The Critical Path to Starting Your Own Virtual School

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1 The Critical Path to Starting Your Own Virtual School

2 Section TABLE OF CONTENTS Page CURRENT TRENDS IN VIRTUAL SCHOOLING... 2 THE CRITICAL PATH TO STARTING AN ONLINE OR BLENDED LEARNING PROGRAM... 4 Define the nature of your desired program... 4 What are my state s laws governing online learning?... 5 Where will funding come from?... 6 Setting goals for your virtual program... 7 Implementation: a review of the Four Focus Areas... 7 Spotlight on Learning Objects: Connections Learning Lab Investigator (Rocks and Minerals)... 8 A PARTNER WITH PROVEN SUCCESS IN BLENDED LEARNING Why choose Connections Learning? Proven Effective Connections Learning 1 (888)

3 CURRENT TRENDS IN VIRTUAL SCHOOLING The national trend toward online learning programs in K-12 public and private schools has reached a tipping point. Excitement about various digital learning implementation options has produced an air of inevitability in districts large and small, rural and urban, geographically close or dispersed the future of education includes elements of online and blended learning. Students and families demand flexibility and individualized learning, and more states are mandating that districts develop virtual school solutions for their constituents. This excitement, however, has not made the task of starting a virtual school program less daunting, just more urgent. Fortunately for administrators charged with creating online programs, the resources available to implement a virtual school program are becoming more diverse, and solutions to address any size program are available. The landscape of virtual schooling is changing constantly, and it helps decision makers to have in hand a guide to the critical steps in setting up a virtual school program or other online learning elements in their school or district. Below we will examine the key steps to take when starting a new virtual school or when enhancing an existing digital learning program. Macro Trends in Online Learning In the recent past, activity around online learning has shifted from the state level to the district or school level. More and more, districts, consortia of districts, schools, and even teachers are finding that they are shouldering the responsibility of developing such programs. There are two primary reasons: 1. Technology is more accessible and easier to use. Five years ago, starting a virtual program often required developing your own software or substantially modifying off the shelf software to address your needs. Courses delivered online were simply standand-lecture classroom presentations repurposed and delivered over the internet. Now online courses are available at all grade levels specifically designed for online delivery through multi-modal technology platforms and education management systems. These systems feature customizable back-end reporting that make administration of virtual programs easier than ever. Connections Learning 2 (888)

4 2. It used to be black and white students either attended a brick and mortar classroom or were enrolled through a statewide or district virtual school. Now there are hybrid, blended, part-time virtual, and full-time virtual programs, and everything in between. Virtual school options provide a myriad of benefits: A continuum of learning options for each student: Through the availability of full-time and supplementary online offerings, districts are finding it useful to embrace a portfolio approach to online and blended learning. This fulfills the need for the kind of universal access to online and blended learning long promoted by organizations like inacol, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Some public school district leaders are considering multiple full-time online learning options. Strategic roles for all teachers: In practice, online and blended learning programs often develop complementary roles for the in-person and online teachers. In cases where those roles are defined and coordinated, outcomes have been positively impacted. The face-to-face teachers energetic commitment to the whole student, is enhanced by the data-driven collaboration with their online, subject-focused counterparts. One important impact of online and blended learning should be that these various aspects of teacher best practice can be distributed and scaled to maximize student achievement. True anytime/anywhere learning: Online and blended learning students have participated in courses in the learning labs, at home, in the community, and at their base schools and now they are asking for mobile access as well. Given the ubiquity of technology in these young people s worlds, combined with the continued development of content and instructional support that can live in the cloud, emerging definitions of blended learning should focus less on the either/or combination of face-to-face and online and more on the vision of learning blended into all aspects of our lives. With limited time and resources, district or school administrators need a roadmap to evaluating, initiating, and implementing a virtual program for their students. You need answers to questions such as: What does an online course look like? How do students interact with their teacher? What qualifications and training are required of teachers? Does online learning really work? What state or school district policies are needed to implement online learning? Connections Learning 3 (888)

5 THE CRITICAL PATH TO STARTING AN ONLINE OR BLENDED LEARNING PROGRAM Whether your district is establishing a blended program, providing access to a few courses online, or instituting a full virtual program, the key questions that must be addressed are: What is the nature of my program? What are the laws governing virtual learning programs in my state? What will be the source of funding for the virtual program? What educational goals will the program achieve? What is the implementation plan across the four areas of content, teaching, technology, and operations? Below are answers and recommended resources to help with these questions as you endeavor to expand your virtual school options. The source of much of the data below and a more detailed analysis can be found in Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: A Review of Policy and Practice 2011 published by the Evergreen Education Group and available at Define the nature of your desired program What type of program should you create and where does it fall on the continuum of virtual solutions? - A full-time virtual program? - A blended program focusing on credit recovery for graduating high school students? - An online summer school solution? - All of the above? Review Gregg Vanourek s dimensions of online programs to see 10 different variables that make up an online or blended learning offering. It s critical to consider each dimension and clearly define your desired Connections Learning 4 (888)

6 outcome. The first consideration should always be what are my constituents (parents, administration, legislative bodies) asking for? Build a program to meet the needs of your academic community rather than to achieve an ideal or to check a box. These dimensions help you define the nature of your program delivery, but you must also consider the governance, the funding source, and the reach of your program. These areas will help you further define your program. See Table 1: Categories of Online Programs (source: Keeping Pace, 2011) There are different types of online solutions, but many districts are finding that blended programs are allowing them to address their students needs more effectively and to take advantage of the teaching talent that they already have. Blended learning programs turn the typical school environment on its head. Rather than rows of forward-facing desks and teacher lectures, blended programs allow administrators to consider the advantages of a classroom structure with greater flexibility, a schedule with fewer constraints, and physical space with more dynamic applications. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the increase in flexibility actually gives administrators better data to monitor the academic performance of students in the program. The technology required to drive an effective blended learning program affords the administrator greater insight into the day-to-day progress of each student and the overall performance of each instructor. What are my state s laws governing online learning? Every state has different laws governing the nature and implementation of digital learning programs. The State Policy Profiles section of the Keeping Pace 2011 report (http://kpk12.com/states/) provides the best information about your state s key programs and policies. These laws and policies are constantly changing. Monitor your state s legislative agenda to find out when action is pending, or contact your Connections Learning Territory Manager to have our state-relations team provide a profile of upcoming legislative action in your state. Connections Learning 5 (888)

7 Where will funding come from? The sources of funding for your program may change as your offering evolves and grows. Many districts and schools just starting out apply for grants and one-time funds to finance a part-time program. Full-time online charter schools are typically state-funded, but of course require charter authorization. For full-time programs starting from scratch, a good rule of thumb is that they will not fiscally break even for 3 to 5 years. How exactly to fund virtual and blended programs is a difficult question due to the diversity of solutions available for consideration. According to Keeping Pace, Many states with full-time online schools use the same funding methodologies employed for their brick-and-mortar counterparts, though often with a reduction applied to online schools, charter schools, or both. While this approach has the benefit of recognizing online students as part of the larger public school pool, each methodology has its challenges. For example: - ADA/ADM: Many states fund schools based on average daily attendance (ADA) or average daily membership (ADM). Both of these accounting methods assume a physical head count each day, and thus present challenges to online schools. ADM and ADA require that online schools demonstrate attendance, often based on methods that were created for a physical school and don t take into account that students may be learning evenings and weekends. - Count day: Some states (e.g., Nevada and Colorado), have count days in which per-student funding is generated based on enrollment on one or a minimal number of days. Count days are especially problematic for online schools because of high mobility of students between schools. The school that counts the student on the count day gets the funding which may be for the entire year even if the student leaves for another school after the count day. - Size-based: A few states, typically those with many small traditional school districts, fund on something akin to a sliding scale, with funding decreasing on a per-student basis as the total number of students increases. Economies of scale exist in the digital world, but not in the same way as physical schools. Reducing per-student funding as student numbers grow creates a disincentive for growth in online schools. A few states have implemented online school funding based on successful completion instead of on time or a proxy for time. The steps to take when starting out with regard to funding are (1) to gain a thorough understanding of you state s policies on funding for statewide, multi-district, or in-district Connections Learning 6 (888)

8 virtual school programs (see section above), and (2) to review grant opportunities for virtual school schools through your state board of education. Many states offer multi-year startup funding for virtual schools. Setting goals for your virtual program A critical and often underemphasized step, establishing a dynamic 3 to 5 year plan for your virtual program will give you a measuring tool, a mission, and speaking points when seeking authorization, approvals, or funding. Examples: Bring 10% of home schooling or virtual schooling students back into the district Increase college acceptances by 5% for high school seniors in 5 years Increase college and career readiness (evaluated by before and after assessments) Raise math scores by 5% in middle school Your goals should be aligned with your implementation plan. When you are implementing a program, your decisions in the four focus areas content, teachers, technology, and operations will impact how well you will achieve your program goals. Implementation: a review of the Four Focus Areas Focus Area: Content Selecting the right curriculum for your virtual program is fundamental in the quality of your school and the success of your students. Where will your curriculum come from? Will you build it, buy it, license it, or will it be some mix of all? There are Open Education Resources available, but they often come with a non-fiscal cost of time (to modify for your use) and frustration. Your existing curriculum from your brick and mortar schools may not be suitable for the online environment as it relies so much on the physical presence of a teacher in the classroom. Your virtual program teachers can develop curriculum for the online environment, but it may not be the best use of their time. Fortunately, there are many quality curricular options available, and technology has allowed for more specific selection of certain elements of instruction for use in your courses. In fact, courses is not the smallest unit of instructional elements now available. Digital learning objects can be combined together into your existing courses. Connections Learning 7 (888)

9 Spotlight on Learning Objects: Connections Learning Lab Investigator (Rocks and Minerals) Providers of virtual school solutions like Connections Learning are bringing curriculum alive with unique, cutting edge instructional tools. These tools engage students while reinforcing key concepts and core skills. Geology takes on a whole new high-tech experience with Connections Education s Lab Investigator: Rocks and Minerals. This tool gives students a hands-on, forensics style of learning about rocks and minerals virtually. Using this tool, teachers can: Provide information about usage and location of given rocks and minerals. Enable students to manipulate and magnify the specimens to observe structure, luster, texture, and color. Allow students to view streak, fracture, hardness and more tests in order to compare the properties of various rocks and minerals. Enable students to record observations and export data. Focus Area: Teaching Your virtual school teachers will bring the curriculum to life. Ideally, you will find a ready group of volunteers able to be online teachers or to be site coordinators who provide support to online teachers. Your best candidates will be tech-savvy, certified, and committed to helping each of your students succeed. Online learning affords your teachers the chance to individualize instruction to the student to a greater degree using technology delivered lessons. The result: engaged students in virtual or blended learning programs who often outperform their brick and mortar counterparts. Whether you use your teachers or work with an outside organization, online teachers are responsible for: Connections Learning 8 (888)

10 Integrating state-of-the-art instructional tools and curriculum to engage and instruct. Developing individualized lesson plans and instruction to each student s needs. Providing instruction synchronously or asynchronously. Tracking each student s progress and adjusting individual learning plans appropriately. Providing one-on-one support. Updating administration regularly on students online progress and challenges. Expecting success and ensuring accountability Online learning and the technology that delivers it allows for greater accountability for your students and for your teachers. Online teachers can be evaluated on defined metrics that align to your program goals and all aspects of the teacher/student relationship can be recorded within an effective Learning Management System (LMS). Student progress Differentiated instruction Creativity Communication skills Timeliness Focus Area: Technology Educators often worry that more online instruction means more chance of downtime or worse yet, data loss. A solid technology infrastructure and robust platform, helps to eliminate those worries aside. Administrators often struggle with the idea of developing home-grown technology solutions versus buying an off the shelf solution and modifying it for their program. A user-friendly system benefits your school community When starting out, most administrators choose a bundled program one that includes the teacher, the content, and the technology in a single package to deliver one or a number of courses. The critical questions to ask at this time: Is this system scalable as I grow my program? Am I going to feature live, synchronous instruction (and how)? Can the technology talk to my existing district system(s)? When your virtual school program grows, you will need a more custom configuration to address the particular needs of your school or district. The technology behind most quality education Connections Learning 9 (888)

11 management systems is designed to be invisible to your students and easy to navigate for your staff so the focus stays on learning. Menus, icons and organizational tools such as planners and drop-boxes make a learning management system valuable for students, teachers, administrators, and parents. If online and blended learning are playing an ever-greater role in your school or district, you may want your own cutting-edge digital learning platform to deliver content from multiple sources while capturing all the student performance data you will need. There are a number of systems that can be custom-designed for K 12 education including Blackboard, Moodle, and Connexus. Look for a system that is: Provided in an Application Service Provider (ASP) model to eliminate the need for separate hosting and associated costs. Highly scalable to allow your school to grow and deploy selected elements as needed. Virtualized at the hardware layer to maximize user performance. Designed for integration with legacy computer systems, leveraging your prior technology investments. Supported by a team of trained hardware and software specialists to simplify implementation and daily operations for your staff. Finally, getting your constituents familiar with your system and involved in its execution is essential to buy-in and implementation success. Conduct training sessions for users and invite students to try the technology prior to the start of class. They will familiarize themselves with the navigation before the learning is really supposed to start. Focus Area: Operations Other issues in the development and implementation of a virtual school which may cause challenges include operational areas like marketing, enrollment processing, student support, and program evaluation. Virtual programs often require more communication and promotion than their public brick-and-mortar counterparts just because you build it, there is no guarantee they will come. Making your student community aware through live and online information sessions, regular communication, a web site, press releases, and other standard marketing activities will help boost interest and enrollment in your program. When you partner with an organization like Connections Learning, you will often receive marketing support as part of the partnership. Connections Learning 10 (888)

12 Enrollment processes may be different for a virtual program and student support services such as guidance counseling and special education will require a plan for fulfillment. Work with your partner organization to brainstorm solutions to the processing of enrollment paperwork and the provision of specialized student services. Virtual schools inevitably include the gathering and dissemination of a lot of data. But what is the plan to use that data and which data is relevant? Establishing a game plan for data gathering, dashboard reporting, and review of data against goals should be part of the establishment of your virtual program. Be sure your technology administrator and your teachers are aware of the data you will use to evaluate program success. A PARTNER WITH PROVEN SUCCESS IN BLENDED LEARNING Connections Learning has established itself as an expert and responsive partner in deploying educationally effective, cost-efficient virtual and blended learning programs. Through the Connections Learning Model administrators offer an innovative, inspirational, and individualized virtual and blended learning approach in their schools, districts, or charter organizations. Connections provides a unique 21st century K 12 education option including the curriculum, the instructional tools, and expert online teaching staff needed. Why choose Connections Learning? More than 700 public-school tested, standards-aligned K 12 courses Differentiated instruction and individualized support from certified teachers. Data-empowered leadership through Connexus, our education management system Ongoing professional development designed to help every teacher bring out the best in every student. Connections Learning draws upon Connections Academy LLC s solid decade of experience in serving students outside the traditional classroom setting. Founded in 2001, Connections Academy is a leading, fully accredited provider of high-quality, highly accountable virtual education for students in grades K 12. Connections Academy currently operates 23 virtual public schools in 22 states, and has nearly 40,000 students enrolled and almost 500,000 courses delivered in , with over 100,000 students served and 1,000,000 courses delivered in the past 10 years. All courses meet or exceed state and national standards (including the Common Core), and the program is accredited by multiple agencies including AdvancED and the regional accreditors. Additional detail on our curriculum and course offerings by grade level is provided in the Connections Learning Curriculum Guide available at Connections Learning 11 (888)

13 This robust curriculum is integrated into a proprietary education management system developed specifically for use in K-12 virtual programs. Over the past decade, the Connections curriculum, platform, and method of online teaching have produced the highest academic performance of any family of K 12 schools in the country. 1 In January 2011, Connections Academy became Connections Education with two divisions Connections Learning and Connections Academy. The Connections Academy division continues to focus on serving fulltime virtual public schools, while Connections Education brings this accumulated expertise in online teaching and learning to school districts around the nation. Proven Effective Only Connections Learning programs offer online courses that have all been public schooltested and a model that has demonstrated success in school districts and Infusion Labs around the country. Our online program works, and we have the state standardized test scores to prove it. Connections Academy schools regularly meet or exceed state benchmarks in core subjects, and Advanced Placement students using the Connections program outscore the national average on the AP test. Our program also gets top marks in user satisfaction: more than 96% of parents agree that our curriculum is high quality, and 92% say their students agree they are making good academic progress at their Connections schools. To find out more about a partnership with Connections Learning, contact us at (888) or visit us at 1 Based on the percentage of schools operated making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP); state report card ratings; and the overall percentage of enrolled students in the program rated as proficient or above on state standardized tests. Connections Learning 12 (888)

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