State virtual schools continue to grow and evolve

In Keeping Pace 2015 we wrote extensively about state virtual schools, in particular noting some of the new directions that state virtual schools are taking as they face increasing competition from other providers and from districts developing their own online content. This past week we met with a group of state virtual schools that are part of the Virtual School Leadership Alliance, and found that they continue to grow and evolve.

Keeping Pace characterizes state virtual schools as operational intermediate supplier organizations that provide online learning programs to schools statewide. They were created by legislation or by state level agencies, usually funded in part or entirely by a state appropriation or grant. State virtual schools are not actually “schools” in the traditional sense. They supply online courses and related services to schools. With the exception of state virtual schools in states with course access policies, students are usually enrolled with district approval. Even then the school or district plays an integral role in counseling and enrolling students in the state virtual school.

Since around 1997, state virtual schools have been some of the early pioneers in providing online learning options to K–12 schools to supplement a student’s learning in the traditional school setting. Over the past decade or so, state virtual schools have significantly expanded the types of services and range of products offered, while maintaining the traditional role of supplemental online course supplier. Innovative state virtual schools are now introducing and managing change in the delivery of online learning services as shown in the image below. (Click to enlarge.)

SVS services

As further evidence of the way that state virtual schools are evolving, many of the state virtual schools that we met with this past week shared extensive programs and practices that go well beyond providing supplemental online courses. For example, VirtualSC has been identified as an integral part of South Carolina’s K-12 educational delivery system by the governor, in part as a portion of a response to a lawsuit that requires that the state provide more equitable options to all districts. In addition to supplemental online courses, Virtual SC provides test prep (SAT and ACT) for high school students, and a keyboarding program for elementary students. Keyboarding has been particularly popular, attracting more than 29,000 students in 32 districts this year. The state virtual school in New Mexico, IDEAL-NM, offers a learning management system and training to teachers and students across the state, and estimates that 70% of the students in grades 6-12 have student accounts. Georgia Virtual School makes its online course content available as an open educational resource to schools across the state and beyond. And Michigan Virtual University, through its research arm the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, is providing perhaps the single best data set of online courses being taken by students in any state.

These aren’t the only examples; all of the members of the Leadership Alliance have programs that are extending their services beyond simply offering supplemental online courses, and other public supplemental programs such as the Southwest Colorado eSchool are taking similar approaches as well.

The growth of post-secondary online learning: implications for K-12 education

Among the reasons that schools, students, and parents are interested in online courses is that they believe that the use of online learning is growing in colleges, and they want high school graduates to be well prepared for post-secondary learning. Therefore, tracking recent developments in online learning at the post-secondary level is valuable for people primarily interested in K-12 education, and fortunately several good sources of information exist, including WCET, the Babson Survey Research Group, Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein at E-Literate, and the federal government.

The WCET Distance Education Enrollment Report 2016 analyzes fall 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). It counts students in two categories: those who are exclusively in distance education, and students who are mixing distance learning and on-campus courses. A third category, “at least one distance education course,” combines the two categories.

Key findings include the following:

  • 28% of all post-secondary students were enrolled in at least one distance education course. Half of these (14%) were enrolled exclusively in distance learning; the other half were mixing distance and on-campus courses.
  • Distance education enrollments grew between 2012 and 2014, by 9% for students taking all of their courses at a distance, and 7% for students mixing course types. This was a period in which total post-secondary enrollments dropped by 2%, making the increase more impressive.
  • Enrollments in for-profit institutions dropped by 9%, while enrollments in non-profit and public institutions increased by 33% and 12%, respectively. Public institutions represent the large majority of total distance enrollments (72%).

A couple of notes about the data: the data set represents both two and four year schools, and excludes programs of less than two years. Also, IPEDS defines “distance education” as including several modalities that are not online (eg., audio conferences, DVDs), but it seems reasonable to assume that most of the enrollments are online. Finally, there are undoubtedly some anomalies in the data, in part due to confusion around definitions and reporting. Still, this is the best data set available.

Two main differences between these post-secondary numbers and K-12 online learning numbers exist. These are:

  • No recent federal survey or data set exists for online, or distance, courses in K-12 education. Keeping Pace numbers are derived from a variety of sources, including state reports, state databases, and data supplied by state virtual schools and other providers.
  • Unlike the post-secondary numbers which show an even split between students taking all of their courses online and students mixing online and f2f, Keeping Pace research suggests that the number of K-12 students taking some but not all of their courses online is about 10x the number enrolled in fully online schools.

Mixing an anecdote with data, one university reports that college students are particularly interested in online summer courses. Although this is just one source, it is notable in that it matches K-12 online course data that we reported in Keeping Pace 2015.

Finally, a survey of high school students who had taken the ACT asked how many online courses the students would be interested in taking in college. It found that:

  • 48 percent of respondents said “none,”
  • 37 percent said “a few,”
  • 4 percent said “most or all of my classes”
  • 2 percent said “half.”

The study authors conclude that “offering courses online will not be a successful strategy to attract traditional undergraduate students.” However, the finding that 43% of traditional college-bound high school students are interested in taking some online courses doesn’t seem to support that conclusion. In addition, “80 percent of respondents agreed that traditional classroom programs offer a higher quality academic experience,” which suggests that if a college can demonstrate that its online courses are as good as traditional classroom courses the number of students interested in online courses would rise, perhaps substantially.




“Solve is a loaded word”

The last post, “We grew the blended program by solving one problem at a time,” explored the ways in which two successful blended programs in Oregon had grown. As the title suggested, those programs, Bend La Pine and Crater Lake, focused on challenges faced by students or schools, addressed those challenges, and moved on to the next.

I had spoken with Tres Tyvand of Bend La Pine to make sure the post captured ideas in her presentation accurately, but reading the post once it went live got her thinking more about what she presented last week in Portland. The thoughts she sent in her email are worth adding as a coda to the earlier post:

“Solve” is a loaded word. It implies a single point in time and finality; it suggests an expert coming in, perhaps with a silver bullet. But most complex issues, in education and other sectors, are constantly evolving and solutions are therefore moving targets. And there aren’t any experts who can just solve the complex issues. When I read the post, I wondered would my colleagues that I worked with on the projects referenced think we “solved” anything? I doubted that they would frame it that way.

I got to thinking, what would they say? How would they frame our work together, applying blended learning to district issues? A few alternatives to “solved” came to mind: we met a need; we helped find a creative alternative; we had a willingness to listen and explore viable options; we took seriously the issues that confronted students, teachers, and administrators. Those phrases resonate and feel more accurate than saying we “solved” anything.

Perhaps more important than the way the words feel, they also suggest some crucial personal philosophies that we apply. We never implied that a blended or online solution was the best solution, or that it would be the only long-term solution. Instead, we suggested that if it would work, for however long it would work, our team would be there to assist with implementation and support. Many times I think the teacher, or building, or administrator that we collaborated with didn’t have any other viable options at the time, or they didn’t have a team to go to, so the willingness of the Bend-La Pine blended and online team to roll up our sleeves and quickly sketch out cost-neutral, student- and teacher-friendly options was the reason we ultimately ended up involved. That willingness, in these heavily human endeavors, seems to always be what brings people back. I think we don’t so much “solve” as tinker. We are tinkerers, in a very Wabi Sabi way, and pull from everything available in the schools and district, especially the people, and like alchemy, all of the pieces involved are spun into gold.”

The email from Tres is a good reminder that digital programs that are used in existing districts have to be built with the people there, not applied to the people who are at the school or district. This doesn’t just apply to digital learning, of course. The book The Prize details how the reform effort in Newark Public Schools failed, in large part, because Newark residents and district employees felt like reform was done to them, not with them.

Still, I wouldn’t take issue with Tres, Bryan, or other successful leaders saying that their programs had solved problems. Perhaps, though, it’s more politically palatable in some situations if it’s outside observers calling out solutions and success, while those in the trenches continue to quietly solve problems find creative alternatives.

“We grew the blended program by solving one problem at a time”

Last week Fuel Education held a Blended Learning Leaders Forum in Portland, Oregon, that featured two excellent speakers: Tres Tyvand of Bend La Pine Schools, and Bryan Wood of the Crater Lake Charter School.

Both gave inspiring presentations, and one element that stood out for me was that both gave similar answers to how their programs had grown. Each emphasized that their programs expanded by focusing on a problem faced by the district or by individual students, solving that problem, and in doing so showing how blended learning can be a critical element of success for students and schools. Then they moved on to the next problem, solved it, and in doing so the programs grew.

This approach, emphasized by two successful school leaders, demonstrates several important points. First, both programs have grown (Bend’s blended program serves 3,000 of the district’s 17,000 students; Crater Lake has an expanding waiting list to get into the school), by addressing specific, solvable issues. This contrasts with plenty of other blended learning programs that begin with large but vague expectations of what they intend to accomplish—and expectations of hockey-stick growth.

Second, although Bryan and Tres touched on common and somewhat vague terms such as “personalized learning,” their stories were grounded in real, and in some ways seemingly small-scale, problems and solutions. They have a student in mind for every story that they tell.

Third, these are successful programs that have been driven by dedicated people within the district administration, not at the top. As such these successes are not driven by a top-down approach. Certainly the support of superintendents and school boards is critical in some cases (such as in Washington, DC and Middletown, NY). But in many cases we see the most successful programs being driven by leaders similar to Bryan and Tres.

In her presentation Tres discussed success. She believes that to measure success, an organization should:

  1. Define what it is trying to do
  2. Devise metrics & methods for gauging success
  3. Consider the frequency and timing of when to implement & review metrics
  4. Reassess 1-3 on a regular cycle

She is also the first to admit that the regular re-assessment means that blended learning at Bend La Pine is a journey with a constantly changing destination. I expect that Bryan, who talks of replicating the Crater Lake Charter School, would agree.

We profiled Bend La Pine in Keeping Pace 2015; see page 38 for more information. See this video and this profile for more on Crater Lake.

Additional findings from New York State’s Online Learning Recommendations

An earlier blog post highlighted a key aspect of the recent New York State Online Learning Advisory Council Report that is especially promising: the recommendation to spend $100 million on professional development for teachers and administrators. The report is one of several state studies released since the publication of Keeping Pace 2015 that are worth examining in more detail.

The professional development recommendation is the first of four:

#1: “The Legislature and Governor [should] allocate $100 million to support multi-year professional development grants. These grants will support both planning and implementation to expand development of instructional skills using online tools in classrooms, and online course availability and capacity.”

This recommendation is particularly valuable because it stresses that the investments that the state is making in technology are only going to show a positive return if teachers and administrators know how to teach using online technologies. As the report makes clear, “New York has made a significant investment in hardware and connectivity through the Smart Schools Bond Act. To make the most effective use of that equipment, our educators and administrators need well-planned, high quality, job-embedded professional development.”

Teacher professional development is often not of high quality, nor job-embedded. The authors recognize that for professional development to be successful is has to be better than many of the current PD offerings.

#2: The Board of Regents, Legislature and Governor [should] grant authority to the NYS Education Commissioner to provide certain waivers of regulations to support Innovation Networks.

The second recommendation is not as strong as some others, because it does not provide enough specific examples of regulations that should be waived. Still, it discusses several important ideas. The first is addressing seat time requirements. The second is changing the statutory requirements for teachers’ performance reviews, particularly to allow measures of student learning instead of or in addition to student growth “determined solely by state assessment.” We have seen other cases in which teachers have been reluctant to test new practices because of the possibility of an impact on their performance reviews; addressing this would be beneficial.

More broadly, the Council recommends creating “Innovation Networks” that would provide flexibility to member school districts, perhaps linking waivers to providing professional development. In addition, the Council suggests that these networks would collaborate and learn from each other, which is an approach that we have seen used successfully by state virtual schools and others.

#3 The state [should] adequately staff and support NYSED’s Education Technology capacity and resources. The purpose is to bring forward innovations in online education and educational technology.

In particular, the Council suggests that the state create a new cabinet-level position of Chief Digital Officer who would be responsible for advancing educational technology programs across the state. We believe New York would then become the second state (after North Carolina) to create this position.

#4: Higher education systems [should] develop teacher pre-service experiences in online and blended learning.

With this recommendation, the Council echoes a call that we often hear; online learning advocates often complain about the lack of a focus on digital learning in colleges of education.

Notably absent from the New York report is any estimate of how many students are taking online courses, or engaged in any online learning activity, in the state. The report cites general examples of district and BOCES-led “models” using online learning and video conferencing. The lack of actual online learning usage data is common, unfortunately. Many states are developing and implementing digital learning plans without having a solid understanding about their current situation. They don’t know the baseline from which they are building, which will make evaluating success based on impact difficult.

North Carolina is an exception, in that the state has invested in planning that includes research into current conditions. Our next blog posts will explore North Carolina’s research and findings.




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