The Instructor Role in the Virtual Classroom

For many, the virtual classroom is difficult to understand without first hand experience. It is true that a virtual classroom does not have walls, rows of desks or an end-of-class bell BUT it does have the most critical component of any successful classroom, an instructor who is present and engaged with students.

As Director of the Illinois Virtual School (IVS), I regularly visit with district and school administrators, as well as community members around the state. A typical question is, “How does the online course work?” or “How do students interact with the instructor in the virtual classroom?”   I use this opportunity to share practices IVS has found to be essential for a successful online course experience. The instructor role is key. My comments usually focus on (1) instructor-student communication; (2) management and oversight of course instruction and content; and (3) instructional feedback provided on assignments and assessments. However, I realize I am providing a somewhat limited picture of the learning opportunities that are afforded to students taking online course(s).  Teachers are the facilitators, the guides for students navigating online courses, gathering their artifacts, increasing their awareness and active use of 21st Century Skills.

What 21st century learning experience does the instructor of an online course provide students? The Partnership for 21st Century Skills ( identifies the student outcomes for the 21st century learner that we incorporate at IVS. The 4 Cs: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity have been promoted as “super skills” for the 21st century. Today’s online instructors continually find new and engaging ways to utilize the 4Cs in their virtual classrooms.

Critical Thinking:

Recalling the plot of a short story or listing important historical dates are no longer sufficient for today’s virtual or classroom assessment. IVS instructors utilize course discussion boards to promote analysis and reflection about a topic. In Oceanography, students are asked to explain how social media has an impact on their views of environmental issues. The use of online simulations, analysis of case studies and debate are also used in the online classroom to support higher order thinking. For example, students in Consumer Economics utilize web-base gaming simulations to test different outcomes while developing their financial literacy skills. In Psychology, students participate in an online science fair. In teams, the students design and conduct experiments that are then shared synchronously with classmates.


Teacher-to–student and student-to–student communication is essential in an online course. Students are asked to complete an Orientation prior to starting their online course. The Orientation stresses the importance of ongoing communication with the instructor as well as tips for communicating effectively online.   The first activity in any IVS course is to demonstrate communication with the instructor.   Students must email the teachers, share information about themselves and pose questions. Instructors use this activity to ensure students know how to contact them to ask questions but also to begin building the immensely important community of the online classroom where all learners are engaged and supported. Students are not given the opportunity to “sit in the back of the class” and not interact because in online learning, communication is vital to student success. IVS teachers are trained in various techniques and strategies for maintaining student engagement in the learning process.  Quarterly professional development held virtually and our annual summer face-to-face conference are opportunities for our virtual teachers to collaborate and enhance their skills. Communication with parents and other IVS stakeholders is also an ongoing goal.


Online students have many opportunities to collaborate on assignments and projects. In the IVS AP Biology course, students complete experiments and then share their data with peers to increase the number of iterations they have to draw from and improve the statistical analysis of their results.  In the Creative Writing course, students complete a collaborative experiment in which they attempt to write about a single event from eight identified points of view. Classmates then critique the writing samples generated. The IVS German students meet regularly with their virtual instructor via a web conferencing tool to practice their German speaking and listening skills.  These types of activities help to strengthen the community each teacher is working to facilitate.


Online instructors promote creativity in much the same way as classroom teachers do, by offering their students different options when it comes to assignments and projects and brining fresh ideas to the online environment. IVS courses provide numerous multi-media options when demonstrating knowledge. In Environmental Science, students are asked to create a video or narrate while walking around their local surroundings. The project is then shared with classmates to examine local environment.  Our Consumer Economics teachers work with students to help them learn and use creative presentation tools including Glogster, Smore, Emaze and Prezi to create fun interactive presentations for class projects. The engaged learner is the successful learner.

So, while highly valued for their subject areas and technical skills, our virtual instructors also need to be valued for the fostering of our students as they gather skills and tools needed for success in this new age of learning. It is certainly a daunting task, and we will again, as we have done in the past, rely on our teachers to lead our students forward in life towards college and career. I have since revised my answer to the simple ‘How does the online course work’ question, knowing that the answer is much more profound.

The Next Big Thing in Educational Technology?

Real time mobile connectivity has created monumental changes in how we use technology to communicate. “Smart devices” are changing all aspects of our daily lives in part because of the intelligence built into the systems. You can ask a question of your phone and get an answer. You don’t even have to ask to see where you are with GPS. Devices and applications work on your behalf, tracking your time, logging your activity, graphing your progress – whether it’s your workout routine, your diet, or your coursework. What’s the next big thing in educational technology? I am betting on predictive analytics and graphene.

Predictive Analytics

Going forward we will see tremendous improvements in how individual student data is collected and used in K-12 education. Unfortunately, current barriers related to accessibility, timeliness and granularity of student information limit educators’ ability to use the “numbers” to pinpoint academic challenges and identify targeted solutions in real time. One of the most exciting developments in education is the ongoing refinement of predictive analytical tools that can be used to make sophisticated decisions about learning gaps, instructional strategies and prescriptive learning assets.

I believe predictive analytics will be a core element of public education in the near future. According to Wikipedia, predictive analytics is based on statistical techniques that analyze current and historical facts to predict the future. In business, predictive models exploit patterns found in historical and transactional data to identify risks and opportunities. Models capture relationships among many factors to allow assessment of risk or potential associated with a particular set of conditions, guiding decision -making. One of the most well-known applications is credit scoring which is used throughout financial services. Scoring models process a customer’s credit history, loan application, customer data, etc., in order to rank-order individuals by their likelihood of making future credit payments on time.

The biggest game changer in educational technology may come from one of the nation’s largest online retailers, Amazon. One can argue that Amazon has become the best at using data to make decisions to better serve their customers. Last year, I spoke with executives from Amazon, and they confirmed their interest in using intelligent data tools to disrupt K-12 education the same way they have changed the traditional retail market.

Amazon is currently working on a plan that will ship products to customers before they purchase them because of their anticipatory analytics based on customers’ previous shopping habits. Can you imagine getting a pair of shoes, new golf clubs or a book delivered to your home that you like and want to purchase but did not order? This concept takes predictive analytics to another level.

Public education will be transformed if we can harness the power of these kinds of tools to make intelligent decisions about teaching and learning at the individual student level. We don’t need more data in public education, we need more efficient access to meaningful information that can guide decision-making in real time to help each student reach their potential. Sophisticated analytics can help schools:

  • Pinpoint individual learning gaps
  • Measure academic progress of groups and subgroups
  • Assess the impact of instructional strategies
  • Predict student performance
  • Personalize learning for each student
  • Identify students at-risk and recommend remediation strategies

The advantages of predictive analytics in education are yet to be fully realized, but hold significant promise in changing the landscape for students, parents and educators.


Do you remember the popular 1967 film The Graduate? Actor Dustin Hoffman played a recent college student who was uncertain about his future. In this 20th century classic film, one of the characters gives Hoffman advice on the future with one word: “Plastics.”   Today, the buzz is on a new material that will transform our world in ways we can’t fully predict. With a weight, strength, and density possibly imagined by science fiction writers decades ago, graphene may influence the makeup of a generation of devices and how those devices communicate with the user and each other. In 2010, physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novosleov received the Nobel Prize for their experiments with graphene. Researchers, physicists, and engineers continue to investigate the capacity of this material that is an atom thick but stronger than steel and can conduct electricity and heat. Sensors are being developed out of graphene, as are nano-antennas, nano-transmitters, and nano-receivers; and experiments integrating graphene electronics with biological systems are taking place.

Graphene is likely to be part of increasing the speed of electronic communications, decreasing the energy required to power devices, and developing new means of sharing information. Can you imagine wearable computers or molecular-sized devices in your body that monitor your health and communicate updates to your family doctor on an ongoing basis? Sounds scary and exciting at the same time.

Each innovation raises our expectations about what technology can do for us. From floppy disks to the cloud, desktop computers to tablets, silicon to graphene, trends continue to point to more affordable and powerful tools that are sure to change how we live work and learn. Today’s technologies have expanded our capacity to engage students in learning in a way John Dewey could never have imagined. What are your bets for the future and how do you think these developments will shape the future of education? I would love to hear your thoughts.




College and Career Ready: Finding Solutions Instead of Blame

In the United States today nearly 56% of students entering 2-year institutions start in remedial classes according to Complete College America. In Montana our percentage of students in need of remediation is very much in line with the national average. Time after time at K-12 and higher education conferences and meetings we hear this statistic and many others regarding low college completion rates, length of time spent in remedial programs and the significant cost of tuition to students and parents. Whose fault is it? Why can’t high schools do a better job preparing students for college mathematics and English? Why do colleges rely so heavily on “one shot” placement exams that many times result in under-placement of students and require them to enroll in one or more remedial courses before starting their real college program? Whose responsibility is it to close the gap? And so it has gone on like this for years as student after student leaves high school and ends up in the quagmire of developmental college courses. Who’s at fault doesn’t really matter. What does matter is finding ways, right now, to help students who are in this situation.

At the Montana Digital Academy (MTDA), located in the University of Montana’s Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences, we have chosen to seek solutions for the practical reality of too many students spending time and money taking developmental courses. MTDA seemed the perfect organizational “fit” to help bridge the gap and begin building partnerships between K-12 and Higher Education as we have developed relationships with nearly all Montana high schools serving their students with online comprehensive and remedial high school courses since 2010. Further, our unique, one of a kind statewide virtual school – University partnership with the University of Montana (UM) provided a working relationship with the two- and four-year institutions that comprise the Montana University System (MUS). Capitalizing on these relationships we are implementing a new online project, EdReady Montana, which will also be offered to students at the tribal and private colleges in the state. EdReady Montana, a customized version of the NROC Project’s EdReady, is a tool that helps schools and colleges answer the question “what do I want my students to be ready for in mathematics?” It is an easy to access online assessment and personalized academic intervention tool which allows each student to receive assistance designed to meet their unique individual learning needs and goals in mathematics and in the near future in English as well.

In the summer of 2013, in partnership with NROC and the Office of Student Success at UM, MTDA conducted a pilot with enrolling university freshman students who were offered the opportunity to improve their math placement test score by voluntarily participating in the project and using EdReady. The students in the pilot were not yet on the UM campus and used EdReady Montana from home or other remote locations. Results were quite remarkable in that over 80% of the student participants increased their placement test scores after using the tool and qualified for a higher-level mathematics course that fall at UM. Students were able to avoid enrolling in a total of 49 non-credit bearing courses with a cumulative tuition savings of $31,000. Students were impressed with the fact that they were able to do this at their own pace, place and time before arriving on campus. (A case study is available at

Following the successful pilot MTDA, in partnership with and assistance from the College of Education’s Dean Roberta Evans and UM President Royce Engstrom, sought and received funding from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation to implement a 3-year field test and rollout of EdReady Montana. The generous gift from the Washington Foundation, a major philanthropic foundation in Montana of which education is a key focus area, is enabling MTDA to offer EdReady Montana to all 7-12 grade secondary students in the state, as well as any higher education student including non-traditional students such as individuals wishing to enter or re-enter college. EdReady Montana is the first statewide implementation of the online college readiness system in the U.S. and the project offers up to 150,000 Montana students the opportunity to establish an account and have access to EdReady Montana in each of the three years.

In the first year of the project, which has mainly been a mixture of field testing and rollout, the focus has been on working with colleges and schools to develop successful prototype use cases that will serve as models which can be replicated throughout the state with local entities customizing the tool for their students. Some examples of the higher education use cases that have emerged are a preparation tool for newly accepted university freshman aligned to exisiting mathematics placement tests, in much the same way as the initial pilot, and a companion/co-requisite to exisiting college level math courses allowing for individualized differentiated instruction. Evolving secondary school uses cases are a summer school “boot camp “refresher program in pre-algebra, algebra, geometry and algebra II for high school students and as an algebra readiness tool for middle school students.

It is still early in this initiative, but the positive reaction to EdReady Montana and its impact on secondary and higher education students reaches from the middle school and high school classrooms to the university campuses and on to the offices of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Commissioner of Higher Education and the Governor of Montana. This positive reaction is generating “hands across the aisle” discussions around solutions to college and career readiness needs for all Montana students. Very refreshing!

Robert Currie, Executive Director, Montana Digital Academy

More information on EdReady Montana is available at

Understanding the Generation Z Student

As state virtual school leaders, it’s naturally important for us to understand and connect with our students. Students are learning in schools that are increasingly more and more “powered up” with digital technologies. It is likely a mistake to assume that today’s students are similar to the previous generation of students. They are, in fact, a new kind of student.

Social scientists have labeled this current group of K-12 students as “Generation Z.” Generation Zs are those students falling after the Millennial Generation, born in the late 1990s or through the mid- 2000s. They are markedly different than their Generation Y (also known as the Millennial Generation) predecessors, and they already seem “old school” when compared to their successors, Generation Alpha.

Generation Z Background

Generation Z is the product of a turbulent time in our nation’s history that is punctuated with an incredible upswing in technology. We might think that today’s young students live in very sheltered, cushioned life with every convenience in the world at their fingertips. Some of that might be true, but it does not tell the entire story. Generation Z has grown up during a very difficult recession that they have seen firsthand. They have seen foreclosed homes in their neighborhoods. They know someone with a parent who couldn’t find a job.

Generation Z, or Gen Zs, consume more media than any generation in the past, but it’s a different type of media that often comes to them unfiltered. The GenZ media is filled with stories of terrorism and school violence. Gen Zs generally know someone who’s been to war. They’ve never known a time when they have not had to take off their shoes before boarding an airplane. School violence does not get lost in the news cycle for them. It’s frighteningly real. In a sad commentary, Gen Zs ranked the top events (Cassandra Report, 2013) that have had the most impact in their lifetimes.

Here’s a reverse order look at the top three:

3. The first Black President was elected

2. The emergence of social networking

1. School violence

Do you know how much of an impact something has to have to unseat Twitter, Vine, Instagram, and Facebook from the number one spot?

Resilient Z

Gen Zs are resilient. Digital content and constant gaming have not only rewired their minds, it’s also led them to disregard “no-win scenarios.”

From Emily Anatole’s Generation Z: Rebels With A Cause

Gen Z is smaller in numbers (than Gen Ys), but there is evidence to suggest that their influence, fueled by an innate and constant connection to the world around them, will outstrip their size.

Whereas Gen Ys (ages 18-34) are optimistic, Gen Zs are realistic. They understand how scary the world can be, having grown up post 9/11, in the wake of the Great Recession and amid countless reports of school violence. They’ve seen the effects of the economy firsthand and are more aware of troubling times. These dark events will undoubtedly make them more cautious and security-minded, but will also inspire them to improve the world.

The Gen Zs are proving to be more socially responsible, but don’t count on their blind loyalty. They’ve not shown brand loyalty in the marketplace, and they’ve witnessed the lack of corporate loyalty when their own parents and older siblings lost their jobs during the recession.

The Internet is allowing Gen Zs to do things that their previous generations couldn’t do. The Internet and digital apps are letting them become entrepreneurs and make exciting breakthroughs at an early age. If they need funding, they’re finding it on Kickstarter. Teens like Sam Washko, Shree Bose, Christopher Tate, and Rachel Davis exemplify exactly what this crowd of young students can produce.

This is the common model for success with this crowd of high achievers:

Challenges + Internet + Digital Tools + Models of Innovation = Success

Classroom Translation

What are our takeaways for our classroom, virtual as well as brick-and-mortar? First and foremost, we have to make education relevant for them. They see way too much of the real world and are connected to it through social media in ways that we never were. NCVPS teachers are required to make daily announcements in their courses. One of the features of the daily announcement is to show the relevancy of what students are learning to what is happening in the real world. We do not just rely on course content. Our teachers are creators, as well. We’ve always known that relevance is essential in education. Now it’s imperative.

We also need to make education engaging. We need to play on the strength of Gen Zs and appeal to their need for multi-media consumption and engage them in online communities. At NCVPS we have graphic user interface (GUI) specialist who adds engaging game-like learning objects to all of our courses, and we design our courses to meet a variety of learning styles, including text, video, audio, and images.

Phil Parker writes in “Do you know how Generation Z pupils learn?”

They are kids with brains rewired by the internet – answers to questions come from Google and YouTube, but they lack the critical-thinking skills to evaluate sources. According to Stanford University, this is freeing up brain capacity to develop such skills far earlier than previous generations. Gen Z are fast becoming the most successful problem-solving generation.

Their brains have become wired to sophisticated, complex visual imagery. Audio and kinesthetic learning is out. So is talk – or lecturing as Gen Z sees it. They’re avid gamers, they’ll spend 30,000 hours gaming by the age of 20. They want learning to be the same: a sequence of challenges with instant feedback on progress, clear goals and rewards linked to them. Their gaming profile is shown at the end of the challenge which displays their overall accomplishments; e-Learning profiles are what they demand. You want to engage Gen Z? Turn lessons into video games!


  • Leverage technology to provide immediate feedback and use game-based learning.
  • Engage students in a variety of collaborative projects that use social media.
  • Make lessons visual.
  • Focus on critical thinking and problem-solving lessons.
  • Teach students how to validate online content.
  • Have students work on projects in depth and complexity.
  • Exercise!

We would love to hear your feedback on your Generation Z observations. Are they demonstrating these characteristics in your classroom, or in your home? How are you satisfying your digital needs? Drop us a note or leave us a comment.

By Adam Renfro, Outreach and Support Coordinator, North Carolina Virtual Public School







Online Learning a Lifeline for Rural Schools

Rural communities are near and dear to my heart. I have lived in a rural community for more than 40 years in a Northern Wisconsin community bordering the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. If you live in a rural community or are familiar with such areas, you know how important the school is to the community. Starting in the 80’s and 90’s I witnessed our small rural district (K-12 population of 140) utilize an Interactive Video classroom through a distance education network to provide advanced courses, credit recovery, and world languages. In the early 2000’s the district transitioned to online courses to fill in gaps in curriculum. Despite the online options that exist for rural schools, however, there remain challenges to grasp a critical lifeline that can lead rural students to increased course access and post secondary paths.

The “High School Benchmarks 2014, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center” makes this point relative to the likelihood of rural students attending college compared to their urban peers: “In general, rural high school graduates are less likely than their urban peers to attend an institution of post-secondary education. According to research, rural students are less likely than their urban and suburban peers to attend college regardless of the demographics of their high school. The only exception is Low-Income/High-Minority schools where only about half of students, regardless of locale attend college in the fall after high school graduation.” Along similar lines, the Columbus Dispatch’s recent article, “Rural Kids Get Fewer AP Courses,” stated, “a first-of-its-kind analysis of high-school courses offered by Ohio districts finds that students living in poorer, more rural areas of the state have access to fewer overall classes, and far fewer high-level courses, than do students living in suburban and urban districts.” Wisconsin Public Television aired Support Systems for Increasing Rural College Access. This episode discussed the factors facing rural Wisconsin students on a path to educational opportunities after high school. Challenges, solutions, support systems at the local and national level were highlights.

Many factors are leading to rural school challenges: declining enrollments, high socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, high transportation costs, a lack of computer and Internet access in homes, low teacher pay and high turnover. All can lead to low student achievement, low achievement leading to a perception of poor quality, poor perceptions of quality leading to failed referendums (a mechanism in Wisconsin to request additional dollars for education from local taxpayers), shortages of highly qualified teachers, fewer electives…do I need to say more!

Online learning is one solution to breaking the cycle of rural educational challenges. We can improve access (broadband and infrastructure) that can lead to increase in equity of options which includes access to high quality teachers in areas of shortages, improved confidence in quality digital resources, and professional learning for effective use of digital learning. These not only provide a lifeline to rural schools, but also build more pathways for our rural students to participate in post secondary options.

How can we provide this lifeline? It takes commitment and collaboration. Legislators in Wisconsin are reviewing recommendations made by the Speaker’s Rural Task Force. A current program called TEACH (Technology for Educational Achievement), subsidizes much of the cost to provide telecommunication access to eligible schools, libraries, and educational institutions which has been and is a lifeline to rural schools. TEACH 2.0, a recommendation from the Task Force would expand TEACH. It would be built on four pillars: 1) Increase current TEACH Funding for Broadband Expansion for Schools and Public Libraries, 2) Re-Establish Technology Block Grants for Hardware and Infrastructure Needs, 3) Provide State Support to Enhance School District Access to Digital Learning Content, and 4) Provide Grant Support for Professional Learning on Effective Instruction Using Digital Tools.

TEACH 2.0 pillars three (digital content) and four (professional learning) are interdependent on the other two pillars, districts having adequate broadband access and updated infrastructures. Enhancing schools’ access to digital learning content and supporting professional learning for using digital tools for instruction can be achieved by utilizing a valuable asset that 26 states have….a state virtual school. State virtual schools have been providing supplemental online courses across their states for over a decade in many cases. Recently, they have expanded services to support districts with their blended learning options, and also offer support for college and career readiness. Efforts by Montana Digital Academy’s Ed Ready Montana program or Idaho Digital Learning’s iPath are excellent examples of college readiness initiatives led by state virtual schools. Montana’s EdReady program focuses on preparing students for college-level math and a desired career path by revisiting possible gaps in general math skills and providing skills development opportunities. This potentially saves students (and parents) tuition costs for remedial courses at colleges. Idaho’s Digital Learning Path is a statewide early college high school model that provides all the coursework required to earn college credit, industry certification, or even an associate’s degree WHILE in high school primarily thorough online coursework.

Here in Wisconsin we have the Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative (WDLC), a partnership between Wisconsin Virtual School (WVS), Wisconsin eSchool Network (WEN), and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI). WVS and WEN collaborate with DPI to provide a single point for schools to access quality online courses and services. Combined, these two programs support pathways for schools to provide a variety of online and blended learning opportunities. TEACH 2.0 would provide a modest commitment of investment to support further development and implementation of digital learning opportunities for all public, private, and charter schools. Rural schools would benefit from 1) equitable access to high quality instruction, and 2) lowered costs through economy of scale purchases, reducing per student cost of high-quality instruction and digital content choice. Statewide licensing of digital content and a learning software platform has a high potential for significant return on state taxpayer’s dollars.

The Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative has the ability to use its experience and expertise to navigate acquisition and development of digital content. The WDLC has provided many hours of high quality professional learning for online teachers. Commitment from state legislatures to support their state virtual school and the collaboration among organizations can provide a lifeline to rural districts to meet challenges such as course access and post secondary paths. Rural schools are near and dear to my heart and others, and critical to communities across the country.

Dawn Nordine, Executive Director, Wisconsin Virtual School

Integrating Longitudinal Data Systems and Virtual Schools

An inherent challenge for supplemental virtual schools is that they do not “own” their students. In most cases, the local school that will ultimately issue the credit for the course, and graduate the student, does. However, with many of the state data systems now available, the capability exists for online schools to have immediate access to all the information gathered by the local school. By sharing data on each student, online classes can more seamlessly integrate with the larger educational plan of a student at a face-to-face school. Over 20 states have begun or completed the process of incorporating longitudinal data into state record systems. Georgia Virtual School’s integration with the Georgia State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) provides an example of the integration that is possible between traditional schools and a part-time virtual course provider.

Georgia Virtual School is embedded inside the Technology Services division of the Georgia Department of Education. The Technology Services department includes data collections from local districts and application development in addition to the virtual school. Over the last five years, Georgia has rolled out a SLDS that allows local district teachers and administrators to access individual student records as well as aggregate data. For example, on the dashboard, teachers can see average reading lexile scores, the percentage of students with chronic attendance issues, the percentage of students who passed a variety of standardized tests, and grades in relevant previous courses. All of this information is available for current classes as well as previous years. The images below show examples of the teacher dashboard.

SLDS dashboard top half


SLDS dashboard bottom half

Anywhere there is a number presented in SLDS, you can hover the mouse to find out more details and most numbers can also be clicked to show a list of students in that group. Any student name can be clicked to pull an individual student profile with all the records for that student.

With access to so much information, teachers want to know not only how to access the system but what to do with the data they find. Carrie Madden, a GaVS science teacher and the iNACOL 2014 online teacher of the year, uses the SLDS when making calls home for students who are struggling academically. While making those calls, she pulls up that particular student’s SLDS profile. By seeing the historical test scores, reading levels, prior class grades, and attendance, she gains additional perspective that allows those calls home to be more constructive. For example, a student with lots of attendance issues for years may have personal and family struggles more than strictly academic concerns. If a child is well below the target reading levels for their respective grade, remediation and support in reading science text may be more helpful than additional work in a particular science topic.

Through a combination of web conferencing and self-paced online modules, teachers are trained by GaVS on optimal use cases for the SLDS. The first idea the training presents is to focus on one student a day to better understand the educational background of one student at a time, and eventually the entire class. Over time teachers begin to know and understand the challenges of their students. A second use of SLDS is for grouping students by ability. A variety of test scores are aggregated for the teacher by performance levels in addition to the lexile reading ranges. During test preparation, the domain and strand breakdowns of previous tests can shed light on the specific needs of any student, thus providing the foundation for a more personalized learning experience.

The SLDS was built specifically for traditional schools to access through their own student information systems (SIS), but online students can benefit from virtual school access to statewide data. It warrants the efforts necessary to use this data for better online instruction.

Joe Cozart, Associate Director of Strategic Planning, Georgia Virtual School

The role of public agencies and non-profit organizations as digital learning providers

State agencies and NGOs have been online learning pioneers for well over a decade, with some such as Virtual High School, Michigan Virtual University and Florida Virtual School dating back to the late 1990s. In some states and regions, including Idaho, Montana, Michigan, Florida, New England, and others, public agencies and NGOs have been the main online learning provider to schools and students. They have improved learning opportunities for students while supporting the pressing needs of local school districts and other education stakeholders.

State virtual schools alone served 741,516 supplemental online course enrollments in 26 states in school year 2013-14. Although private for-profit companies are and will remain a significant provider segment, state agencies and NGOs are an important sector as well. This is counter to the often-held view that government agencies primarily play a regulatory role.

Public agencies, NGOs and consortia partner with school districts in their states and across the US to provide students access to courses often unavailable in the traditional setting. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights report (2014)[1] noted limited student access to high-level math and science courses and other core courses, and a gap in opportunities for minorities in Advanced Placement (AP) course enrollment and testing. Virtual schools are leaders in addressing access and equity issues with online offerings that include specialized online curriculum to address changes in state graduation requirements (e.g., increased math or online experience requirements), access to Advanced Placement courses, summer school and other “hard to find” courses that local school districts are not always able to offer, as well as credit-recovery courses for at-risk students. These online courses use state-certified, highly qualified teachers. In addition, leading public agency programs have expanded beyond online courses to provide blended learning services to districts, professional development for online and classroom teachers, technology infrastructure and training, online college and career readiness options for students, and an array of other services.

Some state virtual schools go well beyond their main role as course and service providers, and also provide advice and counsel to policymakers in their states. Many provide an impartial resource for state legislators, government agencies and foundations grappling with the complexities of digital learning.

The Virtual School Leadership Alliance is an association of the chiefs of some of the most innovative virtual schools in the US, combining more than 130 years of online and blended learning operational experience. The member organizations serve over a quarter of a million online course enrollments annually, provide their districts and students with over 2,200 active, highly-qualified teachers trained in online instruction, and conduct research to validate the value of online learning. With this blog, the executive directors will be sharing insights and perspectives that will be useful to a wide range of practitioners who are working to better serve their students and teachers through online and blended learning.

[1] U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot (College and Career Readiness)
March 21, 2014