Distance Education | Spotlight

Using Online and Blended Learning To Help Students Design Their Educational Experience

For Julie Young, who recently announced her retirement as president and CEO of Florida Virtual School (FLVS), the journey to online and blended learning began with her organization's mission: "To deliver high-quality technology-based education that provides the skills and knowledge students need for success."

It was that vision that took FLVS from a small regional startup in the late '90s to becoming a statewide program that offers courses and instruction to all 67 Florida districts, as well as programs in all 50 states and more than 65 countries globally. According to Young, for the 2012-2013 academic year, FLVS  had 410,963 half-credit enrollments and a student population consisting of 30 percent minorities. Of the total population, 72 percent came from public and charter schools, 22 percent from home school environments and 6 percent from private schools. Perhaps surprisingly, 58 percent of the total student population was female.

Getting from There to Here
In the beginning, said Young, the school was focused on creating opportunities for kids with limited options and access to appropriate, high-quality education. "The driving question," she said, during a recent talk at the FETC conference in Orlando, FL, "was 'How do we deliver high quality education to every student in our state, regardless of their zip code?'"

Part of the equation, according to Young, has been to provide high-level courses in an online setting to students who would otherwise not have access. "Back in 1996," she said, "more than 50 percent of the state" didn't have AP programs. "Today, every student in the state has access to 15 high-quality advanced placement courses. And," she added, "since there is no gate-keeping mechanism, as long as a student has completed the prerequisites, they can take the class." This focus on opportunity rather than geography has resulted in 45 percent of FLVS AP students coming from rural, high minority, or low performing schools.

Given this information, said Young, if we look at virtual  learning as a whole, "imagine the possibilities we have as educators to focus on fundamentally changing the way we teach kids and the outcomes we are getting."

Young spent a few minutes outlining the past several years of online learning and was quick to point out that, while in 2000 there were 45,000 K-12 courses delivered online, the number jumped to more than 3 million in 2009. "It's being estimated," said young, "that by 2019, more than 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online." Young does not challenge those claims, saying, "Once kids and families have gotten a taste of this kind of learning, they don't want to go back."

The Future
Young has a very specific vision of the future. It starts with the notion that kids and families are going to start to piece together their own educational experiences.

"We need to find ways," she said, "to design opportunities that will meet the needs students and families are identifying for themselves." Online and blended learning requires tremendously dedicated teachers and creative thinking, "but when it works," she said, "it works beautifully."

To illustrate her point, Young outlined two Florida districts employing different models for blended learning that are having a positive impact on students in the state.

Palm Beach model: In Palm Beach County, the district reimagined the physical environment at Christa McAuliffe Middle School to include video game chairs, exercise balls, wireless devices and multiple collaboration spaces for the students. Educators encourage free movement around the space, providing students opportunities to engage the material in various ways. In this model, the classroom instruction is delivered both in-person by a certified, full-time teacher and virtually by a certified virtual FLVS teacher. According to Young, this provides for a dynamic, energetic learning environment.

Miami Dade model: According to Young, Miami-Dade County has implemented two models of blended learning. The first, through their  iPrep Academy program, is located in the school board office, with the district superintendent acting as the school's principal. "When you go in," said Young, you lose sight of the fact that you're in a school environment. With rooms resembling Starbucks, LA Fitness, family rooms, and traditional classrooms, the spaces have been purpose built to facilitate learning. "The kids own their schedule," said Young, "and if they're ahead of the game, they are rewarded with the option to stay at home some Fridays."

Miami-Dade also offers a more traditional model, employing local teachers to work with students in-person three days a week in the lab setting. The other two days, students work with facilitators who may or may not be certified.

According to Young, students who learn in online and blended environments have much different expectations for their education.

"These students," she said, " have very high expectations for student engagement. Likewise, they have much higher expectations for personalization and for control over learning and timeframe." So, she said, it's not just about delivering the material in a different format, but about understanding these expectations and changing our own thinking about what and how we teach.

Young aso outlined some of the curriculum changes that have been taking shape in response to these higher expectations of online and blended learners.

"MOOCs are gaining traction," she said, but there are also significant questions around their long-term viability. Low completion rates, questions around certification, and the absence of high-touch personal interactions all give Young pause when considering this model.

Gaming and gamification are also hot topics, according to young. "FLVS is using these models," she said, including custom designed games as well as off-the-shelf products such as Minecraft and The Sims.

Something else, said Young, that needs to be thoughtfully considered is the delivery of this content. "Content needs to be fully responsive," she said, to adjust to the various form factors of the devices students will use to consume and interact with the material.

Finally, Young shared that FLVS has added a social media course as a way to bring these tools into the classroom. "This course," she said, "teaches the power of social media" and how it can be leveraged in the classroom and beyond.

"We all know," said young, "we will continue to need do more with less," and this will not change in the near future. The blended classroom, she added, is one way we can meet the challenge head on.

About the Author

Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Illinois. He can be reached here.