George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Virtual Schooling: Where Are We Now? Where Are We Headed?

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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I am a committed virtual learning advocate. As an experienced virtual teacher, I have seen students thrive where they'd previously failed. I have seen students who didn't have access to certain courses gain not only college entry requirements, but also innovative electives to support their passions. At the same time, I am also a thoughtful critic of virtual schooling. We have an opportunity to innovate with online learning; we also risk stepping into pitfalls of doing the "same ole thing." We run the risk of the "factory model," where we put as many students as possible through a course with a large student-to-teacher ratio. So where are we now? After many of years of experimentation and implementation of various models, what are some challenges that still remain?

Statistics of Virtual Schools

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) continuously updates their statistics and facts about virtual school in the United States and worldwide. In their document of Fast Facts About Online Learning, some of these statistics highlight the growing prevalence of virtual school. For example, during the 2009-2010 school year, there were 1,816,400 enrollments in distance education. There are currently 27 state virtual schools, and full-time online schools in 31 states and Washington D.C. Florida alone had over 303,329 course enrollments during the 2011-12 school year, making it one of the largest schools in the world. Some of the top reasons for this rise in blended learning include course credit recovery and giving students access to otherwise-unavailable online learning opportunities. It's clear that virtual school is here to stay and will continue to become more prevalent.

(Click to enlarge.)

Credit: From "Fast Facts of Online Learning," iNACOL 2013

Quality Online Courses

There are so many different providers of online courses, and some schools elect to create their own content to fit their model. But even then, the quality of instruction seems to vary. I've seen many online courses that look like the same "sit and get" structure with added multimedia attempting to conceal its quality. iNACOL has excellent standards that explain and can help evaluate not only rigorous courses, but also rigorous and effective online instruction. As more and more teachers are asked to teach in blended and online environments, it is critical that they're provided professional development and targets allowing them to teach this way effectively. Parallel to that, the courses must draw on effective pedagogical models and not replicate ineffective learning environments that don't meet the needs of all learners.

Misunderstanding of Blended Learning

Allison Powell, iNACOL's Vice President for State and District Services, says, "We are seeing/hearing more blended learning happening, but the majority of people who say they are doing blended learning are really just integrating technology into their classrooms." I too see this when I work with schools. Blended learning is not simple technology integration! At the same time, there are many implementation methods for blended learning, from the flipped classroom to the “A La Carte” model. The Clayton Christensen Institute (Formally Innosight Institute) has an excellent publication that explains and gives examples of the various models of blended learning. It is important that we venture down the path of blended learning, that we're actually doing blended learning, that we're clear in our model, and that we share common language.

Shift to Competency-Based Pathways

This is a major reframe of education. Instead of relying heavily on the Carnegie Unit, which requires seat time as an indicator of learning mastery, competency-based education focuses on mastery and competency as the critical piece of virtual school. It reframes grading and further personalizes instruction. We know some students take longer to learn and master material, just as some of our students take less time. Competency-based pathways honor this, seeking to advocate and build structures where this can work for students. However, with the Carnegie Unit still used as an assessment standard in many states, any newer model is a challenge to implement. To learn more about competency-based pathways, visit CompetencyWorks, an organization that dedicates itself to this reframe.

While it is clear that online and blended learning is becoming a norm for educators, it is also critical that we embrace this learning model with a demand for quality and innovation. We cannot replicate a broken system, and there are many challenges we need to overcome if we're going to ensure that we do not.

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Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

great one truly nice to read your content quiet inspiring every point is dealt so clearly truly good work keep updating such nice content

Shawna's picture

Great information! It really important to ensure quality education especially when looking at online avenues. This article does a nice job of laying out and explaining the options.

Tyler Huizenga's picture
Tyler Huizenga
Middle School Teacher

Excellent information! There are many misunderstandings when it comes to virtual learning, however, there is a discrepancy between the growth of technology and the ability of the education system to catch up with it. I believe, as you pointed out, that virtual learning will provide much needed skills for this next generation, as well as the flexibility it takes to be a 21st century learner. You mention we need a common language when it comes to blended learning, what significance does blended learning play in teaching K-12 kids? How does it look day to day?

Debra Ross's picture
Debra Ross
Online graduate educator

When I was in high school, I took a couple of distance learning courses. At that time, they were delivered to me in a box and were a lot of reading and paperwork that had to be completed and returned by mail. As someone who loved being able to learn at my own pace, even that format was more exciting to me than a normal classroom. I cannot begin to tell you how encouraged I am by the movement toward blended and e-learning for younger students, as well as adults.

This article presents some interesting thoughts about how we need to begin working toward ensuring the quality of all online course materials and instruction for the betterment of the entire system. I hope to be a part of that process.

I believe that creating platforms, such as this blog, where online educators can share their best practices, new ideas, and failures, will help everyone to do better. I also think that it will be important for the educational community to determine what makes an online course effective and create standards by which they can be measured that leaves flexibility for content and style, but ensures quality. The future here is exciting, but will require conscientious leaders to ensure it becomes all it can be.

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