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On June 20, 2007, Education Sector hosted an online chat with a panel of online learning experts to answer questions about the Education Sector report, "Laboratories of Reform," and how virtual schooling is leading innovation in education reform.
Spreading rapidly, virtual schools are leading innovation in areas that traditional schools have struggled for decades to improve. They are personalizing student learning and extending it beyond the traditional school day. They are creating new models for teaching—with opportunities to easily observe, evaluate, and assist instructors. And they are pioneering performance-based education funding models. But this important trend in public education has gone largely unnoticed as a solution to improving our nation's public schools.
The discussion featured:
Bill Tucker, Chief Operating Officer of Education Sector
Liz Pape, CEO of Virtual High School (VHS)
Barbara Stein, Coordinator of the National Education Association's "Guide to Teaching Online Courses"
Education Sector Moderator: Welcome to Education Sector's first-ever online chat with Bill Tucker, COO of Education Sector and author of the new report "Laboratories of Reform," Liz Pape of Virtual High School, and Barbara Stein of the National Education Association. Today's chat is all about virtual learning and its potential for leading innovation in education reform.
To start, let's hear from our panelists. Bill, in your new report "Laboratories of Reform," you discuss the various reforms virtual schooling is bringing about in education. What potential does it have and in what ways is it impacting traditional public schools?
Answer (Bill Tucker): Thanks, Renée [our moderator], and thank you to Liz and Barbara for graciously sharing their time and most importantly, their ideas.
Virtual schooling is growing rapidly—especially at the high school level. And this is taking place throughout the country. It's hard to find a state, district, or local high school that is not considering or offering a program. And, a number of new schooling institutions, such as
I set out to explore how these virtual public schools, without many of the constraints on time, physical space, and range of course-offerings that limit traditional schools, could impact public education. Because I wanted to set aside polarized debates about privatization and concentrate on the educational experience, I focused my attention on nonprofit and publicly-run schools.
I found that while the importance of effective teaching and learning has not changed, the Internet has enabled educators to significantly alter the experience of schooling. Faced with the challenge—and opportunity—to create schools and systems from scratch, people on the ground are making decisions that are very different from existing policies and common practices in the traditional school system.
I also found a number of counter-intuitive points. Many educators found deeper and more meaningful engagement with virtual schooling. Teachers saw new opportunities to refine their practice. And public-sector employees were labeled "entrepreneurs."
If we are going to significantly improve student outcomes, we need to think very differently. Virtual schools are "laboratories of reform" for many new approaches that have not been previously possible—personalization, new models for teaching, and new organizational structures, among others. Not all students will or should attend virtual schools. But all schools could learn from their virtual counterparts.
ES Moderator Question: Liz, do you have anything to add?
Answer (Liz Pape): In Seeing What’s Next, the authors, Clayton Christensen, Scott Anthony and Erik Roth propose that disruption is the fundamental mechanism that makes products and services inexpensive, convenient and simple to use. In the chapter, "Disruptive Diplomas, The Future of Education," they identify e-learning as an innovator in K–12 public education with the potential to reshape the delivery of public education, i.e., to become a disruptive innovator leading to radical transformation in an incremental, rational way.
Laboratories of Reform: Virtual High Schools and Innovation in Public Education more fully describes some of the innovations that virtual schooling is fulfilling: personalized and individualized instruction, enhancement of school offerings through supplemental virtual courses, a re-thinking of the teaching practice, extension of the school day and school year and funding models based upon performance, not seat time. Innovative e-learning must be about more than offering traditional courses in a non-traditional way. In order to achieve the potential of education reform, we must continue to develop the policies, standards, and practices that will enable e-learning to transform education not merely offer the same practice through a different delivery mechanism. Virtual schools can provide one model of how to transform education through a radical re-thinking of what it means to be educated in the 21st century, who the educated are and need to be, and how education is received—across state and national boundaries, within and outside of classroom walls, and during and beyond the school day and year.
ES Moderator Question: Barbara, what is your perspective on the role of virtual learning in education reform?
Answer (Barbara Stein): Online education finally is getting the serious attention, scrutiny, and support it deserves. Hopefully this conversation can further that process. Early on it appeared that two extreme responses to online education were blurring progress-one that assumed anything transmitted by the then "new" technology of the internet was by itself innovative and creative, and the other-that any education that relied primarily on a computer for communications was de-humanizing and by definition lowering the overall educational quality.
These assumptions were as fallacious as the early automatic presumptions that children on a computer were engaged in advanced, educational activities and children watching television were killing time. Clearly, we now all know that the content and method of delivery are critical determinants of the value.
At NEA we have always viewed online education as an important new tool to advance and enhance educational opportunity. We have also continuously urged that policymakers and educators seriously study "the what" and how, so that this tool is used to improve educational quality. For that reason, we have published, in conjunction with several wonderful partners, including Liz Pape and the
Question from Nancy Reder, National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE): Could you please speak to the issue of how special education services (including related services) are provided in virtual schools and how issues such as complaints and due process are handled as well. Thank you.
Answer (Pape): For virtual schooling that is provided as part of a student's in-school experience, which is what many of the state-led virtual schools and VHS do, students needing special education services can still receive those services through the online courses. What's needed to assure that this happens are: policies, training and infrastructure. For example, VHS has several policies around special education, which our online teachers and Site Coordinators are made aware of through their training. It is the responsibility of the student's in-school site coordinator to communicate the student's accommodations, and the online teacher needs to provide those accommodations. The role of the infrastructure is in things like course design standards, which should require that all online courses are 508 compliant, for example. Since students who are taking online courses as part of their school day remain students at their school, the issues of complaints and due process are managed at the school site.
For students receiving educational services exclusively through an online provider, parents and students need to inquire about how the provision of special educational services is accommodated by the online course providers, and due process and complaints are managed by the provider.
Question: My name is Rebecca Richards, and I am an intern for Philanthropy Roundtable's K–12 Education Program. In Tucker's article, "Laboratories for Reform," he notes that "The small body of research focused on the effectiveness of K–12 virtual schooling programs supports findings of similar studies on virtual courses in higher education. They find 'no significant difference' in student performance in online courses versus traditional face-to-face learning." How exactly is student performance being measured, particularly in terms of participation?
Answer (Pape): Rebecca, I can respond from the VHS perspective on how student performance is measured, and that is through participation in online activities such as online discussion forums, group projects, etc. Some learning management systems provide a log tool, which enables the teacher and others to monitor how often students are logging into the course.
Another measure that VHS uses to monitor student performance is on national exams—for example the AP exams. VHS tracks all students who are enrolled in our online AP courses, and their performance on the standardized AP exams. Our students have consistently scored higher than the national AP exam pass rate average, which goes a long way to help us answer whether or not students are learning in an online environment.
ES Moderator Question: Bill, do you have anything to add to Liz's comments about student performance?
Answer (Tucker): One note is that the research we cited in the report was from a variety of sources, including a meta-analysis of various small studies. Thus, there is no one specific metric. Overall, while there is more research underway and more data from specific programs, we still need much more study here. I'd like to see us move beyond comparing online and offline instruction and focus on what works for which students, which programs, circumstances, supports, etc.
FYI, here are the resources cited in our report:
Anthony G. Picciano and Jeff Seaman, K–12 Online Learning: A Survey of
Question: Barbara, What are some of the new teaching models being used in virtual learning? What about teacher preparation?
Answer (Stein): We know that we need well-qualified teachers licensed in content area to teach these courses, but beyond that, we need educators who have completed comprehensive preparation in the art of teaching online, a whole new medium for them. The manner of communicating, interpreting student responses, garnering collaboration among students, etc, takes specific skills. It is likely that any one in an ed school today will probably teach online at some point, but it appears at this point teacher education programs aren't systematically answering this need.
Question: Liz: It seems that virtual schools may undermine the positive impact of social interaction. How do we overcome these issues to ensure that students are both exposed to an effective academic environment as well as an environment that can help them develop important social skills?
Answer (Pape): I disagree—I do not believe virtual schools undermine the positive impact of social interaction, although they may undermine social interaction as traditionally defined, i.e. face-to-face.
Our challenge is to understand, support and foster the multiplicity of possible social interactions. So, instead of building virtual schools and online courses that foster students self-pacing individually through an online course, why aren't we more effectively supporting virtual classrooms, where students are developing the 21st century social interactions like ability to communicate effectively online, and to contribute positively to team work, when the teams are at a distance?
Question: Liz: In reference to your answer above. Are you in effect claiming that the benefits of face-to-face interactions (including playgrounds activities) can be replaced by virtual ones?
Answer (Pape): No. I certainly did not mean to give the impression that face-to-face interactions can be replaced by virtual interactions. Think senior prom, getting your driver's permit, first kiss...
However, there is legitimacy to opening up the definition of social interactions so that we accept virtual interactions as part of the continuum of *all* acceptable interactions, both face-to-face and online.
Question from Ray Rose, Rose & Smith Associates,
Answer (Tucker): Just as we integrate multiple technologies into our workplace (i.e., I use e-mail, phone, face-to-face meetings), I see schooling evolving in an integrated fashion. We'd never try to evaluate the effectiveness of a phone call vs. an e-mail—we'd consider the situation and then use the appropriate tool.
It's obviously more complicated in education. But, what I mean is that we need to get beyond "Can online education work?" and move to many more specific details. We need to differentiate among the many different online programs and learn which ones are high-quality, in which circumstances, for which students. We need to think about how to get the best of both worlds with in-person and online supporting one another. And, while we need to realize that what works for one student will not necessarily work for another, we at the same time need to ensure that we figure out what is needed for different types of students to succeed. I guess I'd like to see the starting point be student success, then work backward.
Question from Eric Richmond, Alliance for Excellent Education: To any of the panelists: While virtual learning has the potential to improve student achievement in the classroom by enhancing efforts already underway in areas like personalization, formative assessment, and teacher PD [professional development], it also has the potential to address a problem that we’ve never gotten right—namely, the equity of access issue. Despite Title I(a), only marginal progress has been made, particularly at the high school level, in connecting poor and minority students with qualified teachers and AP classes. How do we leverage virtual learning to provide for these students, and is there a federal role in making that happen?
Answer (Stein): First, I think that what we are learning from experiences in virtual learning can really improve overall instructional practice, including the areas you mention. Virtual learning does provide some key ways to reach individual students and to find ways of meaningful assessment. It can help us reach all students. Most students will probably flourish in a more melded environment, where they have some of the face to face time with teachers and peers, but also the individualized and 24/7 nature of online can really improve our capacity to reach students. So, my hope is that virtual learning will not simply expand courses, but actually affect how we do mainstream education. As you point out, we can also help students receive AP and other advanced courses that might not always be available in each locale.
Question from Linda Broatch, SchwabLearning.org: In regard to the high level of text literacy skills required for a student engaged in online learning, is knowledge about selecting and using assistive technology, such as computer screen readers, part of online educator training, or do you rely on the student or school to figure out what assistive technology is needed and how to select/access it?
Answer (Pape): I think that you will find a variety of training programs for online teaching. Some will teach adaptive technologies, and some won't. I think that online teachers should have some familiarity with the topic, but I think it's also necessary for on-site coordinators who work with online students to also have that knowledge. The topic should also be covered in the virtual school's policies handbook.
Question from Rebecca Richards, Philanthrophy Roundtable: Bill, you've noted in today's discussion that many teachers actually experience more meaningful interaction with students via online classes. This is very interesting—can you say more? Thanks.
Answer (Tucker): Think about a traditional classroom and who participates. For a variety of reasons, some students that do not participate in the classroom will engage in student/student or student/teacher discussions in a virtual setting (pace, embarrassment, written as opposed to verbal, more contemplative, etc.). In addition, the interaction can be structured in a different way. Rather than all 25 competing in a set class period, individual items can be given more attention as needed at different times.
I would not say that online always leads to more meaningful interaction. But, it is definitely a myth that that cannot occur in an online environment.
Question from Ray Rose, Rose & Smith Associates
Answer (Pape): I agree, Ray, it's hard to develop 21st century skills in students when we're still building 19th century schools. The Partnership for 21st Century skills describes those skills as: critical thinking, problem-solvers who can communicate and collaborate with a global awareness. I believe that online education goes a long way in helping to develop the needed 21st century skills. First, we can now make educational resources—courses, teachers, support, available to all students, regardless the location of their school. Secondly, by participating in online classrooms (note I said online classrooms, not courses), we can enable cohorts of students to work together to develop Information and Communications Technology (ICT) skills. Those are the essential communications and collaborations skills the Partnership identified. For example, students can work online together on a team project, never meeting face-to-face, yet learning how to communicate and collaborate online. And lastly, when we develop 21st century teaching models that foster the delivery of virtual classrooms across state lines and national lines, when students are participating together in an online classroom in AP Statistics, but those students are from different states or countries, then we are developing global awareness and citizenship skills for our students.
My belief is that in order to develop a 21st century educational model we need to think horizontally and not vertically. Horizontal education is a peer-to-peer network of students collaborating on the educational process, with the teacher as a part of that network. Vertical education, the old model, is the teacher as distributor of the education and student as recipient within a self-contained, silo-like classroom.
Question: Do you think that there is a certain age appropriateness associated with virtual learning? i.e., should children be a certain age before they engage?
Answer (Stein): Since quality online learning takes relatively high text literacy skills as well as some technological savvy, I would think as a general manner it would be difficult to start online learning below the middle school level. Obviously, there are enormous amounts of great online materials and content for elementary school children and below, but an entire course online, to be of quality, I would think couldn't start at that level.
Question: Bill, I was intrigued by the prospect of just in time instructional support and the end of the lone teacher described in the report. Do you see cyberschools as opportunities to improve teaching and learning through interventions in the courseroom?
Answer (Tucker): I definitely think that the practices in virtual schools can improve teaching and learning in traditional classrooms. (Note: I specifically use the term "cyberschools" in my report to refer to full-time virtual schools, as opposed to supplemental virtual schools, so I'm going to answer in general for virtual schools.)
One of the studies we cited that looked at VHS teaching practices focused on how teachers changed their instruction to be more individualized and project-based. Beyond this, what you see at many virtual schools is that the teacher/student interactions can be captured and evaluated. Thus, it's easier to receive feedback and assistance. Moreover, there is also the potential to begin to allow for more specialization, enabling classroom-based teachers to collaborate with online teachers.
Question from Helen Lenane, ADP,
Answer (Tucker): Personalization is definitely in my top two. Not just the ability to move at your own pace, but thinking more broadly towards student motivation, the ability to ensure that the student is met at the appropriate level of challenge, to alter sequences of courses, quickly re-start, etc.
One other reform is still a potential reform. Much, much better forms of assessment are possible. I feel like virtual schooling still has to overcome a burden of proof with regards to quality, so virtual schools need to innovate in this area. The opportunity is that it is possible. Virtual schooling has the capacity to generate copious amounts of data for evaluation and bring innovations up to scale quickly. We are not at all bringing technology to bear in this area—especially in the areas that are currently very expensive or hard to compare across schools (student work products). I'm not giving this the full details that it needs, but assessment is the area I'm hoping for.
Question: What are the financial, logistical, and political considerations for states, districts, and schools looking to incorporate virtual learning? (Liz, could you start with considerations at the school level?)
Answer (Pape): At the school level, if you want to incorporate online learning into your school system, you need: policies, standards, infrastructure, funding, training.
Policies: write them before you get started, not while you're trying to deal with an issue arising out of your online initiative. Some areas for consideration: why are students taking online courses—is it OK for students to take an online course to recover credit, how about if a student wants to take an online course but the course is offered by a classroom teacher, what policies do you need around accommodations for students with special needs, how do you now define teacher and student attendance in online classes?
Standards: What course standards are critical—should courses be 508 compliant? Should courses foster high levels of student-teacher and student-student interactions?
Infrastructure: Are students taking online courses as part of their school day, and is the school therefore responsible for computer and Internet access? How do online students do homework, if they have no computers or Internet access at home? What happens if the school's network goes down? What alternative provisions are they for online students to be able to go to class?
Training: Are classroom teachers going to teach the online courses? What training should be provided? Who else should receive training—site mentors? What training should students receive prior to taking an online course?
Funding: How will the online initiative be funded? If initially grant funded, what is the mechanism for sustaining the effort after the grant is over?
ASBJ published an article I wrote on Virtual Schooling—feel free to contact me for the issue—don't recall it right now.
Question: Do you see any potential convergence between home schooling and virtual high schools?
Answer (Tucker): This has been a very controversial issue in many states. Some states, concerned about incurring additional costs by bringing home schoolers into the public system, have limited participation in virtual programs to students who were enrolled in public schools the previous year. On the other side, some home schooling organizations see publicly-run virtual schools as an infringement on their freedom (around curriculum, having to take state tests, etc.).
Moving beyond these controversies, I see virtual schooling more as an "and" than an "or". This adds complexity, because you could have a traditional high school student who has parents that also enroll her in an online course (in addition to traditional school). You can begin to see parents mixing things up—taking some from here and some from there. And, you can begin to see community-based organizations get involved also. I think these things will probably come first with the most affluent students taking advantage of opportunities, so it is extremely important to begin considering how we can ensure that all students—especially those who do not have parents who can serve as teachers—can benefit.
Guess I see it coming—how we respond is very important.
ES Moderator Question: Barbara, can you add on Bill's point?
Answer (Stein): I think that there really is no particular connection between home schooling and online learning beyond the geographical locale of where they occur. Quality online learning involves highly qualified licensed educators, students who collaborate together, and strong content and quality controls. Home schooling is a totally different kind of experience. So, I think the connection is a very superficial one.
ES Moderator: We're nearing the end of our chat. I'd like to ask the panelists if they have any last thoughts to add, specifically any key recommendations that policymakers and/or educators should consider?
Answer (Pape): Final thoughts: I believe that online teaching and learning is a critical component of 21st century skills development for both students and teachers. We are no longer constrained by a school's zip code in our delivery of educational resources to students. In an age of concern over global competitiveness, where the efficient and effective distribution of resources is critical, we need to apply the same criteria to our educational system. On a national level, we need national curriculum standards. On a state level, we need to modify or eliminate policies and legislation which support site-based instruction, such as the requirement that students can only be taught by state-certified teachers, and at the community level, we need to adopt a vision of our schools in which they are seen as centers of learning, where students and teachers come together to gather the educational resources that best meet a student's learning needs and style, be they classroom or online.
ES Moderator Question: Barbara, any last thoughts to add?
Answer (Stein): I think policymakers need to focus on what is most likely to ensure quality experiences for all students. The issue should be on what works, and ensuring quality and responsibility with our limited resources. Children entering school today will have vastly different expectations of how they live and learn, and schools will have to reflect those changes. On the other hand, we shouldn't be so dazzled by technology that we forget that the bottom line is what happens in terms of student achievement. I think the best of face-to-face and online could lead to some very exciting developments in education.
Answer (Tucker): First of all, I echo Liz's and Barbara's comments. And, many thank yous for your participation.
For my final thoughts, as I mentioned earlier, I want to see student outcomes improve dramatically—for all students. So, I'm thinking about how we scale reform not just in the virtual world, but ensure that these ideas also improve learning throughout traditional classrooms.
As virtual education continues to grow and becomes increasingly integrated into existing schools, as it surely will, new ways of offering schooling will very likely have a great and greater impact on how schools are organized and run. Instead of being unitary reforms mandated from the top down, they will be organic reforms that filter from the ground up.
But the extent to which this future transition is smooth rather than rough, and happens sooner rather than later, depends on decisions that will be made now. We need greater investment in promising new practices for teaching and learning, more and better information about what works and what doesn’t, a relentless focus on quality, and policies that further, rather than limit, innovation.
I hope you'll read my specific recommendations on the Education Sector website. And, I really hope that as Barbara mentioned at the beginning of the chat, that persons working more broadly on reform begin to seriously look at virtual schools and the opportunities they offer.
ES Moderator: Terrific. On behalf of Education Sector, I'd like to thank Barbara, Liz, and Bill for taking the time to participate in our chat. And thanks to all of you for your great questions!