FETC 2013 | Q&A

How Virtual Schools Can Get Real Results

Julie Young offers her insights into how distance learning can work best for teachers and students.

Since the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) opened its virtual doors in 1997, online learning has gone from cutting-edge to commonplace. The question for educators is no longer "How do we do this?" but rather "How do we do this better?" FLVS President and CEO Julie Young shared her lessons learned with T.H.E. Journal.

Christopher Piehler: From your experience, what would you say are some of your "best practices" for virtual learning?

Julie Young: In the 15 years FLVS has been serving students, we have continually focused on how to improve the art and science of delivering a high-quality, innovative education to our students. The FLVS leadership team has actually compiled a list of expert opinions on lessons learned. Topics range from having an ongoing system for consistent communication to valuing open discussions with team members on how to improve systems. 

Piehler: How do you train and support teachers who teach online?

Young: Training begins from day one through "Transformations" (new-employee training) and continues throughout a teacher's career with FLVS. The Florida Virtual School Professional Learning System uses a holistic approach that includes staff participation in Core (i.e.: required) Training, Functional Training, Professional Training, and Contributory Training.

This hierarchical structure is designed to encourage continued professional growth and learning for each team member. The system utilizes the Bloom's Taxonomy model and supports learning opportunities that make a positive impact on student achievement. The FLVS multi-tiered strategy provides a progressive approach to skill-development and knowledge acquisition designed to promote improved instructional effectiveness, student engagement, and student results.

In addition, FLVS has a mentor program, in which each instructor is assigned a mentor who helps him or her navigate through that first year.

Julie Young is President and CEO of Florida Virtual School (FLVS), the nation's largest K-12 online program. Her presentation at FETC 2013 is titled "How Online Courses Allow For Connected Learning Environments."

Attendees will see how using technology, collaboration, and a student-centered approach to learning provides the skills a 21st-century student needs. They will also have the opportunity to see a teacher in action, using collaborative technology to provide a live lesson for her students.

Piehler: What do you see as the advantage and pitfalls of blended learning?

Young: The advantage of blended learning is the combination of high-quality, technology-based education and face-to-face learning. For example, in the FLVS Virtual Learning Lab (VLL) model, students have the advantage of engaging online curriculum that can be accessed at school or at home, with a teacher available online from morning to night, as well as a facilitator in their building during the school day providing support. The VLL model allows schools to round out their curriculum, maximize computer labs, meet class size restrictions, and promote 21st-century skills.

A potential pitfall would be a student who wants to continue working on his or her course at home, but does not have the technological resources to do so.

Piehler: What would you cite as examples of excellence in virtual and blended learning?

Young: The VLLs are the product of a partnership between FLVS and individual Florida school districts. Schools provide a computer lab and facilitator. FLVS provides the curriculum and a certified instructor, who guides students through the course and provides ongoing instruction and feedback. Students attend a lab during the school day and are free to work on their online class anywhere at any time.

The VLL furthers the FLVS mission to provide high-quality, technology-based education to all students, regardless of typical barriers. For example, our VLLs in the Miami-Dade school district serve a population of students who normally would not have access to a 21st-century education.

Piehler: What's next for virtual learning?

Young: Virtual education has always been considered a disruptive innovation that is now becoming more mainstream. FLVS is moving towards a learning platform that focuses on personalized course design, champions high engagement and achievement, and normalizes mastery-based learning.

Student advancement will no longer be based on "seat time" in a classroom, but on demonstrated competency and mastery of a subject. This shift allows a student to accelerate his or her learning or, if needed, take more time to master the concept.

We know this shift in education is possible, as FLVS has embraced this model since its inception 15 years ago. Personalized instruction led by caring, highly qualified teachers is the future of online educational success.

FLVS Lessons Learned

Districts and states looking to making a leap into virtual education are in for a long road ahead. According to Tania Clow, a spokesperson for the Florida Virtual School, when starting out many prospective virtual schools have the same question for FLVS: What lessons have you learned? As part of its 2-day, on-site virtual leadership training program, the school has compiled a list of advice and best practices on how to set up a program and where educational leaders should focus their attention. Here is their advice:  

An ongoing system for consistent communication and follow-through among families, students, and teachers establishes a strong sense of accountability. This accountability is important in building a successful relationship between virtual teachers and virtual students.

Allowing students to have choices in how they learn and demonstrate their proficiency is the best way to engage them.

Virtual education teachers need just as much guidance as traditional teachers. (Examples include classroom walk-throughs, documenting problems, and setting clear expectations.)

Don't be in a hurry to fill your positions. It'll save time in the long run if you only hire the "must have's" and not settle for any "pretty good" employees.

When you think you've really gotten the word out about your virtual school, market some more. And then some more.

Establish metrics and products that you can consistently observe, allowing you to set goals and monitor the health of your organization.

Value open discussions with instructors, and assure them it is okay not to have all the answers. Their questions will show you where there may be gaps in understanding.

Virtual education is similar to any new game, material, or activity introduced to young students. Once introduced to virtual education, students will be able to play, then ultimately manipulate it to its best use. In this way, virtual learning will revolutionize education.

Brick and mortar schools are not the only places students develop socially. Virtual socialization adds a new aspect to interaction because the communicators' physical characteristics are omitted and do not affect the way people see or perceive each other.

Think big, K-20.

Virtual training for faculty and staff is better received when it is "just in time" and in small bites. Participation increases when staff members know they only have to give up one hour of their time for something they can use in their daily practice.

Hire teachers who are flexible, and value students over content.

About the Author

Christopher Piehler is the former editor-in-chief of THE Journal.