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How to start a successful virtual learning program

Buy-in is critical to a virtual learning program's success.

Virtual learning can help districts address many needs, such as filling a gap between courses a school offers and courses students might want to take but aren’t currently offered—and a new report offers insights on starting a virtual learning program from a number of seasoned experts.

Statistics indicate that more than 1.5 million students attended fully online or blended learning programs during the 2009-10 school year, and more school districts are turning to online instruction for its expanded curriculum offerings, flexibility, and cost-saving potential. Some experts predict that roughly half of high school courses will be offered online by 2019.

In “How to Launch District Virtual Learning,” a new report from the Blackboard Institute, 17 virtual learning experts agreed that getting buy-in from teachers, administrators, parents, and the community is absolutely essential to success.

The report’s authors interviewed a panel of 17 virtual learning experts, all of whom have led online instruction initiatives. Those experts agreed on seven important questions that schools and districts must answer before initiating or expanding a virtual learning program. The experts split into three categories, although most shared expertise beyond those categories: blended learning, course expansion, and professional development.

Those seven questions are:

  • What challenge are we trying to address?
  • Who are our champions?
  • What is our messaging?
  • How are we going to pay for it?
  • How do we get teachers on board?
  • How are we going to create and deliver the courses?
  • How will we measure success?

What challenge are we trying to address?

Virtual learning programs should fit precisely into a district’s overarching educational program and goals.

For instance, online instruction might be the right option for a district trying to provide professional development opportunities that best meet teachers’ needs.

“When our budget was drastically cut, we turned to virtual professional development to offer more courses to more teachers than we did five years ago when we were three times the size,” said Cathy Brown with the Office of Professional Development and Support in Florida’s Volusia County Schools.

Changes to district policy can increase demand for training and workshops, and virtual learning might play a role. In 2003, the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership in Florida experienced such a situation.

“In 2003 a modification was made to the Florida Consent Decree that stipulates the professional development requirements of teachers needing the ESOL endorsement added to their professional teaching certificate,” said Paty Savage, the center’s director of instructional technology.

After that modification, the need for ESOL professional development—and for workshops to meet that professional development—skyrocketed.

“In an instant, many teachers did not have the credentials they needed to maintain their jobs. The Schultz Center sought to train hundreds of educators who now needed an additional endorsement from the state to teach this population. It was our job to get them the training they needed in order to keep their job and to ensure we have highly skilled teachers, in real terms and according to state mandates,” Savage said.

Who are our champions?

Virtual learning programs need at least two champions, including one who will advocate for virtual learning at the district level and another person to manage the program’s daily operations.

Districts also will find it useful to designate professionals to work in small groups or one-on-one with teachers, administrators, and counselors. Those virtual learning professionals will craft online instruction policies, manage program logistics, and keep tabs on the program’s current and future needs.

“Put people in charge [who] have passion, understanding of online learning, know the difference between online education and brick-and-mortar education, and can use a district-wide perspective to make decisions,” recommended Becky Nunnally, an online instruction specialist in Georgia’s Cobb County School District.

What is our messaging?

Districts should take care to clear up misconceptions about virtual learning if they circulate among educators and the school community.

The experts interviewed for the report recommend keeping active lines of communication open with, and soliciting feedback from, the school district community. For instance, virtual learning advocates and leaders might clearly define the benefits of online instruction and how an online class is structured, in addition to sharing best practices and research.

“Our superintendent met with all 51 principals and asked for feedback about successes and challenges. We were able to understand what they really needed, and they knew they had a voice in this process,” said Traci Dami, director of staff development for Collier County Public Schools in Florida.

How are we going to pay for it?

Funding nearly always presents a problem for school districts, especially in a still-shaky economy.

The report notes that educators can campaign for new funding specifically set aside for virtual learning, redirect existing funds, create new revenue streams—or try a combination of all three.

The three largest sources of new funding for virtual learning programs are grants, state funding, and philanthropic organizations, although these resources also are feeling the pinch of a tough economy in recent years.

“Today, reallocating existing funds tends to be the more common way to cover the expenses associated with virtual learning initiatives,” according to the report. “For example, funds previously allocated to face-to-face professional development, textbooks, and travel expenses are being earmarked for virtual learning.”

Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina financed its virtual learning program, which includes a one-to-one laptop initiative for grades 4-12, with grants and by redirecting funds.

The district won a $250,000 Lowe’s Home Improvement Store grant, in addition to $50,000 from the county and $100,000 from the state.

“Our superintendent did such a great job of educating the community on the benefits of this program. … These funds also helped build our virtual learning infrastructure. We put our textbook budget towards this initiative, too. When we build our new schools, we no longer pay for wired classrooms—everything is wireless,” said Scott Smith, the district’s chief technology officer. “We have done all of this and are still No. 99 out of 115 North Carolina school districts in terms of dollars spent per pupil, where No. 1 spends the most and No. 115 the least.”

How do we get teachers on board?

Three strategies seem to be the most effective when it comes to teacher buy-in, the authors note.

Mandate: Districts approach this in several ways. Teacher evaluations might include a portion pertaining to teachers’ use of technology in the classroom. Teachers could be required to use the learning management system gradebook and post at least once a week, as they are in Mooresville Graded Schools.

Support the choice: Offer all or the majority of professional development and other required courses online—and use the system that is being promoted.

“We use the learning management system in everything we do. It is our online classroom, it is our portal; we are paperless as we provide all information and forms via our learning management system. Administrative meeting notes, resource articles, school improvement plans are all shared and stored in the system,” said Traci Dami of Collier County Public Schools.

Encourage gradual buy-in: “Find non-threatening opportunities to familiarize educators with the online environment,” the report’s authors suggest. “If online learning options are available, easy to use, and well supported, teachers will gradually begin using them.”

How are we going to create and deliver the courses?

Virtual learning policies play an important role in determining how successful online instruction will be. The experts had different opinions on how much control a school district should have over policy, but each expert follows a consistently applied process.

Questions involved in those processes include:

  • Will we build or buy the course content?
  • How will we define and measure the rigor of a course?
  • Will virtual classes be synchronous or asynchronous?
  • Will the classes be delivered on a set term or a continuous basis?
  • Will the classes involve teamwork?

“We have guidelines, but we give the content creators a lot of flexibility. We want them to be creative and think outside the box to come up with the best ways to teach concepts,” said Volusia County’s Brown.

“I would recommend that educators think long-term when they decide on control and flexibility. When virtual learning programs start out small, it’s tempting to allow people the freedom to do whatever they want. However, when freedom can’t scale, fragmentation is the result,” said Ryan Gravette, technology director at the Idaho Digital Learning Academy.

How will we measure success?

The experts interviewed for the report all said that having measurable results they were able to share with the district contributed to their virtual learning program’s initial success, as well as the program’s funding and expansion.

Some districts measured success through quantitative benchmarks such as enrollment or retention; others used qualitative measures such as online evaluations.

“Ideally, you should use the initial challenge you identified in step one as a benchmark to measure success; however, you can also find additional areas of assessment,” the report notes.

For a complete list of the experts interviewed, and to access the full report, click here.

For more news on virtual learning, see:

Annual report reveals online learning’s rapid rise

Online learning caucus coming to Congress

More states look to online learning for students

Virtual learning acquisitions shake up marketplace

iNACOL updates its online teaching standards

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