At Florida’s Coral Glades High School, 13 classes of students take an online course in world history through the Florida Virtual School. Though the coursework is online and the instructor virtual, students see their teacher in person during weekly class visits. The students have another face-to-face support as well: a classroom facilitator who keeps them on track, helps with technical problems, and takes attendance.
The Florida Virtual School, the nation’s largest state-sponsored online K-12 school, has always been quick to adapt to trends, but now the most-established virtual public school in the country is venturing into a blended learning model that is in growing demand. The move is in part the effect of market forces, as the FLVS strives to meet the needs of school districts, and in part the evolution of the blended model, which mixes face-to-face instruction and virtual learning.
Facing state-mandated class-size restrictions and a state requirement that all students take an online course before graduation, districts are turning to Florida Virtual to help meet both those obligations. The implementation is not without its kinks, but Steven G. Carruth, the principal of Coral Glades High, in the 258,000-student Broward County district, said the option saved him more than $100,000 last year on teachers he would have had to hire to meet class-size requirements, and it has given students the flexibility to work at their own pace.
The face-to-face interaction for students with the FLVS teacher is a plus, Mr. Carruth said. The online teacher visits every Tuesday to meet with students individually or teach mini-lessons, stays an extra hour after school that day for students who need additional help, and attends Coral Glades’ parent nights to educate families about the program.
“It makes a difference for the students to actually get to meet the teacher versus just interacting with him over the phone or by email,” Mr. Carruth said. “There’s a human-connection piece that helps keep the students engaged and more accountable.”
Forty-four districts in Florida have now put in place FLVS hybrid or blended learning models, called Virtual Learning Labs, said Tania Clow, a spokeswoman for the FLVS. The virtual school launched the blended programs during the 2010-11 school year, with 152 Virtual Learning Labs across the state. The number has grown this school year to 314, Ms. Clow said. Face-to-face interaction includes the weekly teacher visits, the facilitator, and frequent visits from an FLVS specialist in blended learning who troubleshoots school issues.
State mandates for school districts have increased the speed of that growth. The state’s Class Size Reduction Amendment, which was adopted by voters in 2002, limits the number of students allowed in classrooms, but not in virtual labs. Those class-size limits were phased in, but by 2010-11, there could be no more than 25 students per core class in the high school grades. Meanwhile, starting with the last school year’s 9th grade, all incoming high school students must take an online course to graduate.
So at Coral Glades High, for example, 35 to 40 students are in each of the 13 world-history classes. The online course can also count toward the students’ graduation requirement, Mr. Carruth said.
The Virtual Learning Labs also offer a level playing ground for students when it comes to the online-course requirement, said Christopher McGuire, the principal of the Broward Virtual School. “Our kids will say they have Internet access at home, but it’s often from cellphones,” he said. “That’s not the best learning device, or what I would consider true Internet access.”
With a history that goes back to 1997, and with more than 303,000 half-credit course completions during the last school year, Florida Virtual has adapted its program to meet student and district needs. The school operates a full-time online school, offers its online teachers and courses to students and districts on a part-time basis, and also allows districts to operate FLVS franchises, in which districts use FLVS courses but provide their own online teachers. The Virtual Learning Labs are just another option for customers, said Jaryn Emhof, the director of state initiatives and communications for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based advocacy organization led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Though the Florida Virtual School does not currently have data to determine whether students taking courses through the Virtual Learning Labs outperform those who have a completely online experience, the setup is becoming increasingly popular with school districts in the state. Florida districts are using those labs to help ease class-size limits and fulfill a graduation requirement in online learning for students. According to the FLVS, 44 districts use the Virtual Learning Labs. The Miami-Dade County district is also using FLVS courses in its iPrep Academies, a hybrid learning program for accelerated students who want to take college-prep and college-level courses. While Miami-Dade students take FLVS courses with virtual teachers in a more collaborative, less traditional school setting (think couches and a cafe), the academies are also staffed with master teachers certified in core subjects, such as English/language arts and math. The district is collecting data on student achievement within the iPrep Academies. As it is, end-of-course test scores for geometry and biology for the program’s first crop of 9th graders were among the highest in the state.
SOURCE: Florida Virtual School
“FLVS has been successful in adapting to a model that serves districts struggling with class-size compliance,” Ms. Emhof wrote in an email. “Providing a blended learning environment is a natural next step for them.”
Over time, Florida Virtual has sought to systematize that next step. Facilitators, for example, who may or may not be certified teachers, must now take an online training course developed by the FLVS. The course familiarizes facilitators with the FLVS monitoring system, shows them how to track student pacing, and helps them troubleshoot technical issues.
Moneyeke Martin, an 8th grader at Broward County’s Bair Middle School, is taking a course in earth sciences this school year through the FLVS Virtual Learning Lab. She’s in the school’s Junior Academy for Digital Acceleration, or JADA, and is seeking to earn high school credits. Her online instructor visits once a week.
The in-class facilitator also plays a key role, Ms. Moneyeke said. “Sometimes I might get too comfortable and slack a bit, and she’ll be there to say, ‘You need to get this done or else you won’t finish the course on time,’ ” she said.
Michelle Licata, the current FLVS Teacher of the Year, was an online teacher for many Bair students last school year. She visited her students every other Wednesday. Those visits “took it to a whole other level,” she said. “I was able to go ... and really and truly get to know the whole person.”
But there have been challenges. Geographically, many FLVS teachers are spread throughout the state and are not always situated close to the students they teach. In addition, many Virtual Learning Labs have students taking a variety of courses, and each online teacher does not visit weekly. Ms. Close said students still appreciate the FLVS teacher’s visit and the interaction, however, even if it’s not from their own instructor. It’s also been a scheduling challenge to group students in the same school with the same online teacher.
FLVS teachers have had to adjust the hours they are available. Typically, the online teachers get the most student questions between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., said Crystal Howard, the senior manager of Florida relations for the FLVS. Now teachers must be available during the day, when students are in their Virtual Learning Labs.
But Laurie Kaye Davis, a president of the parent-teacher-student association at Miami Beach Senior High School in the 345,000-student Miami-Dade district, said her school has two Virtual Learning Labs with designated facilitators, but FLVS teachers only visit monthly. Technology in the labs is old, and the Internet connection is slow. To make matters worse, she said, the facilitators are often unable to help students with subject-matter questions, since there may be students taking 30 different courses in one lab.
Though students can contact their FLVS teacher during class, Miami-Dade has a ban on student cellphone use, making it difficult for them to text or call their teachers, Ms. Davis said. “I would be a fan of hybrid learning and I think a lot of times it can work well,” she said. “But what’s here, I’m not a big fan.”
Ms. Clow noted, though, that students can contact their online teachers in a variety of ways, including through email, instant messaging, and the use of virtual classrooms.
FLVS courses are also being used in other blended learning scenarios.
Three years ago, Miami-Dade opened its first iPrep Academy as a magnet school or program for accelerated high school students. The program uses Florida Virtual courses and teachers, but in a nontraditional setting. The original iPrep Academy, for example, located in what was once a downtown Miami administration building, features beanbag chairs and a cafe, where students can work and exchange ideas, said Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho.
The emphasis on personal learning allows students to work at their own pace, accelerating their learning when possible. The face-to-face teachers there “are inspirational entities that navigate and negotiate knowledge acquisition,” Mr. Carvalho said.
It’s worth noting that the iPrep teachers are more than just facilitators. They are master teachers, certified in core areas such as math and English/language arts, and they combine their own teaching with the digital curriculum and the instruction from online teachers.
“These blended learning environments provide for the best of both worlds,” Mr. Carvalho said. “We’re trying to create environments that allow for extreme social interaction side by side with virtual opportunities.”
The district now has more than 900 students at nine iPrep Academy sites. Mr. Carvalho said he is collecting data on program effectiveness, but says end-of-course test scores for geometry and biology for the program’s first crop of 9th graders were some of the state’s highest.
And even though Florida Virtual is known primarily for its online work, the school is trying to incorporate some face-to-face interaction into its full-time online program, too, said Rick Perkins, the principal of the FLVS full-time virtual high school, which has 2,500 students.
During the last school year, the school hosted more than 50 in-person field trips or events across the state. They all were designed to have a strong educational focus, such as the recent field trip to Florida’s Blue Spring State Park, where students learned about marine life, manatees, and ecosystems. While attendance is not mandatory, Mr. Perkins said, a majority of students participate. This year’s goal is to increase the number of face-to-face gatherings and market them to students and their families more aggressively, he said.
“It makes the program come alive and makes the people involved in the program real,” he said. “It’s not just a faceless entity behind a phone call or responding to an email. We’re a real school with real teachers.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as Online Learning Goes to Class