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A Closer Look at Virtual Learning Models

With the recent passage of the Digital Learning Now Actin Florida, which expands virtual education options to parents and students, one trend that finally has the power to truly revolutionize the very fabric of our education system is online learning.

It's truly amazing to see how education has been transformed during the last decade. While most of our elementary and high school memories come from the traditional schoolhouse, today that model of learning has evolved immensely. Over the years, advances in technology have spurred many changes in education. With the recent passage of the Digital Learning Now Actin Florida, whichexpands virtual education options to parents and students, one trend that finally has the power to truly revolutionize the very fabric of our education system is online learning.

As students and families better acquaint themselves with online learning offerings, we also work with school districts in Florida to create blended learning options where online courses are used to supplement and enhance traditional classroom learning. Because online courses are incredibly flexible, district and school leaders can select the courses or programs they need to best serve their students. Students win because they have the best of both worlds--traditional "brick and mortar" and online learning environments.
As online learning evolves, the lines can be blurred between online learning, blended learning and another twist in online offerings--the hybrid classroom. All these forms of online learning have different meanings to different people, and some better serve students or districts than others, depending on their needs. One thing is certain: These learning models are gaining momentum and will change the online education landscape as we know it today.
To help differentiate, online learning is where all interactions between students and teachers are online, with the necessary exception of proctored exams. At Florida Virtual School (FLVS), learning takes place at any time, any place, any path, and any pace. Flexibility, personalization, and a keen focus on mastery of content are core elements of the course delivery. 

Students who need more time to complete a class are not bound by the school calendar year. They establish a pace with their teacher prior to starting the class that allows for customization based on the students' learning styles. In some cases, enrollment in courses is flexible--meaning students can sign up any time throughout the calendar year.
As online learning courses have evolved, courses are no longer restricted to a linear learning path. Students can work their way through the course in a path that works best for their learning styles. This personalization allows for learners to leverage their strengths to master content. Furthermore, teachers can customize learning activities to meet student needs.
Without the pressure to complete the course within a pre-determined number of days, students can work at a natural pace to fully learn course content. Teachers actually encourage students to resubmit work until they have demonstrated their full and complete understanding of the content. 

A common question raised by families new to online education is how a student possibly can learn more effectively than by being face-to-face with a teacher in a traditional classroom. Surprisingly to most, students receive more one-to-one instruction from online teachers with numerous contact points, including phone, e-mail, instant message, Skype, and text. Plus, online teachers have extended hours of availability to help meet each individual student's learning needs. This is what makes online learning so unique!

For many, a blended learning environment offers the best of both worlds--a physical meeting place where some teaching and learning is scheduled in face-to-face classrooms and where other courses are conducted online in a computer lab or customized learning space. Blended environments, as they operate today, are still bound by space and time with the traditional school schedules, but they create a new and exciting option for today's students.
A blended learning approach combines face-to-face facilitation with online instruction. It also provides technology activities with the assistance of computers, wireless devices such as smartphones, satellite television channels, videoconferencing, and other emerging electronic media. Learners and teachers work together to improve the quality of learning and teaching. The ultimate goal of blended learning is to provide realistic, practical opportunities for students.
In Florida's Miami-Dade County Public Schools--the fourth largest school district in the US--there are more than 8,000 students taking FLVSnline courses alongside traditional courses in 56 virtual learning labs. Students do their work in a learning lab where district-based facilitators monitor the room and support the student regarding any connectivity or IT issues, while the students can work on their coursework and communicate with their instructors outside of the normal classroom hours. 
Over the past couple of years, another type of online learning option has emerged--the hybrid classroom. Hybrid courses (also known as blended or mixed mode courses) are those in which a significant portion of the learning activities has been moved online and time traditionally spent in the classroom is reduced, but not eliminated. 

From my point of view, the goal of a hybrid classroom is to pair the best features of face-to-face teaching with the best options of online learning to promote active and independent learning and reduce class seat time. Using instructional technologies, the hybrid model forces the redesign of some lecture or lab content into new online learning activities, such as case studies, tutorials, self-testing exercises, simulations, and online group collaborations.
In these types of settings, students benefit from the quality instruction and flexibility of both the online and classroom learning environments. Students collaborate and interact with their peers and instructors in a traditional classroom setting, and they also learn to work independently and with their peers online. This online environment can be thought of as a “virtual classroom,” where students participate by posting and reading the discussion board or online forums, collaborating with peers on group work, and interacting with material provided online by the instructor.

In my experience, both blended learning programs and hybrid classes are outgrowths of the online learning course.  Both draw upon a central focus of a virtual learning program--learning options that will allow and encourage students to master content and succeed, which is the most important goal of all.  

Today's kids live in a digital world. The reality is that the influence of technology will only grow, so, as leaders in education, we need to create educational experiences that mirror life beyond the schoolhouse. It's an exciting time in education reform and, with student focus at the center of every decision we make, we are proud to be a leader in these revolutionary changes.

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