Next Generation Virtual Programs

It was my first day leading the Florida Virtual School team. We were a small group sitting at a round table in a borrowed office. I wrote the word “student” on a piece of paper and placed it in the center of the table.

Julie Young with Florida Virtual School students
Julie Young with Florida Virtual School students

Then, I said, “Let’s play a game. There are two rules. The first rule is you have to dream big and think big. The second rule is instead of thinking like a teacher, think like a parent, a big brother or sister, aunt, uncle, godmother or caring neighbor. Next, picture a child who you care about a great deal firmly in your mind.”

“What if we could redesign this place called school so that time and place no longer limited student learning? What if we could design a school where the student was at the center of every decision we made, rather than the adults’ schedule being the focal point…what would that look like?”

What if we always keep the student at the center of our thinking, planning, design, and delivery? That question sparked the creation of Florida Virtual School (FLVS). That question inspired the visioning that opened the path for Florida to give students access not only to online courses from FLVS, but eventually offerings from a multitude of providers to meet the diverse needs of today’s students. And, finally, that question should drive the future of digital learning and the “course access” programs that are sprouting up across the United States.

Such programs make available to students course offerings across learning environments from diverse, accountable providers, and with state funding following the student. This is a policy in evolution, and while some states refer to it under a different moniker, or, like Florida, lack a specific term, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to all these policies as “Course Access.” Other names include Course Choice, Course Options (WI), and the Supplemental Course Academy (LA).

The concept behind Course Access is simple: expand course offerings while allowing students to stay enrolled in their home schools. For example, if AP physics isn’t offered at your school, you can take it from another district or through a provider anywhere in the country. Or a student might be able to take Mandarin from a brilliant online teacher across the country or at a university across town. In Louisiana, you can take a welding course from a local professional certification and training center so that you can graduate with a high school diploma and a professional certificate.

Many states are working to restructure the school day as competency-based promotion policies are unshackling students from the restrictions of seat time and allowing them to advance when they master the content. Merely eliminating seat-time requirements isn’t enough, however. A new system has to be built in its place. According to Competency Works, such initiatives are underway in 10 states. As part of these states’ realignment of systems and measurements, flexible and expanded course offerings will become increasingly valuable components—both for students and districts. Moving away from a “set menu” model of instruction, schools and districts will be pressed to offer a wider variety of courses, in different modalities and at different times, to better serve mastery-focused learners.


Course Access may be a new policy development, but it continues the evolving tradition of educational innovation around the country. For the last few decades, states and districts have been experimenting with ways to incorporate innovative learning models, including online learning, into K‒12 education. State virtual schools and district-developed blended models, which combine online and classroom instruction, are among the most common developments. Previously, students in Florida for example, could choose from a limited selection of state-created, usually academic and online, courses to supplement offerings at a school. As the needs of students in the 21st century grew, schools had to look further afield to meet those needs, and working with other providers became more common. States naturally sought to ensure increased access and better quality. Course Access was born.

Course Access takes the state virtual school further to include courses taken face-to-face at a local college, for example, as well as via blended learning. Course access offers a host of providers of both career-oriented and college preparatory coursework. It also ensures that a portion of funding follows the student to the provider. The key components are that students can stay enrolled in their own schools while accessing courses from a wide range of high-quality providers that have been vetted by the state.

Minnesota was the site of the first such policy in 2006, and Course Access has slowly spread to 10 other states, with proposals now pending in several others. Each participating state has developed its own unique policy, program, and funding scheme for Course Access based on the policy landscape, student needs, and local receptiveness .

ednext_XV_4_young_sidebarLouisiana serves as a prime example of how these programs can evolve to accommodate the local context in the first few years of implementation. Launching in 2013, Louisiana conducted a four-step review process that netted 42 approved providers. After the state received thousands of enrollment requests, the Louisiana supreme court in May 2013 ruled the funding mechanism unconstitutional, stating that per-pupil funds from the state could not be shifted from the school to the course provider, and the state department of education was forced to recast the program as a pilot with a limited amount of funding ($2 million). More than 2,700 students took courses ranging from foreign languages, early college programs, and career and technical (CTE) offerings, among others. Courses were delivered online, face-to-face, or through a blended-learning model. To meet high student demand, in spring 2014, Louisiana legislators provided a line-item appropriation for the Supplemental Course Academy (SCA), with the caveat that districts have more control over what courses students take. Enrollment jumped to more than 27,000 in 2014‒15, making Louisiana’s Course Access program the largest in the country.

Thoughtful district leaders have already seen the potential of Course Access. Early trends indicate that suburban districts focus on serving certain populations of students more effectively, while rural and more remote districts focus on core curriculum and hard to staff courses (e.g., foreign languages). As highlighted in Digital Learning Now and EducationCounsel’s recently published paper, “Louisiana Leading the Way Through Course Access” (May 2015), Ascension and Winn Parish stand out as beacons for the flexibility and promise of the policy.

Like many of the other southern and midwestern states, rapid growth in energy and construction fields has left Louisiana businesses desperate to employ skilled workers with proven credentials. Ascension Parish, nestled between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, identified that need and developed a CTE partnership with Pelican Associated Builders & Contractors, giving students the chance to be trained during high school, graduating with a diploma and a respected industry credential. While Ascension Parish likely would have developed this partnership independent of SCA, the state’s program provided an efficient way of funding the program and streamlined the process. Meanwhile, a small rural district in northern Louisiana, Winn Parish, found it difficult and cost-prohibitive to hire and retain foreign language teachers. Through the state’s Course Access program, the parish can now offer students vetted language courses from high-quality providers.

As the Digital Learning Now and EducationCounsel paper points out, Louisiana districts are not alone in taking advantage of state Course Access policies to meet the needs of their students. Texas had a history of encouraging online learning through its Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN) and local innovation. Plano, a large district on the outskirts of Dallas, saw the power of online learning and launched its Course Access program in 2001, which focused on serving students with scheduling difficulties, students seeking to recover credits, and students who might have special learning or emotional needs. Today, the program is widely used, offering flexibility for Olympians staying on course for graduation, a path to early graduation for the highly motivated, and a means of ensuring that students can take the courses they need, when they need them. Implementing this program successfully has required careful district-wide planning, continuous professional development for teachers, and support via counsellors for enrolled students.

These examples show that Course Access is not a one-size-fits-all policy, but can be adapted to the needs of an individual district and, most importantly, of its students.

The Funding Challenge

While the success or failure of Course Access will ultimately come down to how well districts handle implementation, state policymakers can provide a strong foundation by establishing quality measures and sustainable funding mechanisms.

First, a bit on funding. Course Access requires states and districts alike to move beyond traditional per-pupil funding models to models that support those academic programs that can be delivered most effectively and efficiently to students. Looking back at the history of FLVS, securing a sustainable part of the annual budget was one of the key factors that helped FLVS move from being an interesting pilot program that served a small number of students to a transformative set of offerings that could reach students not just in Florida, but anywhere in the world. But along with that different model of pay, we asked, What would student-centered funding look like?

Florida was a pioneer in performance-based funding for online education, establishing a funding model in which the provider, FLVS, was paid only for successful course completion. In 2003, FLVS chose the performance-based model over a seat-time model; we chose the performance-based model for its value as a potential catalyst for changing the approach to teaching and learning. No longer could a school take the position that “we taught it—they chose not to learn it.” The job was to teach and if the students didn’t learn, the school didn’t do the job. The model is in place for all Florida’s course providers.

Today many other Course Access programs’ funding models, including those in Louisiana, Utah, and Texas, have a performance component. These funding models offer new opportunities to focus state funds towards outcomes. Traditionally, the state funds a student at a constant level, regardless of whether the student performs well or even completes the course. Rather than receiving a single payment for each student enrollment, Course Access providers receive a partial payment when a student enrolls in a course and the rest of the payment when the student completes the course. In the future, states could add other layers and incentives to its funding model, linking new measures of success to additional levels of funding. Imagine states utilizing robust measures to reward providers who help struggling students succeed, for example.

States are still thinking through how best to link funding to success. They must ensure that home districts are being compensated for their support of the student and that the provider is fairly compensated and in a timely fashion. If Course Access is to center learning on the needs of the students, states must reward providers accordingly.

The Quality Challenge

Another foundational tenet of a successful Course Access program is ensuring the quality of the courses. Courses should be reviewed regularly, not just before they are offered to students but at intervals to ensure that no student is being left behind.

A variety of approaches can ensure that courses are of high quality. Minnesota reviews and authorizes in-state districts and charter school providers on a three-year cycle, but does not review individual courses. Texas, Florida, and Louisiana each have a structured state review of available courses. Louisiana’s rigorous process for reviewing providers is described above. Utah leaves much of the course review process to local education authorities, but uses a state audit process to examine consistency and quality across approved courses.

These different models all have merits, although iNACOL (the International Association for K-12 Online Learning) and Digital Learning Now both recommend a state-level review process. What is critical is that rigorous quality assurance takes place regularly, measuring not just the inputs of the course (the quality of the provider or certifications) but also the outputs (how well the students are performing). Merely approving courses as they enter into the state catalogue is not enough. States must monitor and track course delivery and student outcomes over time. States must require the reporting of course quality data and also invest in research. At FLVS, we invested in a series of external efficacy studies of key courses to inform leadership and show a transparent evaluation of the product to the public.

Michigan had the foresight to require the Michigan Virtual University to report on the effectiveness of online learning in its state. Over time, these reports will provide insight to educators, lawmakers, and parents on which courses best serve students. On their own, however, the reports will be insufficient to drive any meaningful change, as the state still has no role in ensuring the quality of Course Access providers. A relatively weak quality review process remains a law in the Michigan model.

Students’ feedback will be part of the future of Course Access, and some states will show student reviews as part of the course description on the online portal, as Michigan does now. Like Yelp-empowered diners, course access can empower learners and parents with new information. The Foundation for Excellence in Education’s recent drive to reimagine the school report card is a good start, but it is still a work in progress.

We also have to think about how we gauge success for Course Access programs beyond enrollment figures. Michael Horn (see “Digital Roundup,” features, Fall 2013) and others have predicted that districts and schools might respond to new Course Access offerings by ramping up their own online and blended offerings. They would attempt to keep the students—and the funding—at the local school, rather than see students select courses outside the school. While this outcome might mean slow growth or low demand for Course Access, if the goal is an expansive education ecosystem and more course options for students, this is progress.

This seems to be what is happening in Utah. The state passed Course Access legislation in 2011 as part of Senate Bill 65 but only saw 3,208 enrollments in 2013‒14 in what it calls the Statewide Online Education Program. While a threefold increase from the previous year, the program still seems small. Local districts and schools outside of the Course Access offerings had 37,000 enrollments in online and blended courses, a relatively nascent development in the state that has accelerated since the passage of the bill. While it may be impossible to tie the passage of Course Access legislation with the expansion of online and blended learning in Utah districts, the blossoming education options are undeniable. Course Access is part of that story, and Utah’s program may yet grow. The state has worked closely with districts to help make the financial and administrative transition. Pockets of innovation are emerging, and the number of students taking courses through the program continues to rise.

Moving Forward

We need more stories like those coming from Plano and Ascension and Winn. We need a wide variety of districts willing to look carefully at not just what might be needed now for their students, but what they want to be able to offer in five to ten years.

Course Access doesn’t stop when the governor of a state signs a bill into law. The hard and exciting work is just beginning for departments of education, districts, and schools. Just like successfully adopting blended learning requires more than just unpacking and handing out tablets, successful Course Access needs thoughtful planning and execution.

States must ensure that high-quality providers and courses are being authorized as part of the new program. They should make sure that the courses are funded in an intelligent and sustainable way, baking performance measures in where appropriate. And districts need to decide how they are going to best utilize this new program. They need to create clear plans for rolling the program out, sorting out everything from finance to flexible scheduling. They then must act on that plan, recognizing that there might be a few growing pains along the way. They can mitigate those bumps by clearly communicating the implementation plan to administrators, teachers, parents and students. No student should have to hunt in the small text of a pdf to find out about these opportunities to learn! All of this must be driven by a laser-like focus on quality and unrelenting commitment to providing students with the opportunities they need to succeed in school, career, and life.

Course providers must also steadily evolve in order to thrive in this environment, with its host of diverse competitors, all held accountable to the state and parents for the performance of their students. To continue as a Course Access provider in Florida as part of the School District Virtual Course Offerings statute, FLVS and its competitors will need to build flexible, high-level quality content, leveraging adaptive technologies, and expanding access to content. Over the long term, providers will need to make innovation a priority both culturally and fiscally.

States are dreaming and thinking big. But even the most exciting innovations in education still require thoughtful planning to deliver the best outcomes for learners. Trailblazers have made clear the vast potential of Course Access and have brought us one step closer to the vision of a school built around the needs of a student. We don’t have to ask “what if?” We merely need to look to Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.

Julie Young was the founding president and CEO of Florida Virtual School and is now the founding CEO of Global Personalized Academics (GPA). GPA offers international students the opportunity to virtually earn a dual diploma from their native country in addition to one from a U.S. accredited high school.

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