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To Lower the Barriers, Unite!

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In 2010, Virginia joined 25 other  states in authorizing the establishment of full-time Virtual School programs – educational institutions allowing students to “attend” school full-time, but online, from anywhere in the state.

Three years later, there are still only two school divisions operating full-time programs, with a total of about 500 students.

One important reason is funding.  Ramping up a full-time Virtual School takes significant resources, and few school divisions are prepared to invest the kind of funding necessary to train the teachers or create the content and management infrastructure necessary to offer an intensive digital learning system.  Private contractors have the resources to make those investments, but Virginia’s funding limitations put severe strains on the level of annual per-pupil funding, resulting in an artificial cap in the number of students any school can enroll.  While research indicates that most quality full-time virtual programs cost in the range of $6,000-$7,000 per student, efforts to raise digital learning funding to that level have been stymied.

Providers, individual school systems seeking to offer full-time virtual opportunities, and the Virginia School Boards Association are all at loggerheads over the funding issue.  Those differences have blocked any effort to create a new system of funding for a new system of students educated in a new way.

But these disagreements ought not prevent finding common ground in other key areas creating barriers to digital learning in Virginia, particularly in the area of blended learning.  Different from full-time virtual learning, blended learning allows a student to learn at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.

Blended learning gives local school systems an opportunity to provide a hybrid online experience at less cost than traditional classrooms – but there are severe barriers.  A November 2012 paper released by the Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA) echoed many of the recommendations made a year earlier by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a non-profit founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.  And while the VSBA is focusing on removing barriers to blended learning programs, those same barriers also block the full flowering of full-time virtual schools.  Most require action by the General Assembly.  For starters –

  • Remove Pupil-Teacher ratios:  State law requires a pupil-teacher ratio for brick-and-mortar schools that also applies to blended learning.  But because students receiving instruction in a blended system receive much of it online and at their own pace, such ratios don’t apply and serve merely to inhibit the use of this kind of online instruction.

  • Remove seat-time requirements:  Virginia state law requires 180 days of school for brick-and-mortar and fulltime virtual schools.  In addition, high school credit courses require 180 hours of instruction for individual online courses.  But online courses – whether delivered full-time or in a blended learning model – don’t lend themselves to traditional “seat time” requirements.  If a student has whizzed through a course, it makes little sense to require them to continue logging on.  Similarly, a student lagging behind can take additional time to catch up.  In genuine digital learning, “seat-time” requirements are irrelevant because students accelerate only when they’ve mastered the curriculum.

  • Provide multiple opportunities for end of course exams:  Mastery-based learning, however, can’t be put into place until students have the opportunity to take end-of-course exams when they have completed the work – not merely at the end of a 180-day period.  Doing so, however, will be one of the tougher uphill climbs because there is a fiscal impact:  It will cost money to either build a larger “bank” of questions to reduce duplication in tests, or create a technological infrastructure for adaptive computer testing.

But the impact of providing multiple opportunities could go beyond just online learning. It would strengthen the ability of school systems to allow students to progress at their own pace based on their individual skills and ability.  And it would take Virginia a little bit further down a road in which we judge educational excellence by educational outcomes, not bureaucratic inputs.

To be sure, there are other barriers to online learning, and the funding issue will remain ever-present.  But uniting to resolve these challenges will go a long way towards putting Virginia back at the forefront of digital learning.

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