Choice Goes Virtual And May Never Go Back

17 year old Micah is a transplant from Trinidad. She’s in the 11th grade, a member of the National Honors Society and the President of Key Club. And, she attends Broward Virtual Schools (BVS) full time.

Virtual school is just as it sounds; classrooms are transported virtually through the power of software and the internet into any room or screen around the world. The content is electronic but, in Broward, the courses are teacher-facilitated. Students are able to move at their own pace to master the lesson.

The schools in my area weren’t that good. So, my family and I decided to try BVS and I really like it. It’s a great choice for me. I was able to bring up my math and english grades. It challenged me to be more disciplined because I had to manage my time. I think I’ve also become more innovative by using software and programs I would probably never have used.”

Students like Micah are not as uncommon as you may think. Parents are increasingly seeking out flexible, quality options for their family. Some use BVS for credit recovery, while others want to speed up the diploma process. Schools around the country have seen a dramatic turnaround by rethinking approaches to old teaching styles through online learning.

Christopher McGuire is the principal of BVS and finalist for Principal of the Year for 2017.

“In 1997 Florida Virtual Schools started offering advanced placement classes in rural districts where they didn’t have the numbers to substantiate course offerings.

Just think about that for a second. This was before e-commerce really took off, before Amazon, or Google… When the internet was just truly information sharing. An educator stepped forward and said “let’s educate kids this way and provide access to kids who don’t have access to these courses.’ ”

In his 12 years as principal, McGuire has ushered in most of BVS’ milestones and accolades (read more about his journey). Even the highest honor of being the first virtual school nominee for Principal of the Year is, in itself, pretty revolutionary. Yet, he’s still in wonderment of the innovative solutions online education could bring.

“This is true school choice. Maybe as we continue to grow school choice in the traditional public school system we would see the state back off the measures they are taking to create charters and vouchers. We live in a consumer driven society, we should not be neighborhood bound. If we want to keep public education alive, we have to provide choices that are worthwhile that parents are willing to drive, or log, their child in to.”

Not all Virtual Schools are Created Equal

BVS provided access to over 15,000 individual students last year with a broad array of course offerings through 80 teaching staff. It is a part of Florida Virtual Schools, one of the largest in the industry.

But great student performance outcomes actually make Florida an anomaly in online education world. NPR reported virtual schools as a whole have come under fire for graduating less than half the average of traditional schools. And two-thirds were rated as academically “unacceptable” in an independent 2015 evaluation. Much of this has been attributed to under-spending on staffing and less support for students with special learning needs.

BVS goes above the average virtual standard to ensure education is happening. Students have little opportunity to fudge their work due to protocols which bridge the gap of teacher-student face time.

For example, students must be able to talk about what they have learned at required discussion-based assessment checkpoints throughout the course, and all assignments are scanned against content on the internet to minimize plagiarism.

But the thing McGuire calls the “game changer” is the unique level of self-reflection.

“Students rate themselves on a performance scale that is infused within the learning goals of the class. They get feedback from their teacher on the self-reflection, helping the student to calibrate their awareness of their own progress. So, the personalized approach is enhanced to a micro level where each student is not only thinking about what they are learning, but actually expressing what they are learning and how confident they feel about their level of proficiency. Personalization through self-reflection; this is our reform initiative. Having students take ownership for their own learning…”

Not for Everyone

Just like the traditional classroom, even a great virtual school is not for every student. Micah thrived with increased independence, but wouldn’t recommend it to students who need a lot of hand-holding or daily interaction with the teacher. “Self-guided learning would not be for them.”

Even McGuire himself admits the virtual “school at home” model is tricky in the elementary years when milestones can go unchecked and parents can over-help their child’s performance. “Teachers are trained to identify gaps. So, we are very careful to counsel parents before coming into the elementary model. We do frequent assessments and benchmarks.”

As colleges and universities have expanded their reliance on virtual classrooms it only makes sense to get our kids ready to excel in that environment, but we must pay close attention to quality. And maybe, like Micah, it could be a school-choice option for your family.

Photo of Micah working from home. Learn more about Principal Christopher McGuire, his journey and philosophy in the post Virtual Leadership of Christopher McGuire.

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