George Lucas Educational Foundation
Online Learning

It's Time to Start an Online Program

Online programs are becoming easier to integrate because, with each year, districts have more successful models to follow and more resources from which to choose.

January 15, 2015
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.

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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.

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  • Online Learning
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Education Trends
  • School Leadership