Learning Online: The Virtual Supplement

by Mae Gilliland Wright

Illinois Virtual School augments and extends the programs of schools across the state.

As the internet gained popularity in the mid-nineties, many educators saw it as an opportunity to expand the classroom experience into the virtual world. These early pioneers of online education worked within what today would be considered quite primitive technological environments, accompanied by the familiar sound of a 56K dial-up modem. In the early days, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and email were the vehicles by which teachers communicated with their students. By the late nineties, companies like Blackboard had created online learning management systems, built specifically with the needs of students and educators in mind.

Today, millions of K-12 students take classes online. Some are enrolled in state virtual schools, which deliver online courses and other learning services to students from schools and districts across the state in which they operate. Nearly half of state governments provide this service, including Illinois.

Statewide Support
When the Illinois State Board of Education launched Illinois Virtual High School in 2003, it was managed by the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and served grades 9-12 only. As the program grew, so did the desire to expand it to include middle school. When the State Board of Education released a request for proposal in 2009, the Peoria County Regional Office of Education (ROE) responded with a plan.

“It was a competitive process and we were awarded the contract,” explains Cindy Hamblin, a former high school teacher who was then serving as director of Peoria County ROE’s Learning Technology Center, where she helped schools plan for technology integration in the classroom. When Peoria County won the contract, Hamblin was asked to step in as director, and the program, now expanded to include grades 5-8, was renamed Illinois Virtual School.

Today, IVS serves three primary student populations: public, private and home-schooled. “We have approximately 600 school partners throughout the state,” Hamblin notes, with more than 4,400 students enrolled in courses. While some virtual schools award diplomas, IVS’ role is more ancillary. “In most states, state programs are supplemental,” she explains. “We’re there to support that school.”

Around 60 percent of its funding comes from course fees; the remainder is provided by the State Board of Education. Given Illinois’ recent budget situation, money has been tight. “The situation in our state can put programs like ours in danger,” Hamblin notes.

Filling the Gaps
When making the decision to utilize IVS, a school’s guidance counselor is generally the first step in the process. But while it has been in existence for more than a decade, IVS remains relatively unknown in many parts of the state. “Once you get into a school… they find more and more use cases for our program,” Hamblin says. “A lot of times it will start small, and it will expand as they see how the program works and… understand the interaction and the experience of the student.”

IVS offers both full-service and credit recovery courses to students across Illinois. When schools struggle to find teachers for certain courses, she adds, IVS can step in and help out. “A lot of smaller schools—or even midsized schools—can’t offer Advanced Placement courses because they do not have qualified teachers available.”

In other cases, IVS has teachers certified to teach language, math and science courses that may pose a challenge to smaller schools. “We offer four world languages: German, Spanish, French and Latin,” Hamblin explains. “So, if a student really wants to take German and that isn’t a language their school offers, they can use our program.”

In addition, IVS can fill a gap for students with specialized interests. For example, it recently teamed up with the Shedd Aquarium to offer a course in oceanography. “We also have a course in astronomy, [which] isn’t necessarily offered locally.”

IVS also offers credit recovery courses for grades 9-12, giving students a second chance to pass courses they were unable to pass the first time around. These courses can be completed at any time throughout the year. Recently, IVS has made an effort to improve its success rate by checking in with students who fall behind. “We now have a 70- to 80-percent success rate for those credit recovery kids, where we were at 60 percent before,” she notes. “So it is making a difference.”

Teacher/Student Interaction
IVS strives to create an environment in which all students can succeed—including elements that some may not associate with online learning. “When we look at what makes a quality online course… discussion and interaction with other students and the teacher are important,” Hamblin declares. “Each course has a discussion area so kids can interact.”

The students are greeted with a welcome email and video from their instructors, and once a course begins, they navigate to its homepage. “I like to equate it to the bulletin board in a classroom. Our teachers are asked to update that every week with the latest news items and contact information.”

In addition, the teachers encourage students to contact them, and many will even schedule one-on-one time or review sessions prior to exams. Once enrolled, the students can click through a table of contents for each course. “It gives them the objectives of the lesson; then they start into the lesson,” says Hamblin. “Lessons are either text, where they do reading, or video simulations.”

While IVS has seven full-time administrative employees, all of its teachers work part-time. They must be certified by the State of Illinois, and all courses must align with state learning standards. Educators decide to work with IVS for various reasons, Hamblin explains. For some, it’s a way to extend their love of teaching into their retirement years; for others, it helps supplement their income. IVS offers a number of professional development courses to help them keep up with current educational theory and practice.

Expanding Course Opportunities
One of the biggest misconceptions about the online learning environment, Hamblin says, is that it is easier than taking a course in a physical classroom. “Students who take an online course need to be self-directed,” she explains. “There isn’t someone standing in front of them making sure they are working, unless someone is monitoring them at school.”

For some students, the more relaxed, less formal structure is ideal. “Some kids really want the ability to go faster or go slower—and not be stuck within the parameters of that 50-minute classroom… They can review content they didn’t understand several times, or if a student is really doing well, they have the ability to work through coursework at a faster pace.”

While the majority of IVS students currently live in or around Chicago, Hamblin hopes that more rural schools will begin to take advantage of their course offerings. “Our goal this year is really trying to reach out to [them] so they know a bit more about how we work,” she says. “We try to show IVS as a way of expanding course opportunities at your local school.”

And at the end of the day, Hamblin believes the results speak for itself. “We have a 93-percent success rate with kids earning 60 percent or higher in our full-service courses.” Those numbers place IVS above the national average—a testament to its virtual success. iBi

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