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7 key steps in creating an online learning program

Vanessa Wren, director instructional technology at Granville County Schools, shares seven tips for educators and administrators when preparing a district online learning program


Single district online programs are the largest and fastest-growing segment of online and blended learning. There were an estimated 1,816,400 enrollments in distance-education courses in K-12 school districts in 2009-2010, almost all of which were online courses (Economics & Statistics, 2011).

Fueling the growth of district online learning programs are technology initiatives. School districts across the country continue to create technology enable learning environments by providing students and teachers with computing devices, often called one-to-one programs.

The expansion of technology in the hands of educators and learners has created an organic movement to online and blended learning. A natural progression to move content and leaning opportunities online once the technology infrastructure is in place to support anytime, anywhere learning. The U.S. Department of Commerce reported that as of October 2010, more than 68 percent of households used broadband internet access service (a four percent increase from 2009), and over 77 percent of households had a computer (Economics & Statistics, 2011).

Digital subscriptions, teacher sharing sites, and free web applications encourage the creation of interactive online content. As a result, districts have organically moved into developing online learning programs. Equity, engagement, and problem solving are often addressed though online learning and digital initiatives.

School administrators understand that access to a locally managed online learning program provides flexibility in scheduling, increased access to courses, professional development and the ability to be student focused. One rural public school district embarked on this journey in 2010 and has learned several lessons.

(Next page: District online learning program lessons learned 1-3)

Lesson one: Establish an optimal and scalable technology infrastructure. Nothing is more frustrating to users than a roadblock thrown up by insufficient technology. Each student and teacher needs a fully functional wireless device. In addition to a dependable device, each user must have reliable access to a wireless network. When building or expanding a wireless infrastructure, planning for adequate bandwidth to provide each user with seamless navigation will prevent headaches down the road.

Lesson two: Select a Learning Management System (LMS) that meets your students and teachers needs. Foremost, you want an LMS that is easy for users. This includes students, parents, and teachers. The simplicity of use should encourage teachers to create course content and embed resources. Select a LMS that does not take many steps to upload content. This includes embedding videos and interactive assignments. Choose a LMS that the development of interactive rich courses.

Additionally, select a LMS that supports SCROM standards. This will allow your district to move to other LMS platforms without losing content. Also, consider your technical support staff when deciding if you will use a hosted or internally housed solution. Having the manpower to upgrade, support, and perform backups is an important factor to consider.

Most importantly the LMS must be student centered. Consider how students will upload assignments, view calendars, and allow communication with teachers. Parental access and registrar functionality is critical to sustain a quality online program. Online learning inherently supports open communication between teachers, students, administrators, and parents.

Make sure your LMS supports all of these users. An comprehensive study comparing Learning Management System’s and why they were deselected indicates systems were disqualified for a variety of reasons including: scale of integration, incompatible with district data standards, limited feature sets, limited ease of use, and lack of confidence in product support by an LMS vendor (Adams, et al, 2005). Selecting a LMS, which best fits your school district’s teachers and learners, is a critical step in the initial success and cost avoidance of switching vendors.

Lesson three: Track data to report on student outcomes and costs. Often a newly implemented instructional model must prove the validity of the learning. Maintaining accurate data to track costs and outcomes of student learning will assist in informing the community and guide decision-making. Be prepared to provide comparison data between face-to-face and online student outcomes and the cost of delivery. Course passage and completion rates, changes in graduation data, grade outcomes, and costs per student can be used to gauge success and corrections to constantly improve quality of instruction.

(Next page: Lessons 4-6)

Lesson four: Provide opportunities for synchronous instruction. In secondary settings, students are still children. Teachers must demonstrate presence in the virtual classroom in a tangible manner. Providing opportunities for live interaction with the teacher, either in person or through communication technologies, increases the student-teacher relationship. Combining elements of online and face-to-face communication improves the online learning experiences for students and alleviates feelings of isolation. Synchronous instruction can take the form of live lessons, office hours, or collaborative group work in real time.

Studies indicate distance-learning outcomes were less positive when instructor involvement was low (as in “canned” applications), with effects becoming more positive when instructor involvement increased (Zhao et al, 2005). Bottom line, teachers and district administrators must have policies and expectations in place that entrench teacher presence and live interaction to obtain positive student outcomes.

Lesson five: Chose content carefully. If you build your own, purchase or lease content, make sure it is aligned and does not require heavy customization to line up with your standards. When first starting out, renting content is the quickest way to get started. However, teachers need to have the ability to customize the curriculum to fit their needs and teaching styles. When developing your own content, realize designing online curriculum requires a different skill set than classroom teaching.

If a district is using teachers to build content, online design principles, instructional technology, and the ability to create digital content skills must be taught and modeled. You do not want a course that is a series of PDF files or dizzying amounts of text on a page. Model what you want the end product to look like. If possible, hire instructional designers to support the building of curriculum.

Lesson six: Select passionate leaders. As with any new instructional model, a new program will come under scrutiny. Be prepared to answer questions about effectiveness and worth. A leader who can share the benefits of online learning and help others navigate the changes a new program brings to a district will garner needed support. Hire teachers that are believers in the benefits and authenticity of online learning and who will be committed to student and program success.

Make sure all teachers have proven track records to deliver successful student outcomes and are willing to put in the time to communicate with parents, students, and administrators. Outside perspectives often conclude that online teaching is not as time consuming as face-to-face teaching. This is a myth. Teaching online demands constant one-on one attention to each student and parent.

Lesson seven: Prepare for unintended consequences. Innovative programs often provide positive impacts the entire district. Make resources in the online program available to all traditional classrooms. The online content, technology resources and collaboration tools can benefit teaching and learning throughout the district. Placing content and assessments in a LMS, which students and educators throughout the district can access, will align curriculum and share best practices broadly. Traditional and online classrooms will have access to a turnkey curriculum, which employs interactive instructional technologies, teacher resources, and online texts, to create an engaging learning experience for students.

Vanessa Wrenn is Director Instructional Technology Services at Granville County Schools.

Economics & Statistics Administration. (2011). Exploring the digital nation: Computer and Internet use at home. United States Department of Commerce. Reports/exploring-digital-nation-computer-and-internet-use- home.
Adams, S., Banks, B., Evans, B., Gardiner, L., Geunter, C., Irving, J. (2005). Learning management system (LMS) strategic review: A next generation learning management system for CSU, Chico. Retrieved from
Zhao, Y., Lei, J., Yan, B., Lai, C. and Tan, H. (2005). What makes the difference? A practical analysis of research on the effectiveness of distance education. Teachers College Record.

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