LEAD & MANAGE MY SCHOOL
Innovations in Education: Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online
December 2007
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Virtual High School

Maynard, Mass.


School Profile: Selected Variables a

Year Initiated 1996
Initiator Concord Consortium, Hudson Public Schools
Types of Courses Offered APb
IBc
Honors
Core
Electives
Number of Courses Currently Offered 216
Total Enrollments Since Inception 40,028

a These data are reported by the school and are for the school year 2006–07.
b Advanced Placement
c International Baccalaureate

The Virtual High School (VHS) is a nonprofit membership organization made up of schools across the nation—and in other countries— that want to offer their students more rigorous course work. VHS was established in late 1996 by the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit Massachusetts- based education research and development organization whose mission is "to stimulate large-scale, technology-based improvements in teaching and learning." 50 The consortium's initial work had included delivering online professional development for teachers, using a brokering method in which schools shared teacher costs and expertise. Its intent in creating VHS was to adapt the same model to offer online courses to high school students.

Initially, VHS member schools had to guarantee that at least one of their teachers would participate in VHS's year-long training, the Teachers Learning Conference, during which the teacher would develop and deliver an online course. Participating schools also agreed to assign someone to serve as a site coordinator, who receives online training in how to support students taking VHS courses. If schools also freed up their site coordinator for one period a day to monitor students, they received a $9,000 annual stipend.

By its fourth year, VHS recruitment efforts had yielded 87 member schools. At this stage, however, the organization recognized that its ability to meet the needs of schools would be limited by its initial membership requirements, specifically, the length of its training program and the need for each new member to create a new course. That is, the length of the training meant that a school that learned about VHS midyear, for example, could not become a member until the following year. Moreover, by requiring that each new member commit a teacher to developing and teaching a new course and not having anyone else prepared to teach that course, VHS would have unwieldy numbers of students in its most popular courses while, at the same time, ending up with more unique courses than its membership needed.

VHS changed its membership requirements, adding a six-month training—NetCourse Instructional Methodologies—that prepares new online instructors to teach an additional section of an existing course rather than to develop a new course themselves. This allows VHS to offer more sections of courses in high demand and, therefore, limit the number of students in each section. Smaller classes help ensure that students have more opportunity for interaction with their instructor and classmates. The year- long training is still available for teachers who are developing a course, but VHS plans to add no more than 10 courses a year. At least partly as a result of this change, VHS's membership jumped to 232 schools in the organization's fifth year (a 167 percent increase from just the previous year).

VHS offers membership options for individual schools, districts, and consortia of schools. Generally, each school commits one teacher to teach a VHS course (which that teacher may or may not have developed) and, in return, receives 25 student seats or enrollments per semester. Member schools with fewer than 600 students receive 15 seats per semester, and a consortium of schools can receive bulk discounts.

Student Recruitment and Enrollment

To attract new members, VHS conducts an ongoing marketing effort about the benefits of online learning. Much of the marketing work focuses on communicating about benefits that administrators might not have considered, such as students' gaining global citizenship as they interact online not just with students from other states, but also from other countries. VHS also exhibits at local and national conferences where participants can examine its extensive course catalog. Its global services team markets directly to district and school decision-makers (e.g., superintendents, principals, curriculum coordinators, department heads, teachers), describing the benefits of online courses for students, including AP exam participation and pass rates.

Once a school chooses to participate (whether on its own, through its district, or as part of a consortium), school-site staff begin recruiting students. VHS provides recruitment tools, including marketing materials and a 15-question online survey that enables students to reflect on their aptitude for online learning. Once they sign up, students complete a five-hour student orientation course. Site coordinators use the results from each student's survey and orientation course to discuss learning styles, time management, and technology skills with the student.

Course Offerings

VHS currently offers 185 unique courses (many with multiple sections) and intends to add approximately 10 new ones each year. VHS teachers design courses based on the National Education Association's guidelines for high-quality online courses. All new courses are reviewed by two full-time curriculum coordinators and are mapped to the state standards from those states with member schools.

In 2003, VHS received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Advanced Placement Incentive Program, to develop an Online Advanced Placement Academy (Online AP Academy). The grant enabled 52 low-income high schools and their feeder middle schools to create, deliver, and receive online AP, pre-AP, and middle school enrichment courses. The Online AP Academy's 12 pre-AP courses, developed by vertical teams of middle and high school teachers, prepare students to successfully master the concepts in AP courses and teach study skills to strengthen students' academic habits. During the 2004–06 school years, VHS collaborated with the International Baccalaureate (IB) foundation in a pilot effort to deliver an IB economics course online. It has since extended and expanded the pilot and is offering two IB courses online: economics and information technology in a global society.

Instruction, Mentoring, and Support

VHS instructors must be certified in the disciplines in which they teach and successfully complete one of VHS's trainings, during which they are evaluated on their readiness to deliver online instruction. Once they start teaching online courses, they receive ongoing professional development and support through VHS's online Community of Virtual Educators (COVE), a Web site at which instructors can seek help from VHS's professional developers, commonly referred to as lifeguards.

All VHS courses are delivered via asynchronous (i.e., when people are not online at the same time) teacher-facilitated "classrooms," with class size limited to 25 students per instructor. VHS provides a three-week, no-penalty withdrawal period. At one time, instructors did not post students' grades until the course had been underway for three weeks. But teachers and students found that if a student fell three weeks behind on his or her assignments, it was nearly impossible for the student to catch up and he or she would not succeed in the course. Instructors now start posting grades immediately after the course begins, and site coordinators at member schools track the grades regularly so they can plan student support.

Funding

From the beginning, VHS has aimed to be self-supporting. It began with a $7.8 million Technology Innovation Challenge grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which fully funded its first five years. But 18 months prior to the end of the grant, VHS advised members that when the grant ended schools would be charged a membership fee; it also told them what the fee would be so they could budget accordingly. Of the 232 members at that time, 160 stayed on and another 23 members were added that same fall, so the net loss was only 49 schools. VHS took a similarly farsighted approach with its Online AP Academy. At the beginning of the second year of the U.S. Department of Education's three-year Advanced Placement Incentive Program grant, participating Online AP Academy schools paid one-third of their costs, with two-thirds funded by the grant. During the third year of membership, schools covered half the costs, and in 2006–07, they began paying the entire cost. According to VHS's chief executive officer, this kind of transition plan enables schools to participate without having to come up with funding immediately, giving them the opportunity to understand the value of the program and time to budget accordingly.

Membership fees range from $1,500 to $8,500 per year, depending on the size of the school, its online enrollment numbers, and whether someone from the school is teaching an online course. To help schools find the necessary funding to participate, VHS provides information about grant writing, including a free How to Fund Your VHS Membership Webinar.


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Last Modified: 10/05/2009