Building A Virtual School

Chelsea Penney
April 20, 2022

Why do you want to build a virtual school?

What is your why? What is your purpose? Your goal? What opportunity or problem are you trying to solve? There is no right or wrong answer, however, you do need to understand what your why is because it will drive how your program operates which will matriculate down to everything else you need to plan to run the program such as curriculum, policies, professional development, technology, etc.

When you think about our educational ecosystems and the different needs of our students and teachers, it can present even more challenges to consider. By expanding our learning modalities to three different formats, we are creating powerful learning experiences that meet the preferences and needs of our students and teachers. Students now have the options. They can take a course 100% online, they can attend in a blended or hybrid format where they report to school 2-3 days/week and complete online activities outside the classroom, or they come to a traditional brick and mortar campus.

Imagine the conversations now a parent, child, and counselor can have about which environment is best for that student at any given moment. Don’t underestimate the power of this same approach with your teaching staff.

Why Students Choose Virtual Learning

Virtual Learning Basics

Virtual school students can be full-time where they take the entire programming online, part-time where they complement their face-to-face courses with a virtual option or two or summertime where students can get ahead on credits, bridge the gap for incoming 9th graders, or recover course credits. All are great options, but different approaches guide how you will build your program.

Did you know?

  • 5 states require online courses to graduate
  • 21 states have sponsored virtual schools
  • 32 states allow full-time online schools to operate and draw students across districts
  • 37% of all college students take at least one online course annually
  • 50% of Fortune 500 companies train staff using virtual platforms

Profile of a Successful Virtual Learner

Before you build a program, it is important to recognize the type of student that thrives virtually. Based on research, these six attributes are commonly cited as critical behaviors or aptitudes virtual students need to model to be successful. These skills should not be used as gatekeepers to prevent students from participating. I believe that all students can learn online if the program builds in the appropriate level of support and scaffolding. To succeed in virtual school, schools need to prepare students with the following skills. 

  • Strong communication
  • Digitally literacy
  • Foundational skills
  • Motivation
  • Self-regulation
  • Time management

Emergency Remote Versus Virtual Learning

Best Practices for Building a Virtual School

Plan: Leadership and policy

The leadership of a quality virtual program is responsible for setting and meeting the operational and strategic goals in support of the program’s mission and vision.

Leadership must develop a clear why to make important decisions about policy as they build their program. There are so many customizable facets to virtual learning that programs will be cluttered without a clear understanding of the need. 

For example, will your school be synchronous or asynchronous? There are pros and cons of each that directly correlate to your why. With synchronous instruction, the teacher is the heart of the learning experience and can offer real-time feedback, real-time communications, and students are still part of an authentic and engaging learning community. With asynchronous, students work more self-paced with the teacher taking a backseat and providing feedback and communications usually through email or the LMS platform you use. Grade level matters. Elementary students need more support and more parent awareness, so an asynchronous model is likely not the right fit.

Questions to consider:

  • What do you want your stakeholders to think, see, say, and hear about your virtual program?
  • What population of students do you want to serve?
  • What is your criteria for participation?
  • When do students need to sign-up by? Drop-date? New enrollment date?
  • What is your attendance policy?
  • Will you proctor exams?
  • How will you create a policies and procedures manual that aligns with state regulations?

Plan: Organizational staff

A quality virtual program has appropriate levels of qualified, well-trained, and supported staff who have the resources needed to achieve organizational goals.

Who will champion your program? This is so important and a very underrated action item. You need someone that is knowledgeable but also someone that is passionate about virtual learning, someone with thick skin because they may experience resistance. Your champion will require support and clearly defined responsibilities. Think carefully about how you will support your teachers within the virtual learning environment. 

Plan: Equity and accessibility

A quality virtual program’s policies and practices support learners’ ability to access the program. Accommodations are available to meet a variety of learner needs. Consider how to support students of all backgrounds and abilities and all of their technological needs.

Prepare: Technology and systems

Recognizing that technology creates both opportunities and anxieties, a virtual program must provide an environment that is current, dependable, and rich in the creative use of tools to enhance learning, interaction, and program integrity.

Prepare: Curriculum and content

A quality virtual program will adopt and implement instructional design methods that enable effective virtual instruction for both institutionally developed courses as well as licensed content from other sources.

Developing in-house virtual curriculum for all grades and subjects is a big task to take on. Your program will need to dedicate time and resources to the project if you choose to create your own. Otherwise, turnkey solutions are available for purchase. 

Prepare: Family and learner supports

A quality virtual program provides learner and parent/guardian support services to address the various needs of learners at different levels within the organization. The levels of support must be appropriate and adequate for learner success.

  • How will you provide updates, policies, and procedures to your families?
  • How will you present your available course offerings in a way that your learners and families can easily navigate and understand?
  • How will learners receive technical support?
  • How will you educate families on the pros and cons of virtual learning including how to support their learner at home?
  • How are you positioning your students to have success with your model?

Launch and implement: Evaluation and assessment

A quality virtual program recognizes the value of program evaluation. Program evaluation is both internal and external and informs all processes that affect teaching and learning. Establish means of measurement before implementing the program. Focus on attendance, pass/fail rates and family experience. Use pre-tests and post-tests to measure growth throughout the year. Having clear standards in mind before starting will lead to measurable success rates and innovative ideas for long-term development.

Launch and implement: Continuous improvement

A quality virtual program proactively and intentionally applies the data collected from evaluations to build, adjust, and implement its virtual program’s strategic plan. No program will be perfect in its first year. It is essential to continually evolve with technology, instructional styles and metrics to improve the virtual school.

Launch and implement: Entrepreneurial initiatives

A quality virtual program recognizes that virtual education includes a commitment to innovation, experimentation, risk and imagination. Those overseeing the program must have the skills to facilitate these change processes. Consider the unique value your program creates and the legacy it will leave.

Final considerations

  • Developing/launching your program will take longer than expected
  • Work on a few things at once instead of tackling it all
  • Assume it's students' and parents' first virtual learning experience
  • Don’t take brick and mortar content and try to make it work virtually
  • Fit your program to virtual needs and not on-campus
  • Refrain from evaluating teachers your first-year
  • Over-communicate
  • Make your program your own and meaningful to your community

Click here for a free downloadable resource to learn more about how to determine the virtual school supports you need.

Interested in learning about virtual schools and how you can partner with us to implement? Read more.

Chelsea Penney earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Writing from University of Colorado Denver and her Masters of Science in Marketing from Texas A&M University Commerce. She loves living in Austin, TX and working on the frontline of the many marketing initiatives for Proximity Learning.

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