Every student has unique needs, and it can be a challenge to meet those for any school. In virtual schools, however, the unique needs of individual students combine in a dizzying array of diversity. In a recent article for District Administration , VirtualSC Curriculum Coordinator Deirdre Edwards explained how they met those needs for nearly 30,000 students in the 2018-2019 academic year alone.
“In addition to all the varied demographics and cultures found in traditional schools, online schools serve students who’ve fallen behind or are looking to get ahead, those who have health issues that won’t allow them to attend class in person, or those who simply want to take a class not offered in their home district,” Edwards wrote. “Coordinating curriculum to meet that vast universe of specific needs is certainly a challenge, but it’s manageable with world-class educators and careful selection of the right tools.”
One key to success Edwards noted is using learning software that can serve a range of students.
“We had approximately 72,000 elementary and middle school students in our Elementary Keyboarding program last year. In this program, we provide online keyboarding instruction through TypeTastic free of charge for any district that would like to offer this option to their students. Keyboarding is an important prerequisite skill for students, particularly since our state moved to online standardized testing. TypeTastic works in the virtual environment because it offers programs that are appropriate for students from kindergarten up through high school.”
In a similar vein, Edwards explained that it’s important to make sure they consider accessibility, both for students with varying abilities and for those who may not be able to access particular resources.
“We use the Quality Matters K12 rubric as our benchmark for best practices in online course design, and have program-wide accessibility guidelines based on WCAG 2.0,” Edwards wrote. “Based on discussions with technical directors across the state, we avoid using resources, such as YouTube videos, that are commonly blocked for students in schools.”
To keep students engaged online, Edwards said there are two key ingredients. The first, teachers, are essential in any school setting.
“My [curriculum] team creates solid, engaging master courses but the courses do not teach themselves,” Edwards wrote. “It is our teachers who make those courses come alive by creating relationships with students, personalizing instruction, and making connections between course content and students’ lives. Our teachers use many tools to make these connections, including text messaging, online meeting tools, email, and others. There is no substitute for the personal touch that comes from a live teacher.”
Engaging resources and tools for those teachers to use are also important, according to Edwards.
“We have contracts with video companies including Discovery Education and Learn360, and have our own in-house video production team that produces an ever-growing repository of videos,” Edwards said. “The sunset of Flash has been a real challenge, particularly in our science courses. To meet it, some of our instructional designers are starting to use design tools such as H5P and Adobe Creative Suite to make our own in-house interactive learning objects. Many of our courses also include discussion forums where students can share their work with each other, exchange ideas, or troubleshoot problems.”
Of course, no matter how hard you work to help students succeed, without metrics to gauge success, it’s impossible to know where your efforts are hitting the mark and where you might need a little work. To get that feedback from a student population as large and diverse as VirtualSC’s, Edwards believes it’s important to measure success in a variety of ways.
“Qualitatively, we seek feedback from all of our stakeholders to ensure that we are meeting the needs of students and schools in our state,” Edwards wrote. “Quantitatively, we track success by looking at number of enrollments, course completion rates, and grade distributions. We also look at the number of franchises (which has grown each year), and the number of students who participate in the Elementary Keyboarding Program.” “The exact data you gather might differ,” Edwards concluded, “but the key is asking the right questions and ensuring that what you are measuring is going to give you the information you need to best serve your students.”