Virtual Ed. Advocates See Potential in Common Core

By Ian Quillen — October 15, 2012 5 min read
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Perhaps no segment of educators is more enthusiastic about the transition to the Common Core State Standards than those who work in virtual schools or in blended learning environments that mix face-to-face and online instruction.

With the standards’ emphasis on deeper learning, collaboration, and applied knowledge, some proponents of online education suggest their adoption could lead to the passage of policies that are more friendly to effective online learning. Meanwhile, many online programs are already practicing the other changes inherent in common-standards adoption, such as the use of computer-based online assessments.

“Opening up these learning trajectories and pathways through the common core—this is where we can really take advantage of tools and content in the digital environment,” says Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, located in Vienna, Va.

Because of that, leaders in virtual education have begun preparing for the transition and, in some cases, launching projects that, while not directly related to the common core, may stand to benefit greatly from its implementation.

For example, online content repositories have grown greatly in the number of repositories and quantity of learning objects—individual items of digital educational content—thanks largely to the movement to align those learning objects to the common English/language arts and math standards and share them around the country.

At the same time, efforts to institute certification of teachers for online instruction also appear to have gained steam from the belief that the common standards could help push momentum for the recognition of those credentials across state borders.

One of those efforts, the Leading Edge Certification program launched in January by Computer-Using Educators, a professional association in California, has aims already of becoming a nationally recognized credential. And Mike Lawrence, the executive director of the Walnut Creek-based group, says the implementation of the common standards will help ensure that the curriculum for the certification program is widely applicable.

Questions to Ask

1. Will states open policies to a common teacher certification?

2. Can virtual schools afford to fund proctored exams?

3. Do virtual schools have an edge on teaching to the standards?

4. Will standards lead to more educational choice?

5. Are standards-driven digital projects helping online learning?

“It was very much in our minds as we embarked on the project,” Lawrence says. “Without a common bar to demonstrate proficiencies, it’s difficult to know whether [the certification is] going to work for your online program.”

Lawrence acknowledges that policy discussions are a big distance away from getting states to recognize certification from other states, but says he sees the adoption of the standards as a potential catalyst in that process.

“Just the fact that you have states talking to each other with a common language for the first time ever, that opens doors,” he says.

Emphasizing Innovation

At the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Innovation Labs Network, the strategic-initiatives director, Linda Pittenger, is trying to drive some of those discussions and open those doors, not only around online learning, but also around the broader spectrum of educational innovation. (The Washington-based CCSSO partnered with the National Governors’ Association to lead the common-standards movement.)

The Innovation Labs Network is a nine-state coalition supported by the CCSSO that Pittenger says will address challenges relating to how to supplement the next-generation assessments created to test the common core by two separate consortia, how to personalize education while meeting those standards, and how to expand educational options for students and educators.

Pittenger, who previously served as the director of secondary and virtual learning for the Kentucky Department of Education and the state’s virtual school, says none of the nine states in the network is obligated to take a particular approach toward solving any of those problems. The idea of the model instead is to enable a quicker and more reliable exchange of information and insights from any efforts at reinventing a portion of a particular state’s educational system.

But Pittenger sees online and blended learning as a likely vehicle for some of the states in the coalition of Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. She says this is particularly an answer for increasing educational options and allowing a more flexible course of study.

“You’re looking at more digital, open educational resources and modularity,” Pittenger says. “And I think this is one of the reasons that virtual learning, and online learning, is such a natural part of these kinds of environments. ... These are all characteristics of the sort of learning environments we are looking for.”

The Florida Virtual School, the largest state-sponsored online school in the country, is having to rethink its curricula because of the common standards—just like all schools, virtual or brick-and-mortar, in the participating states. Cindy Dulgar, a curriculum specialist and the resident subject-matter expert on the common core for the FLVS, suggests that virtual education may be a good fit for standards that place a greater emphasis on skills application and collaboration.

Focus on Effectiveness

For the past several months, Dulgar and her team have been delving into the content of the school’s courses in English/language arts and mathematics, the two subject areas of the new standards. They’ve been cross-checking to see where that content covers the necessary standards that are part of the course, and noting where gaps exist between current content and future standards.

During that process, Dulgar says, she’s become increasingly confident that the transition, while spurring some content changes, will in general be a natural one.

“The live lessons we do, the discussion-based assessments we do, ... those pieces are definitely going to help us make the shift,” she says. “I think the shift will cause us to change the way we do some of those things, but it will just be better.”

That’s not to say virtual schools won’t encounter their own difficulties during the adoption process, says Patrick of iNACOL. For example, the idea of having to give proctored online assessments could present funding challenges for virtual schools that have traditionally not had to build in the costs of facilities or face-to-face personnel, she says. For better or worse, she adds, the standards may also provide a more thorough and comparable measure of the quality of online and blended learning offerings at a time of increasing questions about the quality of online learning content.

“Now we can start to focus resources on high-quality curricula that are similar across 45 or 46 states,” Patrick says. “The outcome of that is to start to be able to look at online courses and modules of online courses and value-judge them on effectiveness.

“We could talk about that before, but it’s been difficult to do when there’s so many disparate standards.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Virtual Ed. Dives in to the Common Core


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