Exploring the 21st Century Teaching and Learning Environment in K-12

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Exploring the 21st Century Teaching and Learning Environment in K-12

Introduction

“Learning is dynamic and interactive, regardless of the setting in which it occurs (Huber & Lowry, 2003).”

For many learners, the real world is increasingly a virtual one, and their place of learning logically follows suit. According to (Donovan, 2011), the nomenclature “virtual school” provides a useful image for students, revealing the breakthroughs in connecting teachers and courses to learners.

The U.S. Department of Education, Center for Technology in Learning produced “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” a report that stated:

“The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes—measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation—was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009) (p. ix).”

 This paper explores the K-12 teaching environment of two case studies referenced in the 2015 report, “Keeping Pace with K-12 Digital Learning (K12, 2015)”:

Both state virtual schools are completely online and accredited by their respective states and associations; both have full-time online students, grant diplomas, and perform the other that traditional schools perform (K12, 2015).

Overview

With its brick-and-mortar office based in Exeter, New Hampshire, the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) is online virtual public middle and high school that allows both full- and part-time pupils to learn at individual pace, full or part time (Virtual learning academy | middle, high school, & adult ed.). It is unique in that it is both a charter school and a public school. All students New Hampshire-based students must participate in Smarter Balanced Assessments in grades 6, 7, and 8. Another feature is that VLACS also provides courses college-readiness courses and programs leading to Associate Degrees.

VLACS serves all of New Hampshire, with a population of more than 10,000 full- and part-time students and more than 20,000 course enrollments with approximately 15% of students  home-educated.

Because it is state-wide, and because New Hampshire includes substantial rural and urban/suburban districts (with southern New Hampshire generally included in the Boston area), VLACS comprises many
diverse cultural and economic backdrops, including more than 280 communities and, venturing beyond state borders, four states.

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Educational Plan

According to its web site, VLACS adheres to national curriculum standards (standardized assessments) and complies with Common Core Standards; its instructors are certified. The school has implemented a credit-recovery plan (or, as VLACS terms it “unit recovery”), “instead of waiting for a student to fail after an entire semester or year in school,” an approach many schools and school districts have adopted nationally.

As a competency-based school, VLACS subscribes to several tenets:

  • Time is not a barrier to learning.
  • All students are held to high standards.
  • Failure is not an option.

VLACS measures competency when a student passes certain competency assignments (projects, papers, exams, or quizzes), scoring 85 or better and having greater than 60% average in the specified course. Students can retake assignments multiple times, supported by the assigned VLACS instructor, Students must demonstrate   understanding of the course competencies (Virtual learning academy | middle, high school, & adult ed.).

Skirting the notion that online learning dispels traditional methodologies, VLACS asserts that it outperforms many other online institutions “(b)y zigging when others zag (Berdik, 2016b),” but still employs standardized tests to measure student achievement.

Online Technologies

VLACS purchases most of its technologies from the subject of the second case study, the Florida Virtual School; therefore, it uses the Brightspace Learning Management System (LMS) from Desire2Learn (D2L), integrating chat, social media, and video features. The LMS is designed to work with smartphones, tablets or any device that uses a browser. Its real-time learning analytics provides engagement data to teachers to help improve student outcomes (School & Clow).

Reflection

Wired magazine’s 2016 article characterized VLACS as “The Online School That Could Radically Change How Kids Learn Everywhere (Berdik, 2016a),” and that assessment, though perhaps hyperbolic, encapsulates the unique funding and academic structure of VLACS, as Berdick continues:

“…VLACS stands out as an online success story. On average, the school’s full-time students typically equal or modestly exceed New Hampshire average scores on state reading and math tests, as well as on the SAT (Berdik, 2016b).”

This bodes well for VLACS, as well as for most virtual schools, whether they be state- or district-funded. The competency-based structure VLACS utilizes not only buttresses its funding, but focuses on student
achievement and comprehension, even for part-time learners. Its customized learning model can help ensure that learners receive prompt, individualized feedback; strong relationships and a hearty dose of reality are key to helping students succeed.

Florida Virtual School

 

Overview

Based in Orlando, FL, Florida Virtual School (FLVS), founded in 1997, has the distinction of being the nation’s largest state virtual school (K12, 2015). Serving 192,820 students in its Flex Schools (K-12) and 5,104 ‬in its full-time schools (for a total of 197,924) (Florida virtual school ® (FLVS ® ) district enrollment summary.), FLVS is one of only two, along with VLACS, to receive funding based on a competency approach. (According to (K12, 2015), “Students taking all of their courses online reached about 11,000.” This discrepancy in all likelihood is due to differing enrollments, years of evaluation, and flex schools vs. full-time schools.) Because FLVS is a Florida Public School District, it serves not only in-state residents, but out-of-state students as well as learners from other countries.

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Its 1700 Florida-certified instructors serve (ellipses mine) “(a)pproximately 68 percent of FLVS students … from public and charter schools, 25 percent … homeschool students, and 7 percent … private school students (Instructional personnel evaluation system florida virtual school instructional evaluation system.2018).”

In its report, the Harvard Kennedy School asserts that FLVS positively selects students through prior achievement and demographics. The students perform the same or somewhat better on state tests, taking into account their pre-high-school characteristics (Chingos, Schwerdt+, & Schwerdt, 2014).

Because FLVS is a Florida Public School District, it serves not only in-state residents, but out-of-state students as well as learners from other countries. At the district level, FLVS franchises its curriculum and technology, and also distributes District Virtual Instruction Programs and course offerings.

In 2012, FLVS, like VLACS, established a credit-recovery program, allowing students to complete courses in cohorts, in conventional time constraints unlike the traditional, open-ended courses the school offers: Its teacher-directed courses are intensive and fast-paced, including discussions and assessments (Powell, Roberts, & Patrick, ).

Among parents, approximately 60 percent can log into a Web-based account to monitor a student’s progress. Parents can access students’ grades and assignments; teachers also communicate with them through monthly phone calls and e-mail progress reports (Tucker, 2007).

Educational Plan

FLVS adheres to Florida’s State K-20 Education Code:

“At the elementary, middle, and high school levels, exploratory courses designed to give students initial exposure to a broad range of occupations to assist them in preparing their academic and occupational plans, and practical arts courses that provide generic skills that may apply to many occupations but are not designed to prepare students for entry into a specific occupation.  Career education provided before high school completion must be designed to strengthen both occupational awareness and academic skills integrated throughout all academic instruction (Florida Statutes, n.d.).”

Online Technologies

FLVS has stated that it uses the Brightspace Learning Management System (LMS) from Desire2Learn (D2L), which integrates chat, social media, and video features; however, according to Jennifer Whiting, FLVS Senior Manager of Product Development (ellipses mine), FLVS delivers “courses and content using seven different learning management systems (LMS)… FLVS has used Ucompass as its primary LMS since 2003…. ” Again, this discrepancy can be attributable to the time of publication, franchise preference, or other factors.

Whatever the LMS, FLVS allows its students to use Windows or Macintosh computers to access learning at “any time, any place, any path, any pace.” It does, nevertheless, stress technological limitations due to the breadth of its courses and subject matter; therefore, “lightweight devices such as Google Chromebooks or tablets that have very limited technology support for Java or Flash, will not be compatible with the majority of our courses (FLVS, ).” The use of mobile devices can depend on course requirements.

Reflection

In a 2001 TedX Talk, Julie Young, then-FLVS President and CEO (now a board member of the United States Distance Learning Association), described the journey from its origins to one of the primary virtual schools in the nation, and how virtual learning will not replace “traditional” learning, but will change it. “Because of its course-completion funding structure,” (Tucker, 2007) relates, “FLVS has an incentive to continue to grow.”

Beyond technologies, beyond state requirements, beyond percentages, the true success stories lie with the students, as expressed on YouTube:
(FLVS, 2011)

FLVS, through its innovative and substantial course offerings—and access to them—has embodied its motto, “any time, any place, any path, any pace.”

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