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Making e-Learning Work: Insider Tips From a Virtual School

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While online instruction was merely an interesting "experiment" just 20 years ago, it is now a critical touch point for students as they prepare for higher education and the working world. According to Sloan Consortium estimates, 30 percent of today's college students are enrolled in at least one online class and that figure will likely reach 100 percent in a few years. Already, many universities require students to take online class. For institutions, it isn't a question of whether or not an online program should be implemented; it is how to develop a program that fosters high achievement for students that also allows teachers to succeed in their craft. In seeking best practices for implementing virtual learning in the K-12 level, the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) offers some insight.

Trends in student enrollment at FLVS have been increasing steadily since its inception in 1997, with over 250,000 students enrolled today. The majority of FLVS students are completing or supplementing their traditional classroom coursework, many for the convenience of virtual work and others because a particular course is not offered in their own district. Courses are free for Florida residents but available to students around the world, providing limitless access to award-winning curriculum and instructors. Both the school's model and its individual educators have been recognized for success in bridging the gap between knowledge and physical proximity of teacher and student. In being recently named Best Virtual School by the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), FLVS follows several critical pillars for e-Learning success.

The Self-Selected Student
In a perfect world, no student would be forced to take a class online, and this new dimension for learning must be introduced voluntarily to ensure optimal success. It is critical for students to understand the "why behind the what" and know that incorporating online instruction -- even in a hybrid format -- offers them the best preparation for an increasingly digital working world. In helping them to develop a sense of ownership in the virtual learning process due to its highly independent nature, students will begin to assert self-selection -- which is ultimately key to their achievement in this format.

Exposure to the unique requirements of online coursework, most notably independent study and virtual collaboration, ultimately provides students with experience in developing self-motivation. Students learn time management, prioritization and -- despite misconceptions about online learning -- practice community building more in tune with today's actual professional environments. Understanding these benefits will help foster an enthusiastic virtual student body.

Harnessing the Power of Data
As naturally independent learners will almost certainly succeed in e-Learning, incorporating online methods early on (in K-12) for all types of students enables instructors to assess and evaluate those requiring more guidance in order to reach their potential. Online instruction harnesses the power of data in more sophisticated ways than many know or truly understand -- enabling detection for discreet deficiencies and providing intelligence into righting a student's knowledge base before it is too late.

At FLVS, teachers combine performance data with active communication and evaluation methods to determine whether or not a student is progressing before it may be too late. Applying data to performance assessment enables a combination of quantitative and qualitative evaluation, and creates a balanced view of a student's true academic development.

Adaptive Learning as a Critical Tool
While the power of data in assessment cannot be underestimated, adaptive learning takes this process a step further and serves as a key method FLVS instructors use to "actively monitor" academic progress. Personalization in instruction is critical, especially in distance learning where face-to-face interaction is limited or nonexistent, and allows students to progress at their own rate while reinforcing areas needing further development. With adaptive learning tools, teachers can, in essence, provide a virtual tutor to help a student self-correct, and collaboration tools enable students to compare their progress against their peers. This real-time, interactive feedback is also invaluable for a generation that craves instant gratification, and is proven to boost learning outcomes.

Students Empowered by Choice
Building upon the theories of self-selection and adaptive learning, students should have a choice in determining how they learn online. This could include employing a variety of assignments based on students' learning styles, and assessments that show they've mastered the material and can shine in their own way. E-Learning is not a "one size fits all" solution, and in order for the virtual student-teacher relationship to be successful, it must play on the strengths of both parties.

Hiring is Critical
Even as education pundits extol the many virtues of online instruction for secondary schooling (including us), there is often a disconnect evident "in the field." Success of any online learning program will undoubtedly rely upon the instructors at hand and their ability to impart the curriculum effectively via an online platform. Not every teacher is cut out for virtual work, however, which can often require more commitment than face-to-face instruction. Those motivated by their students' individual success, passionate about their careers and dedicated to changing young adults' lives have the best foundation for success.

FLVS has a four-year waiting list for instructors eager for one of the most demanding positions in education, and the training and career development is likely the true impetus for such a substantial applicant list. FLVS requires 75-100 professional learning hours per year, and with no tenure program, instructors continually strive for success using data, adaptive learning tools, and the adage that there is "no reason for a student to fail" in the learning environment FLVS provides. This type of commitment is paramount to the success of the students -- not just for a particular class grade, but also in "life."

With such an aggressive adoption rate in recent years, online instruction comes with it a learning curve of its own. Given what we know about students' performance in university-level online courses -- that dropout rates are 20% higher for online courses than face-to-face - focusing on best practices at the K-12 level is critical to the e-Learning model's continued growth and success, and that of the students'. Armed with a strategy focused on student self-selection and choice, applying the power of performance data, adaptive learning tools and a focus on hiring teachers truly fit for virtual pedagogy, e-Learning can be successful in developing the 21st Century skills required for achievement in an increasingly virtual world.