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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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It's Time to Start an Online Program

Jennifer Sayre

Online Teacher Leader from Hilliard, Ohio and Sayre Online Solutions, LLC Consultant
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A photo of a photograph on a tablet propped up on a book. The tablet image shows a woman looking down at the book.

It's that time again. School administrators across the nation are starting to plan for next year. Staffing, enrollment numbers, and course offerings are all being considered. Stick with the status quo or step out of those comfort zones? And more often than not, as all of the puzzle pieces come together, one overwhelming need keeps coming up: online courses.

During the 2013-2014 school year, more than 316,000 students attended online schools, according to Keeping Pace with K–12 Digital Learning (PDF, 5.4MB). In fact, 30 states offer fully-online statewide schools. That's some pretty stiff competition.

Good News for School Districts

First, these fully-online statewide schools do not have high success rates. It doesn't take much research to find out that their turnover is high and their passage rate is low. For example, in Ohio, the graduation rate for students who attend fully-online state schools was well below 50 percent, according to a 2012 study from the Center for Public Education (PDF, 843KB).

The study continued: "Following a ten-month long investigation, a Colorado news organization reported that the state's virtual charter schools experience high student turnover, and produce significantly higher dropout rates and lower test scores than brick-and-mortar schools." During a five year span, "66 percent of students who enrolled in Florida Virtual School courses withdrew in the first month."

Google it for yourself. Look at your state. You'll likely find that many students who leave to attend fully-online state schools return to their home school districts, often deficient in credits and short on time to graduate.

Second, most of your students don't want to leave your district -- and their parents really don't want to. They often leave because they feel that they have no other choice.

Making It Easy for Students to Stay

Offer online courses within your own district. Take the leap and make it happen. It doesn't matter if you purchase content or build your own courses. Start with one course or five. Be a pioneer in your district, your city, or even your state.

If your district is at step one, use an online course vendor. There are many providers available for districts. I have reviewed all of the following programs in the past for personal knowledge (I have no connection to any of them). Florida Virtual School is a pretty well-known provider. They offer fully-online options for parents and students as well as opportunities for districts to purchase content in order to keep those students in-house. Other options to check out include:

When looking at these providers, develop a system to rate each one based on your district's needs. Contact each vendor to request two guest accounts, one as a student and one as a teacher. Then develop a team (including teachers, students, and administrators) to review each of the providers. Give yourself more than one day to do it. Rush through this process and you'll regret it later.

Here are seven questions to get you started as you review courses:

  1. How engaging is the presentation of content? The assessments? Do the courses provide choices and challenges for students? Is it interactive?
  2. How many lessons, assignments, or units are there within each course? Do they seem balanced from unit to unit and course to course?
  3. How easy is the program for students to navigate? For teachers?
  4. How are the submissions monitored? Who grades the student work? Is "success" based on seat time or authentic learning?
  5. Is the course content modifiable in any way? How does it compare to what is taught in your classrooms?
  6. Are the courses designed as credit recovery, enrichment, or both? For example, can one course be offered for enrichment or credit recovery, or are there two versions of the same course, depending on the type of student?
  7. The most important question to ask when reviewing content: Would you want to take this course?

It's not ideal to purchase content, but the exposure to courses will give you some perspective about what works and doesn't work. As you learn more, you can begin planning to write your own courses.

The Right System

If or when you have the time and resources to build your own courses, you'll be setting yourself up for long-term success with your students (and your treasurer). But don't think that this is the easier option. To do it right, it takes planning and a lot of time.

The first step here is to determine your LMS (learning management systems). There are several of these available. Many have free versions, including Moodle, Schoology, and Canvas. The latter two offer easy-to-use systems where teachers can sign up for free individual accounts, or a district can pay for an enterprise version and create teacher/student accounts. All three have extensive support forums, videos, and outside sites to help troubleshoot.

When I first started as an online teacher in 2003, I was fortunate enough to be in a district that had a much bigger vision than most around us. The administrators that I worked with knew that we needed to be leading the race. Eleven years later, my district is miles ahead with our online program. In fact, we often meet with school districts who are looking to begin.

What these districts have that we never did is the ability to ask questions, learn from others, and collaborate. Articles have been written. Books have been published. You now have the opportunity to read about it, follow online leaders on social media, and visit districts that have established online programs. There has never been a better time to lean forward and start your own online program. Be revolutionary. You won't regret it.

Was this useful?

Jennifer Sayre

Online Teacher Leader from Hilliard, Ohio and Sayre Online Solutions, LLC Consultant

Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Many of the decisions affecting the success of a course take place well before the first day of class. Careful planning at the course design stage not only makes lessons easier and more enjoyable, it also facilitates student learning. Once your lessons are planned, teaching involves implementing your course design on a day-to-day level. I plan to make a long distance six month course for teachers In Pakistan as I have done many course online and I feel that now I am in a position to make my own course.

Ashley Wright's picture

Thanks for sharing such a nice information on online programs. Online education is definitely the wave of future. The statistics you have mentioned shows the popularity of online education among students and parents. A quality curriculum offered in online school is always a plus point and main reason to choose online courses is their flexibility. Any time, Any where, Learn Online!

kimberly Alen's picture

Agreed with the statement that online education is the wave of future. The most effective use of this education model is in the form of high school diploma online which I think is the essential need especially in the region of United States where students are forced to work part time right after their middle school and in that case, balancing academic and work life has become an impossible task. This issue has been well resolved by self paced study method via online learning. You can visit for details: http://www.nationalhighschool.com

Caitlin Gezon's picture

Enjoyed the checklist! I wish we had access to this 3 years ago when starting up our school - we have gone through a few curriculum providers and have landed on a just right fit but we had no idea where to even begin back then. It's amazing being on the cutting edge of education but also daunting knowing that you can't easily "google" the answer because it's not out there yet!

UOIT Online's picture

I was wondering what people thought about synchronous (virtual) vs. asynchronous. For example http://education.uoit.ca/graduate/index.php is a virtual program an works well BUT is it necessary or better to have synchronous OR perhaps a better questions is to what extent is a virtual connection required?

Share to Classroom's picture
Share to Classroom
Editor at ShareToClassroom.org

I think we always need both. Classroom time is synchronous and homework is asynchronous.
In my opinion the synchronous part can be quite small but is essential to "ground" the students. The asynchronous part is really where the student is learning.

UOIT Online's picture

Now this is quite interesting and I wonder who you are teaching. In our online Masters Program, synchronous is where the real interaction, collaboration, and learning is done. Asynchronous plays a minimal role. So I am curious why you think asynchronous is where the student is learning. Even in this interaction between us, because it is delayed, the flow and development is slow. If we were able to talk face-to-face (virtually), I believe we would learn much more and save time. The other issue is social presence. It is so much easier to establish in a virtual classroom than in an online discussion. Finally, you need to consider engagement. There appears to be more that can be done in a virtual classroom (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6M9IsLSw_ks for example). That said, you are clearly a fan of asynchronous and I am wondering why it works well for you.

Jennifer Sayre's picture
Jennifer Sayre
Online Teacher Leader from Hilliard, Ohio and Sayre Online Solutions, LLC Consultant

Agreed, Caitlin! Resources like Edutopia that connect teachers who are pioneers are so valuable! Good luck with your online program!

Jennifer Sayre's picture
Jennifer Sayre
Online Teacher Leader from Hilliard, Ohio and Sayre Online Solutions, LLC Consultant

There are many benefits to running a synchronous program. At the masters level, I definitely see the value and even necessity to run programs this way. At the high school level, however, we have found that running an asynchronous program can be very successful and it can meet needs that were left unmet in the past. For example, when students enter the district in the middle of the semester, we can enroll them in courses right away and they can catch up by the end of the semester. Additionally, if a student is failing a classroom class and has no chance of passing, we can pull them out and start the course as an online class right away. In the past, students had to wait until a new semester started and waste time in the classroom. Situations like these help students to stay on track for graduation and allow our teachers the ability to work with the students at the pace that fits best.

There may be obstacles, such as student inactivity, when you run an asynchronous program, but we have found that the benefits and opportunities for students are numerous. Our passage rate (students who complete their courses) is very high with this model. It takes motivated and organized teachers, as well as support from parents and other staff members. But we have found a large amount of success over the years!

acunningham56's picture

I'm glad you think that online education is the future because the personalization gained is incredible. there is a great blog here on a teacher's story w/ online education. http://goo.gl/niqkHe

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