Putting the SCHOOL Back in Virtual School

May 7, 2018

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When parents come to me to discuss the pros and cons of virtual learning, the number one concern they have is the loss of social interaction among peers. The standard response from virtual schools is that those interactions can be made among neighborhood kids, family members, churches, and other social organizations. While there is a lot of truth to this answer, I've come to realize that virtual schools do not need to be an isolated academic institution void of all social interaction. Rather, we should take 20th century interactions and couple them with 21st century technology so that students can be enrolled in their preferred learning environment while still engaging in needed social interactions.

When comparing social interaction in virtual schools versus traditional schools, we are looking at two opposite ends of pendulum. The traditional school provides a high level of social interaction but with that comes the sacrifices of the loss of privacy and an inability for student and parent to control the types of interactions that occur. In the virtual school setting, we see minimal social interaction; however, there is an increase in privacy and the social interactions can be placed in a controlled environment. The challenge for virtual schools heading into the next decade to provide a "school-like" environment for virtual students, while being able to give the desired privacy and control among virtual students and their parents.

The first way we can help students interact is within the curriculum itself. FLVS and its franchises have done a good job on this front by having students complete a collaborative project in most of their classes; however, through live lessons and large number of students taking the same classes with their classmates at their brick and mortar schools, the collaborative component has become diluted. I would like to expand on this collaboration project. I would like for students to work on projects that are cross-curricular as well as expand across grade levels. The topics should be presented as problems that require solving and follow-up by student while keeping them current and industry-based. I feel this will challenge the students to step outside of their comfort zone and build new relationships in order to complete a task. This type of collaboration prepares the student for the workplace as it mirrors what is done in the business world.

Additionally, most secondary schools have implemented one or two career academies. These academies do an excellent job of introducing students to a career field and give them the introductory skills they will need in the industry. I feel that virtual schools should add some of these academies such as: digital forensics, computer programming, cybersecurity, and instructional design. Finally, virtual schools need to do a better job of conducting team building exercises both virtually and in the community. We have seen success with meet and greet opportunities among students, parents, and teachers, but I feel as though we should expand those meeting and create exercises where students must work on their communication skills in order to succeed. By building in more social interaction into the normal curriculum, students will have more interaction with their peers and be better prepared for entering the workforce.

While adding more interaction into the curriculum would be a good start, I feel that virtual schools can expand their capacities to allow for social interactions even outside of the virtual classroom. For years now, many virtual schools have struggled with how extra-curricular activities can be effective without the use of a common facility. I feel that with the use of technology and some creative logistics there is no reason that a virtual school student should be without the choice of clubs, sports, or school social events. With the use of meeting websites there is no reason that clubs such as the Spanish club, National Honor Society, and SGA cannot be held at a virtual school. These clubs and their sponsors will help create buy-in among students and help prevent students from digressing in their academic performance throughout the year.

In 2011, Florida legislatures passed the Digital Learning Act which, among other things, allowed full-time virtual students to participate in sports with their zoned school district. While it is great that students are now allowed to participate in local sports, separating the academic school from the extra-curricular school may lead to students becoming less invested in their academic school and as a result, could lessen their academic success. That is why I feel we should implement sport teams within the virtual schools. While this will be challenging from a logistic standpoint especially in larger-sized districts, individual sports such as golf, swimming, and tennis make this very possible. One solution is for student-athletes to train individually with their virtual school coach coordinating those efforts and then athletes coming together for the matches/events. Finally, there is NO reason a virtual school (especially district-specific schools) couldn't host social events throughout the year. For instance, the schools could host a movie night or an ice cream social. As the number of full-time students grow and fewer social interactions occur, the school should attempt to host dances like prom or homecoming. By implementing these extra-curricular functions, the virtual school will receive more buy-in from the students and parents which in return, will produce greater academic performance and a higher level of student retention.

One of the biggest struggles of virtual schools (though you wouldn't think of it as a struggle, which is exactly why it is a struggle) is the lack of a presence in the community. Long established brick and mortar schools have a huge presence in the community, via school zones, large buses traveling to and from, bands in community holiday parades, and of course Friday night lights. These schools' culture is woven into the fabric of the community. Unfortunately for virtual schools there are no buses, school zones, Friday night football, or bands. Essentially, for virtual schools it is out of sight out of mind for members of the community. To make a great presence in the community, virtual schools need to participate in community events such as food truck rallies, volunteering at major sporting events, or working on community service projects. This participation in the community will help community members have a greater understanding of virtual school, and hopefully increase enrollment numbers as well.

Students deserve the full high school experience during their secondary years. I feel no matter whether they attend a virtual school or a traditional brick and mortar school, those experiences should mirror one another. This is not an attempt to change virtual school into a brick and mortar school, but rather an expansion of virtual schools to create the full student experience.

Written by: Brian Morris, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Citizens' High School