E-Learning | Q&A

Hopes and Challenges of Virtual Education: 5 Questions with Julie Young

Florida Virtual School's Julie Young: "... [A]s leaders in education, we need to create educational experiences that mirror life beyond the schoolhouse."

Julie Young began focusing on technology initiatives as a classroom teacher and elementary school administrator, but she found her direction in 1995 when she joined a team to explore the concept of online learning. That project aimed to provide high-quality courses to students in rural and high-minority districts. Two years later, Young continued this path when she founded Florida Virtual School (FLVS), the country's first state-wide, Internet-based public high school.

Now president and CEO of FLVS, Young said her interest in virtual education started at a time when her family was just starting out and she was considering how technology advancements were changing the world.

"I wanted to make sure my kids, and all those kids from my elementary school, would be prepared to take advantage of this promising future," she said.

Today, FLVS serves students in grades K-12 and provides a variety of custom solutions for schools and districts. Young directs the work of more than 1,200 faculty and administrators, courseware developers, Web design specialists, and technology support personnel. She also serves as chair of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA). She earned her master of science degree in administration and supervision from the University of South Florida, and her bachelor of arts degree in elementary education from the University of Kentucky.

Young will be speaking at a session at the FETC 2011 conference, being held Jan. 31 to Feb. 3, 2011 in Orlando, FL: "Next-Generation Learning Technologies: Catalyst for Education Reform?"

THE Journal: How can virtual education best be incorporated into traditional schools for the best interest of students, or is it primarily one or the other?

Julie Young: It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies of online learning that teachers and students often find it more personal than the classroom experience. That said, I think we still need both face-to-face and online learning opportunities. In fact, you will see blended learning skyrocket for this very reason--it blends the personalization and individualization of online learning with the reassurance of face-to-face contact.

We are currently working with every school district 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 program they need to best serve their students. Student win because they have the best of both worlds--traditional school schedules for classes they want to take in a face-to-face environment and options to supplement with online courses.

In Miami-Dade, there are over 8,000 students taking online courses alongside traditional courses. These virtual classes are taught by certified teachers from Florida Virtual School. Students do their work in a learning lab where district-based facilitators monitor the room and support any IT issues. This Virtual Learning Lab enables districts to cope with class size issues, and they provide access to highly qualified teachers. The Miami partnership is a new model that we hope others will adopt as the demand for more online courses grows.

It's also important to note that today's kids are living 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.

THE Journal: What are the most significant reforms you've seen in funding, policies, practices, and infrastructure owing to the increasing popularity of virtual schools?

Young: In addition to establishing solid educational policies and practices, we needed to ensure funding so the program would be secure and sustainable. In 2003, the Florida legislature and governor changed our charter to include us in the Florida Education Finance Program. This change allowed us to grow to meet demand. More important, though, it provided sustainability. It was about performance, as well. We specifically asked that the model be tied to student performance, and state leaders agreed. Today, we are still funded from the FTE and only for students who successfully complete their courses.

THE Journal: What are the key challenges with the technology at this point?

Young: One of the challenges with technology in any industry is the rapid pace at which it changes. Keeping up with the latest can be hard for any business; even more so for public education. Access to high-speed Internet and robust computers are two of the challenges we hear about most often. While student do not need high-speed access to take our course, it certainly helps. For some students, computer access is the roadblock. We are tackling this issue head-on through our Foundation for the FLVS. With support from generous donors, we have launched partnerships with community centers to open learning rooms where their students can take online courses after-school and on the weekends. Our foundation is also working with public libraries so that FLVS students can more easily use libraries as a safe and reliable place to complete course work.

THE Journal: Should we expect that virtual schools will result in new perspectives?

Young: Yes, we are already seeing some of the colleges of education incorporate virtual schooling to their programs. For the past two years, we have been working with the University of Central Florida on an online teacher internship program that prepares future teachers for the online classroom. It's certainly an area to watch and one in which we plan to take an active role.

THE Journal: What can teachers and administrators in traditional K-12 schools learn from virtual schools--both the positive and negative?

Young: There are lots of positives--one-to-one instruction, regular communication with students and parents, and a plethora of professional development opportunities. Our program is based upon a great deal of one-to-one communications. Teachers talk, e-mail, or IM directly with students on a weekly, and sometime daily, basis. They check in with parents by phone at least once a month. Regular communication is also key. Parents constantly report that they hear more often from their child's virtual school teacher than the traditional classroom teacher.

Young will be speaking at the FETC 2011 conference in January and February 2011 in Orlando, FL. Further information can be found on the FETC conference site here.

About the Author

Natasha Wanchek is a technology writer based in New York.