include clear, concise lessons aligned to CCSS, state standards and district curricula, depending on the state or district? Our participants have a great deal of involvement in the development of our programs. We survey our students and schools annually to help shape catalogue offerings. In fact, most of our unique elective courses were developed by teachers within our network of schools under the guidance of our curriculum coordinators.

Be sure that your students receive instruction from highly-qualified teachers who are first and foremost traditional classroom teachers. Also ensure that those teachers have undergone professional development that expands the scope and depth of their instruction and prepares them to teach online. We often hear that our online teacher training program transforms teaching practices in face-to-face school settings. 

Unique Needs, Personal Learning Styles

Going forward, education will occur in a variety of forms and will continue to evolve to fit each student’s unique needs. Some students will benefit from a fully online virtual program, but the greatest impact in the foreseeable future will be from the use of online education as a supplement to traditional classroom instruction.

Students in this generation require different teaching practices. They are better at multitasking, but place less emphasis on interpersonal skills. Also, they are more tech-savvy but less grammar-focused and have a much greater need for digital citizenship awareness. And although today’s students are digital natives, they still benefit from direct oversight while taking online courses. Be sure your program helps students develop crucial skills that help them stay on track and achieve success.

Accessibility and Infrastructure

General accessibility has been and continues to be an issue with many online learning programs. In addition, schools must ensure that they have the necessary infrastructure and security in place to fully support online learning programs as well as the needs of diverse student populations. 

A mix of the best features of online and face-to-face learning is key to the future of education. Quality full-time programs help students who don’t have access to other learning options continue their education. Supplemental online programs round out student experiences by enabling them to stay in a traditional classroom setting with support from faculty and counsellors, partake in enrichment activities with other students, and yet have access to the highest quality external resources, including a diverse global community of learners.

In the end, schools and districts need to offer high quality, collaborative learning environments where student exchange and interaction is a valued component of the instructional process.

Carol Ribeiro, President and CEO of The Virtual High School, often writes and speaks on the advantages of virtual schools over traditional schools – and how great a role virtual schools can play in future education systems. Visit the Virtual High School at www. theVHS.org

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