I was recently assigned to a project to support my district in designing a virtual academy. Although teaching and learning has been excruciatingly challenging for both staff and students, there is a need to provide an online learning option for students. Feedback from families and students show that some have really thrived from this environment. It is our responsibility, especially considering equity, that as a district we provide that option for students. I personally don’t have much experience with virtual academies. My understanding is limited to having taken a handful of online only courses in my undergraduate; my graduate program is all online. I taught social studies remotely at the start of the pandemic and continued into a summer learning program.
My district is strongly considering using an online course provider (OCP) to deliver curriculum in some capacity. Many virtual academies across the country do use online course providers, but they are limited to ones that have been approved by their state. In WA where I work, for example, there is a short list of online course providers that are approved by OSPI. I have never taught with nor been a student who has used online course providers. My student experience with online only courses has been that the instructor builds and delivers their own curriculum through the learning management system. It was never self-paced or adaptive. For this module, I chose to focus my research on OCPs and how they inform the roles of educators, students, and families who are enrolled in online academies.
What type of data do online course providers offer? How does this data inform the roles of educators, students, and families to support student achievement?
Designer (5): Educators design authentic, learner-driven activities and environments that recognize and accommodate learner variability. Educators:
5a – Use technology to create, adapt and personalize learning experiences that foster independent learning and accommodate learner differences and needs.
Analyst (7): Educators understand and use data to drive their instruction and support students in achieving their learning goals. Educators:
7a – Provide alternative ways for students to demonstrate competency and reflect on their learning using technology.
7b – Use technology to design and implement a variety of formative and summative assessments that accommodate learner needs, provide timely feedback to students and inform instruction.
7c – Use assessment data to guide progress and communicate with students, parents and education stakeholders to build student self-direction.
The Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has approved 23 online course providers (OSPI). I decided to focus my initial research for this blog post on 3 that are popular among neighboring public school virtual academies. This includes Pearson’s Connexus, K12 Inc., and Edgenuity. Some of the most helpful sources for my research were the product’s support website, FAQ videos either produced by the product or from a school district, and the product’s very own website. Each of the OCPs websites were quite general as it was intended to showcase the product’s flexibility, so it was challenging for me at times to get a detailed picture of the data they produced and user experience for both educators and students. To my surprise, each of these three OCP’s offer roughly the same flexibility and customization to fit the needs of the virtual programs that schools/districts are trying to offer. This can range from fully online instruction to blended learning options with some sort of brick and mortar support consideration. Each provides an expansive course catalog and also offers virtual teachers should there be staffing challenges. I did uncover some differences that would be worth consideration for developing a new virtual academy.
Pearson highlighted a feature for educators to create student groups in order to differentiate content across different courses their students were taking. This allows teachers to more easily insert Pearson created resources into the curriculum or create and upload their own lessons/resources to fit student needs as they are progressing through their course. Furthermore, teachers could create “multi-outcome” scoring that allows assignments and assessments to be designated to additional categories that identified 21st century skills. One of the categories shown on their support page was “Grit”, though it was unclear as to how the student was assessed for grit based on the assignment/assessment.
While Pearson promoted teachers modifying courses to address student learning needs, K12 Inc and Edgenuity both emphasized adaptive learning built into their products. Adaptive learning is an education technology that can respond to a student’s interactions in real-time by automatically providing the student with individual support. K12 Inc offers a digital library that includes rewards-based adaptive learning tool through games. Similarly, Edgenuity offers adaptive learning through assessment and instruction that responds to students in real time.
What types of data are available in these OCPs?
In a virtual academic environment, students can self-select courses or be assigned courses for reaching graduation requirements from the OCP course catalogue. As they work through the lessons/units, OCPs record assessment data that tracks student’s progress on specific standards, course completion, and grades. They also show an activity log that shows when students are logging in, how much time they spend on an assignment or question, and when they start/turn-in assignments. Pearson’s Connexus provides the opportunity for students to give feedback to the instructor about the course. They can self-assess at the end of each unit giving a rating of their own understanding of the content/skills, their interest level, and effort.
How does that data inform the roles of educators, students, and families in a virtual academy?
Educators in a virtual academy are no longer primarily responsible planning and delivery of content. Their role instead focuses more on managing students and providing them the necessary support they need to be successful largely informed by the data. Teachers should be conferencing with students at least once a week where the OCP data can inform the conversation. Weekly conferences can be used to go over a struggling skill, review learning to check for understanding, or alert teachers to ask questions about what supports a student needs who is falling behind. It would also be wise to determine a threshold, based on activity data, that informs additional communication and intervention between education staff and family for students who are falling behind the pacing of their course. In addition, this data can help inform differentiation appropriate to different student groups. Likewise, families get access to their student’s assessment and progress data. Families can support their students by monitoring course progression, due dates, and use assessment data and teacher feedback to help their learners. Students get access to both assessment and instructional adaptive feedback from the OCP. This data would be helpful to inform office hour opportunities to drop in and meet with their teacher or tutoring support.
What is Enriched Virtual learning and why should virtual academies offer this option?
Enriched Virtual school models are built upon students receiving instruction and content online. These students are then only required to attend the brick-and-mortar school on designated days if at all. This model of school is great for students where the traditional style and seat time of school do not work for them. The physical face-to-face time of this model serves to enrich students’ learning experiences through social learning, teacher-led instruction, or as-needed support for students to check-in with teachers and advisors. Many early adopters of this model emerged from fully virtual schools who shifted to blended learning to provide stronger support for students who otherwise struggle to stay on track in the online only model. Enriched Virtual models of school provide learning opportunities where students control time, path, pace, and the place of their learning to a degree. The Enriched Virtual model can also help to support social learning opportunities for students. Educators can facilitate small group discussion so that students have an opportunity to present their stance and hear from the perspectives of their peers. This is a very compelling option to consider for my district’s first ever virtual academy. We know we have to design a highly flexible school that can meet the wide diversity of needs of our students. For some students, this may very well mean a fully online experience while others may need the flexibility of online learning, but desire in-person learning and support to a degree. We should consider the following when considering an enriched virtual environment:
- Are the online, offline, and off-campus learning connected and mutually reinforcing?
- Are students staying on track to earn core academic credits and demonstrating authentic mastery of learning to their teachers, mentors, and peers?
- Is the required face-to-face time used to intentionally engage students, helping them grow both academic and social-emotional skills?
My initial research into a few common OCPs approved in my state was helpful in gaining a general understanding for how these products work and what kind of data they provide stakeholders. The data generated from OCPs shift the roles of educators from primarily responsible for delivering curriculum to more of an interventionist and coach. The time gained from not having to plan curriculum allows for teachers to focus on relationship building and analyzing assessment data to provide personalized and targeted support for their students. I am still left with some lingering questions that I may pose to the design group of my district’s virtual academy and/or representatives of the OCPs:
- How do we support our educators in providing culturally responsive pedagogy for a virtual school?
- How do we build in social learning and collaborative opportunities for our students?
- What opportunity is there for inquiry-based learning with use of an online course provider?
- How do we support our students furthest from educational justice to ensure they have reliable access to their courses and their teachers?
I also recognize that a virtual academy isn’t appropriate for all of our students. Some have really struggled with remote learning. Technology issues, self-discipline, lack of social interaction, and communicating and collaborating online are just some challenges that have negatively impacted student learning over the last year (Klein, 2021). However, it would be inequitable for my district to not offer this option for the students who really thrived with online learning. These students want more control over the time, pace, and place of their learning. The push to create a virtual academy isn’t a temporary solution to address challenges caused by the pandemic. This is an option we must always provide our students moving forward. After learning more about OCPs and Enriched Virtual learning, I am convinced that part of this option must involve a brick and mortar school to some degree.
Approved Online Course Providers. OSPI. (n.d.). https://www.k12.wa.us/student-success/learning-alternatives/online-learning/approved-online-course-providers.
Klein, A. (2021, May 3). How Virtual Learning Is Falling Short on Preparing Students for Future Careers. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/technology/how-virtual-learning-is-falling-short-on-preparing-students-for-future-careers/2021/03.
K–12 district partnerships. Pearson Connexus. (n.d.). https://www.pearson.com/us/prek-12/products-services-teaching/online-blended-learning-solutions/pearson-connexus.html#.
Online Curriculum & Coursework for K–12 Education: Edgenuity Inc. Edgenuity Inc. (2021, April 12). https://www.edgenuity.com/.
Online Public School Programs: Online Learning Programs. K12. (n.d.). https://www.k12.com/.
White, J. (2019, July 25). Is the Enriched Virtual blended-learning model the future of high school? Blended Learning Universe. https://www.blendedlearning.org/is-the-enriched-virtual-blended-learning-model-the-future-of-high-school/.