Virtual School Meanderings

July 30, 2010

Leadership Day 2010 – Advice On Virtual Schooling

My colleague and fellow CASTLE blogger, Scott McLeod at Dangerously Irrelevant, posted an entry this past weekend entitled “Calling all bloggers! – Leadership Day 2010.”  The original call read:

Many of our school leaders (principals, superintendents, central office administrators) need help when it comes to digital technologies. A lot of help, to be honest. As I’ve noted again and again on this blog, most school administrators don’t know

  • what it means to prepare students for the 21st century;
  • how to recognize, evaluate, and facilitate effective technology usage by students and teachers;
  • what appropriate technology support structures (budget, staffing, infrastructure) look like or how to implement them;
  • how to utilize modern technologies to facilitate communication with internal and external stakeholders;
  • the ways in which learning technologies can improve student learning outcomes;
  • how to utilize technology systems to make their organizations more efficient and effective;
  • and so on…

Administrators’ lack of knowledge is not entirely their fault. Most of them didn’t grow up with these technologies. Many are not using digital tools on a regular basis. Few have received training from their employers or their university preparation programs on how to use, think about, or be a leader regarding digital technologies.

So… let’s help them out.

However, this year Scott simply asked us to “blog about whatever you like related to effective school technology leadership: successes, challenges, reflections, needs, wants, etc.”.  As a fellow CASTLE blogger, I feel that it is my duty to answer Scott‘s call through the lens of K-12 online learning.  And I’m not sure why, but as I sat down to write this it just seemed to flow in the form of an open letter to administrators.

Dear Administrators,

There has been a lot of recent media attention on K-12 online learning and virtual schooling over the past two or three years.  Recent books – such as Disrupting Class, Liberating Learning, and Saving Schools: From Horace Mann To Virtual Learning – have all hailed K-12 online learning as the next big thing or a way to break the hold that teachers’ unions have on educational reform or the solution to today’s perceived crisis in education.  I want to tell you one thing…  Don’t believe the hype!

This is not to say that you should ignore K-12 online learning or the possibilities that it may hold for certain kinds of students.  I will be the first to admit that supplemental virtual schools provide many students with access to foreign language courses, along with advanced-level mathematics and science courses, who would not be able to take these courses in their own schools. The types of K-12 online learning that these supplemental virtual schools provide is often a combination of asynchronous course content and instruction, with some synchronous support (sometimes in the form of full classes and other times in the form of individual assistance).  This form of design and delivery works well for these higher achieve, often independent and self-directed, students.

I will also admit that there are numerous K12 online learning vendors that offer credit recovery opportunities for students who have failed one or more course(s) in the traditional classroom. These database-driven courses provide students with an initial test to determine the content that they have not mastered and then provide instruction to the student based on only what it is they do not know.  Once the student has proceeded through the instruction, they take a second test to determine if they have achieved mastery of the content.  If they have, they are able to move on to the next topic, module, or unit to begin the process again.  If they haven’t, the process repeats itself.  This form of design and delivery works well for at-risk and other students who simply need to gain the credit in order to graduate or in order to do well on the standardized test.

Again, I will admit that there are many full-time cyber schools that provide opportunities for students who aren’t able to succeed in the traditional classroom. These full-time opportunities allow the students to complete their education from any location that they feel they are able to successfully work.  It allows them to work when they feel they can be successful, for as long a period as they desire, only any rotation of subjects they see fit.  In theory, a student could work from 3:00pm to 10:00pm every night, spending a little time on each subject area with breaks to get up and walk away from the computer from time to time.  They could also work from 6:00am to 10:00am every day and spend days on a single subject area before moving on to the next subject area. This form of design and delivery works well for students who simply can’t handle or can’t succeed sitting in desks in rows facing the front of the classroom, moving from room to room based on a predetermined bell schedule. This often includes students with behavioral or learning disabilities, students who may have to work to support their family or take care of their own child or a sibling.

One of the things to notice in these admissions is that K-12 online learning comes in many different formats.  Some online learning design and delivery methods are more appropriate for and work with specific students than other methods. For example, the way in which the supplemental virtual school courses have traditionally been designed and delivered would likely not allow an at-risk student to be successful.  The design and delivery generally requires too much independence, too much reading, and too many soft skills that an at-risk learner simply doesn’t possess.  Similarly, the higher performing student would likely not do well in a course that was designed for credit recovery.  Even if they are taking the course for the first time, they’re likely to find the content boring and beneath their ability level.

When you are considering different K-12 online learning opportunities, examine those that are available, compare those opportunities with the kinds of students who you are looking to provide those opportunities.  Remember that there are many students who are still well served by the traditional classroom environment. Don’t feel like K-12 online learning is something that you have to use.  Certain methods of design and delivery will work for some students, other methods will work for other students.  And no method of K-12 online learning may be appropriate for certain students.

In the same way a teacher selects their pedagogical strategies based on their own teaching style and comfort, the topic to be covered, and what they know about their students.  As an administrator, you need to select the method of educational delivery that you feel gives the student the best chance to succeed, based on the course selections they are interested in taking.  In some cases K-12 online learning may be the best method, but not in all cases and not all of the methods of K-12 online learning.  Be selective, be picky, be critical.  As the educational leader in your building, it is you job.

With kindest regards,
Michael K. Barbour

Note that I have used both my usual tags/categories, as well as the ones Scott used to announce this call.


  1. Thanks for this. The hype you speak of is exactly what I hope to curb in advance by taking on the idea of “virtual schooling” at a comprehensive local level… one that is tied to our vision of curriculum and pedagogy.

    My post is about mounting a group of smart local practitioners to help develop a strong vision of a future that will no doubt be virtual to some extent.

    Comment by Sean Nash — July 31, 2010 @ 2:26 am | Reply

  2. Thanks for the comment Sean – and for the link to your entry.

    Comment by mkbnl — July 31, 2010 @ 10:03 pm | Reply

  3. Michael,

    As a virtual school administrator I don’t disagree with much of what you said. Virtual schools do serve a variety of needs in public education, including credit recovery, the offering of supplemental course as well as freedom relative to time and pace. But, if you would, allow me to offer a couple of other thoughts…

    1. I believe the term “at-risk” is dependent upon the environment. We have had many students who would be considered “at risk” at their local school begin coursework at our virtual school and flourish. In most cases, the student was labeled “at risk” due to local constraints, not personal traits.

    2. Many of our students take courses with us as a way to free up their local school schedule to take more classes of a particular interests. For example, they may take a history course with us to free up the period in which photography is offered. Couple a situation like that with the ones we both pointed out, and we have come the conclusion that a blended environment is best for kids.

    Comment by Tony Baldasaro — August 17, 2010 @ 7:30 am | Reply

  4. Tony, thanks for the comment. Let me extend it a little, I’m willing to bet that the way you design, delivery and support those courses for the “at-risk” students (and I do agree that the label can be problematic) is not the same as the way the courses that student who have had more academic success in the traditional brick-and-mortar environment enroll in to solve scheduling conflicts. If I’m right, you’re an example of exactly what I’m talking about – figuring out what works best for different groups of students and designing learning opportunities based upon the group. Not using the same formula for all students in the online environment the same way many of the proponents of K-12 online learning accuse the classroom of doing.

    Comment by mkbnl — August 17, 2010 @ 8:14 am | Reply

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