If you are a principal—particularly at a high school—you may face these challenges and others every day as you strive to offer your students high-quality educational opportunities that meet their learning needs. Each school year, you and your school’s leadership team develop plans and strategies for addressing these issues and providing your students with the best education available.

Online learning is one strategy that can help high schools overcome these challenges. However, given today’s budget and time constraints, many administrators find the idea of planning and implementing an online program daunting.

It’s true that online education is still relatively new territory for high schools. Districts offering these opportunities to their students are truly pioneers. However, launching a successful online learning program does not have to be an overwhelming task. By following a simple but effective planning, implementation, and evaluation process—like you would for any new instructional offering—you can develop an online learning program that meets your school’s unique needs.

Step 1: Understand the need

If you are considering online learning, then you are likely facing one of the challenges outlined above. Perhaps your school board wants to increase the number of college preparatory classes you offer, such as Advanced Placement (AP) courses, but you can’t find qualified teachers for those courses. Or maybe you lead a small high school and have five students who want to take a first-year French course, but no one on your instructional team is qualified to teach it.

Your first step in planning for online learning is to evaluate carefully your current instructional program. Ask the following questions:

  • What does our current instructional program look like?

  • Does the program meet student academic needs?

  • Are we meeting community and accountability expectations?

  • What subject areas do we need to fill?
As with all strategic planning, be sure to involve many different stakeholders in the process of understanding your needs. Teachers, parents, students, school board members, and other community members all have an opinion and an interest as you evaluate and expand your instructional program.

Step 2: Evaluate the possibilities

Once you have identified your school’s unmet educational needs, the next step is to consider the possibilities for closing those gaps. Think carefully about whether online learning is the right solution.

Start by determining the resources that you have available to solve your instructional challenges. Are your funds limited? Are computers available, through either a lab or the library, for online course students to access coursework during regularly scheduled class periods? Do you have federal dollars that can only be used for AP courses? Answers to these questions can have a significant impact on your choices.

If online courses appear to be a solution, evaluate your available options. One way to learn about online course offerings and the companies that provide them is to read professional publications, such as eSchool News. Many journals have done special issues or reports on online learning over the past year, including reviews of online courses. Investigate these companies on your own using the web and by talking with your colleagues. Ask your state department of education about any existing relationships with online learning companies that might offer your students access to courses at a discount or no cost.

After identifying online courses or resources that meet your school’s needs, you will want to evaluate them to make sure they are the highest quality. Look at factors such as the instructional model, the qualifications of the online instructors, the resources that support the courses, reporting capabilities, course length, and the standards these courses meet. Call the companies that offer them and learn about pricing, purchasing options, and what accommodations they can make to meet your local needs. Also, be sure the companies offering the courses are accredited by one of the six regional accrediting agencies. This ensures a level of quality in all offerings. Again, involve your instructional team in the decision-making process. If you are looking at online language arts courses, rely on the experts at your school—your English department faculty—to help you evaluate potential courses.

Step 3: Inform and involve the school community

Once you decide on an online offering, turn to your information technology (IT) staff to ensure your school has the right technologies—including computers, servers, and internet connectivity—to support online learning. Not only will this involvement result in school-wide buy-in, but your school team also will likely point out potential pitfalls to overcome before implementing your program, helping to ensure success.

Students and parents need to be aware of what you are planning as well. Communicate the availability of new courses or resources to students through assemblies or amendments to your course catalog. Consider hosting an informational meeting to present your new program to parents and address their questions or concerns. School board members also should be included in your decision so that they can support the program when discussing it with members of the community.

Step 4: Build the school infrastructure for online learning

Before you hit the ground running with your online learning program, identify a team to provide support on an ongoing basis. Choose a program leader or site coordinator to oversee and manage the program. Your technology coordinator also will play a key role in ensuring that students have access to the appropriate technology and that it is always up and running. Finally, identify teachers or other staff, such as school library media specialists or guidance counselors, who can serve as mentors for students. Mentors help students stay on track with their online courses. These individuals don’t need to be content-area specialists, but rather educators who can monitor student progress on an ongoing basis.

Step 5: Identify appropriate students

When you’re this far into the process, you’ll likely have a sense already of which students will be taking online courses. Perhaps they have unique learning needs or scheduling conflicts. For example, the lead trumpet player in the school band who wants to take AP Physics, which is only available during the same class period as band. Or a junior who transferred from a high school in another state and needs to catch up on course required by your state to graduate with her class. Work closely with your mentors and other teachers when identifying theses students. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Be sure students have successfully completed any prerequisite courses.

  • Select students who have the ability to work independently.

  • Students must be able to prioritize their work and balance the demands of online coursework with other classes and after-school activities.

  • Students should approach online courses with the same commitment and motivation as conventional classes.

  • Students should be able to dedicate eight to 10 hours a week for each online course and 10 to 15 hours per week for rigorous courses like AP, including class time and homework.

  • Students should have a class period reserved for online coursework as part of the regular school day.

Step 6: Monitor and adjust

Good plans are like road maps, and anyone who has been on a trip knows that sometimes experience tells us to take a different route. Work with your mentors to monitor student progress, both on a programmatic and individual level. Be flexible in terms of student schedules and other factors. One of the great things about online courses is that students can participate when it works best for them, which may not always be on a set schedule. So if a student has first period scheduled to take her online course in the fall, and in the spring it appears as if third period makes better sense, make the change. Online learning encourages flexibility and allows you to accommodate students’ changing needs.

Step 7: Evaluate success

Planning is a circular process. Evaluating your efforts is key to planning and implementing next school year’s online learning program. Of course, you will want to look at students’ success in terms of what they learned and the grades they earned. If they took an AP course, for example, you will want to include their exam results in your evaluation.

Talk with your students to gather qualitative feedback about their online learning experience. You might even ask students to complete a formal evaluation form, asking for their insights and suggestions for the future. Parents are another audience you’ll want to hear from when evaluating your program. Asking parents to complete an evaluation of their students’ online course experience and calling parents and interviewing them are two ways of gathering feedback.

Above all, rely on your faculty—particularly mentors—to assess the success of your program and suggest modifications for the future. They work with students on a daily basis, seeing first-hand the successes they have and the challenges they face.

Then, the cycle begins again. Identify your needs for the next school year, adjust your program based on the experiences of the first year, and continue to use online learning to ensure that the learning needs of all of your students are met.