Content Delivery for a Virtual High School

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In the fall of 2002, Visions In Education, a charter school for home-schooled and independent-study children, opened Visions High School Academy (www.visions academy.org), a virtual project-based high school. The five educators who started the program - Mark Jackson, Fred Lamora, Celine Darby, Jennifer Russell and I - identified three beliefs that guided our design of the program:

  1. Learning occurs in communities. A community is a group of individuals who share common interests and identity. In order to increase learning, individuals need to increase their involvement in other communities.
  2. Learning requires greater participation in communities. Learning involves moving to a greater participation in a community. Newcomers are introduced to the community by masters who mediate the newcomers toward this better participation in the community.
  3. Participation ensures the survival and growth of communities. The only way a community can grow is to allow those who belong to other communities to participate in your community. If a community fails to allow others to enter, the community will become stagnant and wither.

Delivery Tools

Keeping these three beliefs in mind, we used a variety of technology tools to develop a program that delivers core high school course material. These technology tools and delivery models had to align with the beliefs laid out by our team. We decided that the following three modes of instructional delivery and interaction were needed:

  • Synchronous (e.g., real-time chat)
  • Asynchronous (e.g., newsgroup and discussion boards)
  • Face-to-face interaction

These modes of delivery and interaction allow teachers to take on the role of facilitator. Teachers do not occupy a space at the head of the class; rather, they are within the class, which is more along the lines of a roundtable. Using these three modes of instruction and interaction, we felt that a community of learners could be encouraged to develop and grow.

We had to decide on the appropriate synchronous and asynchronous tools to use in the academy. TAPPED IN (www.tappedin.org) was selected as the synchronous tool that designed a special virtual "space" for the academy, which was password-protected for the students' safety. This space became the classroom for synchronous chats. In addition, teachers had their own studios in which to conduct real-time classes.

TAPPED IN also allows participants to write on a whiteboard, project Web sites, and show emotion and movement in a virtual environment. At the end of each session, students receive an e-mailed copy of their session so that their learning is captured for future reference. This last component was key in the decision to use TAPPED IN. In addition, while conversations disappear as soon as they are spoken in a traditional classroom, these conversations are not lost with students and instructors using TAPPED IN. The captured information can then be retrieved later or used by an absent student to catch up with the class.

We chose Blackboard to host the academy's curriculum, calendar, gradebook and asynchronous discussion boards. The instructors designed their courses based on national, state and district standards. These courses consist of projects due at the end of each week, with the scope of the projects covering the standards studied during the week. Students can access their projects in Blackboard before posting their completed projects to their Blackboard course. Teachers can also post topics for discussion each week on the course discussion board. Students can access these discussion boards at anytime and post their responses. The course calendar and gradebook are also located on Blackboard.

Face-to-face meetings were the last method of content delivery chosen. Periodically, students meet with their teachers at the academy office building or other locations. Instructors use this time to perform science dissections, museum field trips, group and individual tutoring, as well as literature coffeehouse discussions. These periodic, yet intense, face-to-face meetings provide community building and knowledge discovery.

The academy's Web site serves as a portal to the tools used, providing students with easy access to TAPPED IN and Blackboard from the homepage. Both tools are password-protected for the students' safety, and a link is also provided to access the parent organization, Visions In Education Charter School.

Course Design

We designed the following core courses and made them available online in fall 2002: biology, earth science, physical science, American history, world history, government, economics/government, pre-algebra, algebra I, geometry, and English I-IV. An orientation meeting was held to introduce students and their parents to the technology tools used by the academy. Students were given their passwords to log in to TAPPED IN, Blackboard and their e-mail accounts.

Students who did not have computers at home could lease computers through Visions Charter School by using money from a student budget derived through average daily attendance funding. A dial-up ISP also was provided for those who did not have an Internet connection. The computers were loaded with Windows XP, the Microsoft Office suite and Internet Explorer. Students who used their own computers were required to have the Microsoft Office suite and an Internet connection.

The course design model allows students to take four core courses each year, with additional units available as electives. Students focus on one core course every nine weeks instead of taking all four courses simultaneously. Each day, students are expected to spend four hours reading, attending TAPPED IN sessions, viewing discussion-board readings and postings, and completing project work. Then, at the end of each week, students post their projects for review.

Electives are taken over an 18-week period and facilitated primarily by the parents. The academy teachers act as certified teachers to guide, counsel and monitor student progress. Students are required to post their elective work on Blackboard once a month for teacher review. The teacher then evaluates the elective work to make sure the student is progressing in his or her elective course. At the end of the nine-week term, students' core courses are archived. Students attend a new orientation at the start of the nine-week term to acquaint themselves with the teacher and review the course syllabus.

Students, parents and teachers develop an individual learning plan for each student. A contract for the grade level they would like to pursue in their class is then developed. Students can sign up to take the course at one of three levels: honors, advanced or competency. Student projects are assigned based on the level they sign up for. Grades are achieved by meeting the necessary project requirements, which include attending and participating in TAPPED IN and discussion boards, as well as submitting the weekly project.

Students in honors-level courses receive the grade of A Honors, advanced students receive the grade of A, and competency students receive the grade of C if all their work is submitted and deemed as passed. There are no B's or D's given at the academy, but students can earn an F if all work is not submitted and passed.

A project template was created so teachers could plan their projects. Each project was designed on all three levels: honors, advanced and competency. Teachers filled in the templates online and then submitted them. The projects were uploaded into the academy's Blackboard database; then teachers assigned the projects to the courses based on the level of the students' contract. Projects included the following: description, rubric, skills needed, materials needed, required resources, environments, communication tools, activities required, facilitation, standards and artifacts. Each course is composed of nine projects.

In addition to core and elective courses, the students also are enrolled in the "Quad," which is a socialization area for students. Here students can start asynchronous conversation strands with fellow students in the academy. Discussion topics include music, movies, books and favorite socialization spots. Students also informally have adopted "Studio 10" in TAPPED IN as a meeting place for synchronous chatting.

Students are seen dropping in to discuss projects or chatting before and after class with their friends. All conversations are recorded in TAPPED IN, including transcripts of these informal meetings. Students are informed that their conversations are not private, and that anything they say can and will be used against them if they break the rules of "Netiquette" outlined by the academy.

Although the academy is young, student and parent response has been positive. Plans for next year include the addition of advanced classes such as chemistry, algebra II and a facilitated foreign language course. Relationships with the local junior colleges are also being developed so that advanced students can take college-level courses during their senior year. In addition, a parent forum was recently added to Blackboard, allowing parents to discuss issues and concerns with other parents in the academy.

Conclusion

As technology tools continually improve and change, new tools allow innovative forms of teaching and learning to evolve. The design model used by Visions High School Academy is not dependent on a particular tool, rather on a style of delivery based on learning beliefs. This fluidity allows for adaptations as technology tools continue to change.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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