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Four keys to creating successful eLearning programs


A number of important considerations go into creating high-quality online and blended learning programs.

It’s no secret that online and blended learning are picking up momentum nationwide—and during a recent International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) webinar, experts offered advice for school leaders who hope to begin their own online or blended learning programs.

While many use the terms interchangeably, online learning and blended learning differ slightly, said webinar moderator Butch Gemin of the Evergreen Education Group, which publishes iNACOL’s annual “Keeping Pace with Online Learning” report.

Online learning is teacher-led instruction delivered primarily via the internet, and it includes software to provide a structured learning environment. Teachers and students are separated by geography.

Blended learning occurs any time a student learns in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar place, away from home, and at least in part through online delivery, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.

Many school districts begin with a pilot online or blended learning program but run into challenges when they try to scale up the program, said Evergreen Education’s Chris Rapp, who works with schools around the country as they start or expand online learning programs.

“You have to know where you want to go if you’re going to get there,” he said. Rapp outlined four key program components for education leaders to consider.

Content

Creators of online or blended learning programs should know their educational goals, program, structure, and course content before they begin, Rapp said.

Knowing what grade levels will be served and whether courses will be full-time or supplemental, spread over a traditional calendar year or follow a nontraditional calendar, and let students learn at their own pace or follow a cohort-based pace are all important considerations.

“Understanding that really helps you choose your content,” he said.

Content can consist of core courses, electives, career and technical education, and more, and it can be created or licensed. Leaders should consider their staff expertise and the resources they already have in place if they want to build their own content.

Open educational resources (OER) are another potential content source, but Rapp cautioned that it often can take time for teachers and administrators to find and evaluate this content. (For more on efforts to organize OER, click here.)

Ensuring that content is aligned with the Common Core State Standards is important as well.

Teaching

“Regardless of the medium…the teacher is always the most important person—the person who has the most significant impact on the success of the student,” Rapp said, adding that a teacher’s importance is the same in online and blended learning as it is in a brick-and-mortar setting. “It’s important that we consider that a given in this process.”

Targeting teachers who are ready to jump into using the new set of tools that online learning requires is the best way to go, he said.

iNACOL’s National Standards for Quality Online Teaching can help organizers of online and blended learning programs get started, and these standards also can be modified for local use.

Program creators should consider a number of questions, including whether they will hire teachers or use existing teachers and how they will prepare those teachers, whether teachers will be full- or part-time, and whether there are any contractual issues to consider.

And all parties involved should “avoid the myth that any classroom teacher is qualified to teach online,” Rapp said. Many teachers are asked to teach online with little to no preparation or support.

“Good teaching is good teaching, but this is a different set of tools, and teachers need to know how to use those tools and how to use proper techniques to really engage students,” he added.

Professional development is key to this consideration, and first-time online teachers should enroll in a rigorous summer program to prepare themselves. Organizing professional development by discipline has advantages, and having experienced online teachers mentor new online teachers also is a wise idea.

Many online teachers say that even if they have several years of classroom experience, their first year of teaching online is much like their first year of classroom teaching, because they find they need new and different classroom management and communication skills.

“Regardless of the content, the quality of the teaching is going to make the course or program successful,” said Justin Schmitt, principal of Southwest Colorado eSchool. Schmitt’s school is a newly-formed online middle and high school run through a board of cooperative educational services that formed when nine districts banded together to create an online school in the region.

It’s important to know when, or during what time, students access their courses, because that’s when online teachers should be available to their students, Schmitt said. In his previous experience as an online teacher, Schmitt used as instant messaging application to communicate with students, and he said they were very comfortable approaching him in that manner.

Not all online or blended learning students have parents at home to supervise them, and the Southwest Colorado eSchool has built local support for students by opening two administrative offices where students can come for help. Someone from the school also will meet students at libraries or learning centers to offer academic advising, tutoring, and other help.

Technology

“Technology should be in service of educational goals,” Rapp said. “You want to make sure you’re working hand-in-hand with your technologists to make sure they’re supporting you in the right way.”

Interoperability is a major concern, and program leaders should make sure that whatever technologies they purchase will work well together in a seamless manner before investing money and time.

Total cost of ownership is another important consideration, and this should include the cost required to run a technology, as well as the staff time required—and not just the cost of the technology itself.

Other critical technology decisions that leaders of online or blended learning programs will encounter include:

  • Learning management system: Consider instructional features and review the system carefully, because once a system has been purchased and implemented, it is extremely difficult to change.
  • Student information system: “The last thing you want to do, especially as your program grows, is to have teachers enter grade data twice, or have it be a challenge for you or your teachers to understand where students are from an achievement standpoint at any given time,” Rapp said.
  • Internet connectivity: Before scaling an online or blended learning program, make sure the program has the capacity to support a greater number of students accessing resources at the same time, to avoid network crashes. Additionally, not all students might have internet access at home—so you must create a plan to service those students.

Other technology considerations include web conferencing tools, end-user devices, technology staff, trouble tickets, and mobile learning.

One big decision most online and blended learning programs will face is whether to provide computers and internet stipends to students, Schmitt said. Schmitt’s school operates on too small a scale to provide such resources this year, but he said the program has plans to expand to that sort of service eventually.

In the meantime, Southwest Colorado eSchool’s brick-and-mortar offices have computers that students can come and use if necessary.

The school also requires that students pass an introduction to online learning course.

“Just like teachers, students have a learning curve in becoming an online student,” Schmitt said. The course teaches students how to use the different technologies involved in the program, among other things. If students do not pass the course, they are not admitted to the program.

Operations

Creating or expanding online and blended learning programs requires strategic planning with stakeholders.

It can be difficult to find time to communicate with all parties involved, Rapp said, but it is important—otherwise, program leaders might have to backtrack and work to build support for their program.

Students, teachers, parents, building-level administrators, the school board, community members, and the business community all play a role.

“Change is hard for folks, and making sure that you can help them understand the path you’re taking” is important, he noted.

Budgets, especially in today’s economy, are a touchy subject. Rapp suggested that program leaders and administrators view online and blended learning budgets on a three-year basis. Money might be tough to come by initially, and the program might lose money in its first year, because the program is likely to be small. But by its third year, enrollment likely will be up, and the program might become self-sustaining.

“Losing a bit of money in Year One and gaining a bit of money in Year Three is a good way to look at it,” Rapp said.

Schmitt noted that support services for students are important as well, and the Southwest Colorado eSchool assigns each student an academic adviser who helps the student monitor progress and will provide counseling when necessary.

The school’s academic probation intervention program places tighter restrictions on students who are failing two or more courses to ensure that the flexibility associated with online and blended learning is not detrimental to the student’s success.

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Laura Ascione

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