Virtual Learning | Spotlight
The 4 Keys to a Successful Online School
For Broward Virtual School's Evelyn Weaver, building a successful virtual learning environment begins with four key components.
- The acquisition of mission-critical tools that foster collaboration and enable effective communication;
- The implementation of a flexible, focused curriculum that can be tailored to the individual student;
- The relevant, timely, and in-depth training of all stakeholders, including administrators, teachers, and parents; and,
- The development of an immediate, effective technical and academic support system.
Ultimately, Weaver told attendees at the FETC 2012 National Conference Wednesday, true success requires "a partnership between the curriculum provider and the local virtual school," focused on delivering high-quality, individualized learning.
In order for education in the virtual environment to be successful, said Weaver, an instructor at BVS in Florida's Broward County, you have to arm your students, your educators, and your parents with effective tools, designed to help them succeed.
Chief among them, she continued, is communication. You can't have a virtual school without having multiple effective ways to communicate, both with the teacher and with the student. "Our kids have a true global presence," she said, referencing the multicultural, multinational nature of Broward Virtual School. It's important they have access to things like telephones, e-mail, and online conferencing tools like Elluminate to connect with teachers and support staff whenever--and wherever--it's needed.
Of course, Weaver went on, communication is irrelevant if you're students aren't interacting with effective teachers. "All of our teachers," she said, "are state or nationally certified. Perhaps more important than that, we require our teachers to have successful classroom experience," before Broward will let them teach in the virtual environment.
Along with certified instructors and effective communications, online assessment tools play a significant role in the success of any virtual school.
"A good learning management system (LMS) is a must-have," she said. BVS uses Blackboard for high school students and K12's OLS platform for elementary school.
"I won't say these are without their own unique issues," Weaver confessed, but for all their shortcomings, the virtual learning environment would be impossible without them.
Another important tool in the arsenal of any effective virtual school, according to Weaver, is face-to-face activity.
"BVS," she said, "offers in-person sessions every Tuesday for students in grades K through 5, as well as field trips, hands-on science, and club activities for high school students."
This hybrid approach helps meet the needs of students that require more personalized attention, she argued.
Tom DiGiovanni, vice president of product development at K12 Inc., insisted that any virtual curriculum be founded on core knowledge, based on sound, accepted, known pedagogical teaching methods, and flexible enough to accommodate multiple learning styles. DiGiovanni shared the stage with Broward's Weaver to speak to the specific curriculum needs of an effective virtual school.
"K12 staffs curriculum experts that have years of experience," he said, to provide partner schools like BVS two things:
- Highly customizable lessons and
- Accredited materials.
The ability to cater curriculum to individual student needs is especially important, said DiGiovanni. "The virtual classroom has the flexibility to provide for both remediation as well as advanced programs for gifted students." Pace and learning style can be customized in a way that "promotes the development of skills, attitudes, and self-discipline needed in the 21st century."
Addressing the need for comprehensive training of all virtual school stakeholders, Weaver estimated 20 hours of training is required for individuals supporting high school students in the program, while K-8 requires upwards of 40 hours of training. "Significant training is a requirement," she said, "in order to use the platforms that are designed to keep students engaged."
"Related to training," she continued, "it's important that family members really understand the responsibility associated with virtual school before committing to the program. "This isn't a part-time obligation," she said. In order for students to excel, everyone involved has to be on board.
Finally, said Weaver, because virtual schools are grounded in technology, the right support mechanisms need to be in place to quickly address any technical issues as they arise. "That means providing support for both online and local communication issues." BVS, for example, has administrative staff to provide technical assistance to families as well as to educators participating in the program. The curriculum provider--K12, in the case of BVS--also provides supplemental help to the district, giving them immediate access to answers as issues arise.
For Weaver and DiGiovanni, it all comes down to one thing: "delivering a flexible, individualized education experience that is focused on helping students develop the skills, attitudes, and sensibilities necessary to succeed in the twenty-first century." Watching that unfold, said Weaver, is very exciting.
Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Illinois. He can be reached here.