An insider’s advice on creating an effective virtual learning program
president and chief executive officer, The Virtual High School
A virtual school expert shares tips and best practices
It takes a lot of work to cultivate strong, engaged online learners, and every district has its own unique needs and challenges. For these reasons, developing a successful online learning program isn’t easy. Some schools need to create career pathways programs for students; others want to be able to offer more advanced placement (AP) courses. Still others need more STEM or computer science options, but don’t have access to qualified course instruction for these subjects.
A quality online learning program can help districts achieve their goals and do more with less. By providing students with a quality online option, you can maximize resources and instantly expand your course offerings. Simply put, online courses give students more choice and schools more flexibility.
Often, these courses would not be available to students due to budget, staffing, and scheduling limitations. It’s also important to note that the use of online and blended learning is standard at most colleges around the country. By taking an online course in high school, students are better prepared for college and beyond.
Here are some tips for creating a virtual learning program that meets your district’s needs and more.
How to get started
Key factors to consider when selecting an online program are:
• Is the online school accredited?
• If your students are considering athletics in college, are the program’s courses NCAA-approved?
• Are the courses instructor-led or self-paced?
• What is the role of the instructor–to actively engage in discussions/lessons or to grade work and respond to inquiries only?
• What is the average teacher: student ratio?
• Does the program have the courses needed: AP? Gifted & Talented? Credit Recovery? Core? Electives? Dual-credit? Certificate programs? Career pathways?
• What types of support will students receive outside of the online classroom?
Determine your “why”
It’s important to look inside your schools and understand which problems you’re trying to solve with online learning. There are many types of online learning options and it can be difficult to know which is best for your needs. Some districts create their own online curriculum without first understanding what’s available. Developing from scratch requires a great deal of time, effort, and money—and a solution might already exist that you can implement and customize. Determining your needs and then researching options before jumping in will save time in the long run.
Pay attention to the delivery
Some districts think only about the course curriculum and not about the instruction. Face-to-face teaching skills are not always immediately transferable to the online environment. Skills like facilitating effective online discussions, creating student engagement, and developing group work in an online environment are important aspects of a robust, successful online program.
It’s also important that your teachers receive adequate professional development (PD) to prepare them to teach in an online classroom. At VHS, for example, all course instructors—who are experienced face-to-face teachers first—complete a graduate-level training program that requires them to model the behavior expected from their online students. They collaborate with their peers and receive mentoring from faculty advisors as they teach their first online class, which helps to improve the quality of their instruction.
This teacher training and mentoring program, in operation since 1996, has resulted in higher student satisfaction and success rates. Well-trained teachers play a central role in all VHS online classrooms, and we often hear from teachers that their VHS online PD experience has helped transform their face-to-face teaching practices as well.
Determine your expectations ahead of time
It’s important for any district creating or purchasing an online course program to set student expectations up front. This includes frequency of online course access (daily is ideal) and ways to stay on track (through review of weekly overviews, rubrics, etc.). Students must understand that online courses are just as important as face-to-face work, and they must be self-motivated or it is easy to fall behind. Finally, it is important to factor in on-site support for students taking online classes. Assigning students an on-site coordinator, for example, can help them stay on track. Ideally, this is a person who manages the school’s online enrollments and who:
• Recruits and enrolls students in online classes
• Helps the guidance department, administrators, parents, and students understand the online program
• Monitors students taking online classes to ensure they are staying on track
• Works with school guidance departments to include online courses in the school’s program of studies and in student schedules
• Meets with students weekly about their progress in online courses
• Reports grades to school administration.
We’re hearing a great deal about personalized learning as a way to meet students where they are. Many state virtual programs and others also find value in instructor-led, student-centered models that can help students stay engaged and on track. Districts will need to figure out their biggest pain points and plan their online learning programs accordingly. Is the role of the teacher important, or do you want self-paced options that allow students to easily recover credits? Is flexibility of start/end times important? Do students need additional advanced learning options? These considerations must be factored into an online learning strategy, as there is no one size-fits-all model.