Amid a nationwide push to get students back in school, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has said that school districts in his state won’t be allowed to offer virtual learning next year—even for parents who want that option.
At the same time, more districts are signaling that they intend to offer virtual school options to meet the demand from families. According to a February survey by the EdWeek Research Center, 68 percent of districts plan to offer a “much wider array of remote learning options.”
Although full-time virtual school has not been ideal for a majority of families and students—and there are memes aplenty showing people’s dissatisfaction with the remote learning they’ve experienced—a significant number report that it’s been a blessing for them. In many cases, they don’t intend to go back to full-time in-person school. There’s plenty of evidence for this in the spiraling enrollments at online schools, from ASU Prep Digital to Florida Virtual School and from Stride, Inc. to MyTechHigh.
That is as it should be.
Our present-day school system was never built to optimize all students’ learning. Instruction happens at fixed intervals, and progress is based mostly on seat time, not mastery. Students can skate by while missing large chunks of knowledge. The choppy remote and hybrid offerings that districts launched in response to the pandemic generally doubled down on that system and were often clunky at best.
Bucking the poor online experiments of 2020-21 and launching a robust virtual school as part of a broader strategy to escape today’s one-size-fits-all system can be a tremendous positive—but only if districts take a thoughtful approach. Such an approach would involve identifying the desired end state and considering the student and teacher experience before picking technology and curriculum vendors.
Begin with the End
The first step in any process around launching virtual schools isn’t to start posting RFPs for technology platforms or curriculum or hardware.
It should instead start with identifying the right founding team to build the virtual school, and then having that group convene to identify what problem the virtual school is trying to solve or what goals it should fulfill for students, families, and the broader district and community.
In other words, it should start with the end in mind. Part of that puzzle is understanding which students the virtual school will serve.
During this work stream, the team must not settle for surface-level understandings of who the school will be serving that settle at static demographic descriptions. Instead, the team must understand the circumstances in which these students sit and why they would prefer a full-time virtual school to an in-person one.
That means understanding what progress looks like for the families. What are they trying to escape? What hasn’t worked well in the past for them? What are they hoping for more of? Why do they prefer remote schooling? What is their home life and schedule like? Are there certain activities they do that render traditional school hours and interactions a non-starter? What sort of academic progress have students made historically?
Understanding context will help the district’s team understand what sort of experiences a virtual school should provide for individuals to enable the students to make progress. What works in one case may not work in every case.
For example, for some students, asynchronous learning—in which they have considerable independence and flexibility as to when they learn—may be a critical component of a successful virtual school. For many others, the opposite will be true. How schools think about cohorts and community may vary widely, as will how they think about curriculum, teaching and learning experiences, and what services and courses the schools should offer.
Student and Teacher Experience
One thing every district should insist upon is that students learning virtually must have an adult in-person who is able to supervise the learning. That adult can make responsible decisions around how they supervise, but the adult must be available and on site. Districts should view the teaching as a team sport, in which teachers are working together and with parents and guardians to create a web of supports for students to create a more robust experience.
This is in part because the research around online learning suggests that in-person interactions matter for most students to be successful. Students in full-time virtual schools typically need an involved parent, and students who take an online course do significantly better when there is an onsite mentor. Districts don’t necessarily have to bar students whose parents can’t be involved from learning virtually, but they should make sure that there is an alternative arrangement—whether that’s through learning pods and microschools, co-ops, or use of other guardians.
It’s possible that for schools that adopt a synchronous experience the adult at home may not need to be as present. It’s likely, though, that even then, an adult will need to be on-call to make sure students are able to troubleshoot challenges and to keep an eye on the students in case the remote teacher needs support.
This does mean that full-time virtual schools won’t be a fit for all students. That’s not only OK, it’s a good thing. What’s critical is to build something that has a clear philosophy and sense for who it is serving. If districts need to support students in different contexts, then the districts should explore standing up or offering access to different virtual school programs. That’s preferable to a one-size-fits-none operation.
Team teaching can also support districts in standing up programs that, in stark contrast to many traditional school experiences, embrace personalization, active learning, and mastery-based—or competency-based—learning. This is critical for creating an optimal learning experience in which students are engaged and making academic progress. And in stark contrast to districts that have had teachers responsible for teaching children in-person and remote simultaneously during the pandemic, virtual students should have a dedicated group of teachers on whom they can rely.
Technology, Curriculum and Operations
With a clear sense of why a district is launching a virtual school, who it is seeking to serve, and what experiences it must offer to do so, now the district is ready to figure out the technology, curriculum and operations.
There are a variety of pathways forward.
For districts that need to move fast, they can partner up with long-time established virtual school providers like Stride, Inc. or Connections Academy. Although these vendors’ systems were built to match the seat-time requirements in place in states, they have significant experience in managing the operations of a full-time virtual school—not a straightforward task—and helping a district get up and running. These providers also have expertise in making sure students have the right technology equipment, Internet access, and curricular materials at-home.
An early online pioneer, Florida Virtual School can likewise help a district get a virtual school moving quickly by providing for all its curricular needs and offering operational expertise.
There are also newer or more innovative pathways forward to fill the technology and curricular needs. New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) offers students different pathways to learn and demonstrate mastery in its courses. ASU Prep Digital, which is run by Julie Young, the founder of Florida Virtual School, offers options that redefine what online learning looks like, with courses, like its BioBeyond offering, that provide robust simulations, as well as university course credit.
Districts can also work with microschool providers like My Tech High and Prenda Learning that offer a range of curricular choices, access to experiential learning, and systems to facilitate at-home learning.
There is also a vast array of curricular offerings such that districts can take a do-it-yourself approach to building out a virtual school and leverage offerings from several of the above options, as well as offerings ranging from Khan Academy to Zearn and live online classes from Outschool. Partnering with a consultant, like Education Elements (where I’m a board member) or Transcend Education can further help a district get up to speed. Districts can also pair existing digital curricular options with tools like NearPod to allow teachers to quickly create digital, interactive lessons where customization is important.
Today’s range of traditional learning management systems allows schools to track student progress more readily, but there are also more robust offerings like MasteryTrack now available or alternative transcript options like Mastery Transcript Consortium so that districts can move beyond a seat-time based model that is wholly inappropriate for a full-time virtual setting.
Districts that take a do-it-yourself approach will also have to consider the technology needs for students and make sure that they are providing all the students will need to be successful. This doesn’t mean that a district will have to provide connectivity, say, for all students, but just that the districts have to have a clear sense of the requirements in place to be successful and how they’ll offer them. Sweating the details and minding the logistics will matter.
Planning and Launching
States are wrong to bar districts from continuing to offer their own virtual schools in the fall. Certain students want and will thrive in these options—even after they’ve seen in-person schooling return as a safe option.
But districts will be wrong to think it’s easy to launch an effective full-time virtual school on the fly. To do so successfully, they should root their work in a broader approach to make sure there are a plurality of options such that all students can find the right fit. And they should view their plans not as concrete, fixed documents, but as the beginning of a planning process that they will continue to revise as they launch and learn from the facts on the ground.
Michael Horn is an executive editor of Education Next, co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and a senior strategist at Guild Education.
Last updated May 6, 2021