Online Teaching and Learning

With enrollments in virtual schools increasing, Susan Patrick, Julie Young, and Cheryl Vedoe joined Digital Directions' Michelle Davis to discuss trends and practical approaches in online learning and teaching.

September 26, 2008

Online Teaching and Learning

  • Susan Patrick, former director of the office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education, is the president and chief executive officer of the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL).
  • Julie Young is the president and chief executive officer of the Florida Virtual School, the nation’s first state-sponsored online public high school, which offers more than 90 courses to middle and high school students in the United States.
  • Cheryl Vedoe is the president and chief executive officer of Apex Learning, a provider of digital curriculum for differentiated instruction. The company’s standards-based, online instructional materials in math, science, English, social studies, world languages, and Advanced Placement are used for credit recovery, remediation, alternative schools, distance learning, and exam preparation.

Michelle Davis (Moderator):

Good afternoon, and welcome to Education Week’s Digital Directions live chat to talk about trends and practical approaches in online learning and teaching. Enrollments in virtual schools are growing nationwide and our guests will take questions on how to manage that growth and ensure quality, as well as the challenges and drawbacks of online teaching and professional development. Today we have Susan Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL); Julie Young, the president and chief executive officer of the Florida Virtual School; and Cheryl Vedoe, the president and chief executive officer of Apex Learning with us. I’m Michelle Davis, the senior writer for Digital Directions, and I’ll be moderating. We’ve already got a lot of great questions, so let’s get started.

Question from Cindy Roine, Curriculum Coordinator, Independent Study High School, UNL, Lincoln NE:

How do you manage privacy/security issues for high school students in chat, discussion, or other interactive forums?

Cheryl Vedoe:

My answer to this question is in the context of students enrolled in Apex Learning distance learning courses with our online teachers. Many of our courses include online discussions, peer reviews, or other activities that engage students online. Only students enrolled in a specific section of a course are able to participate in such activities. Each student has a unique username and password for purposes of authentication. Our online teachers monitor the online exchanges between students and provide feedback just as a traditional classroom teacher would. If our online teachers have a concern regarding something a particular student contributes, our staff will contact the student’s local mentor (usually a teacher at the student’s local school or a parent or guardian).

Students enrolled in online courses through the Apex Learning Virtual School are subject to our Student Code of Conduct that includes guidelines for appropriate behavior in online activities such as discussions. The Student Code of Conduct is consistent with what you would find in any traditional school and we enforce it in a similar manner.

Question from Tim Van Soelen, Professor of Education, Dordt College:

In my humble opinion, there are three marks or loves of an effective teacher: 1) Love what you teach (content) 2) Love how to teach (pedagogy, instructional strategies, etc.) 3) Love who you teach (individual students) My question: Can online learning allow teachers to demonstrate these three loves? More specifically, how can/what are some ways number 3 be met in an online environment? Thanks! Tim

Susan Patrick:

The teacher has always been the most important part of a quality educational experience and this clearly extends into the online world. One high school senior commented, “ My online course is cool. The online teacher is always there when I need her.”

Communicating effectively with each student individually and personalizing instruction for every student’s unique needs are hallmarks of why online education is working -- and this comes directly from the teacher being able to work one-on-one with students, answering questions and using time differently in an online course, as students proceed at their own pace. Some students need more time, direct instructional interventions and struggle with different lessons within a course, while other students need more independent, self-directed approaches where they can accellerate through course materials and lessons and work at their own pace, getting feedback and expressing mastery through ongoing assessments that are built into course design, projects, etc. . . and demonstrated to the teacher. This level of personalization or student-centered instruction is difficult to do in a face-to-face classroom without ubiquitous technology. In an online course, instructors can build one-to-one relationships and help each individual student perform at their highest level by personalizing the instruction appropriately. Teachers love it and students love it -- online learning is a powerful way to build connections between teachers and students, and also strengthen meaningful academic interactions between students to students, students exploring content, maximizing digital learning resources, and then giving students authentic experiences and opportunities for reflection . . . using time differently and offering more real-world, student-centered approaches.

Students and teachers explain how they are comfortable and engaged while exchanging information and ideas with each other and other students by e-mail, telephone or Skype, white boards, online chats and group discussion boards. Being online is one way for them to learn, collaborate, communicate and build the 21st century skills they will need in college and beyond.

Students describe taking an online course as a one-on-one experience with their teacher and often express having a “closer” relationship with their online teacher than many traditional teachers. It is the direct communication in email, at any time, that helps build these stronger levels of two-way feedback with authenticity. Many online teachers describe loving their role as an online teacher and expressing that they get to know their students better than ever before – these are the stories that I love.

NACOL developed and published National Standards for Quality Online Teaching, which is available to anyone for free on our website, endorsing the Southern Regional Education Boards Educational Technology Cooperatives’ quality standards through a literature review and research survey. Your marks of love related to an effective teacher are embedded in our quality standards as well. Evaluating teachers using the national standards of quality for online teaching will help administrators mark that teachers are embracing these loves – of the content, of teaching with appropriate pedagogy and strategies, and of the students. One of the areas where online teaching excels is that there is a higher reliance on writing and written communication. Online teachers demonstrate the use of synchronous to lead discussions and group works as well as asynchronous communications that give students (and teachers) more time to reflect and write – and the teacher fosters and guides group discussions. These marks can be clearly identified in the communications in the online course.

Question from Phyllis Dobson, Program Chair, CCCOnline:

What three characteristics do you feel are the most important measures of quality in an online class?

Julie Young:

Student engagement is critical to any online content. Just because some content is on a page doesn’t mean it’s good for kids. Finding ways to measure the engagement can be a challenge, but it’s essential to providing for the needs of all students.

Choice is another feature we see as a must have for student content. Since FLVS is mastery based, we offer many ways for students to show us they have mastered standards, allowing for learning styles, preferences, and natural talents to shine!

Excellent feedback is another quality feature. Teacher feedback must be timely and very specific, increasing student learning and the relationship between student and teacher. FLVS trains and monitors this specific teacher behavior closely, and we often get comments from families thrilled with the quality of feedback!

Question from Anne McGirt, Math Teacher, Dillon (SC) High School:

From a high poverty area and school, we have a significant number of students who are behind when they come to high school. We are working to obtain the resources to be able to enroll them in online classes in addition to their regular schoolwork in order for them to graduate on time. What suggestions do you have for the school as far as providing additional support to these at-risk students?

Cheryl Vedoe:

Online learning can be very effective in a program to support at-risk students. Online courses allow each student to progress at their own pace, taking as much time as necessary to master the material. Online courses offer multiple representations and address different learning styles. Many online courses designed for at-risk students include scaffolding throughout to support struggling learners. For high school students not prepared to succeed in grade level work, there are foundational courses for which they can generally earn elective credit.

It’s important to consider whether distance learning is the right model for your at-risk students. If you do implement a distance learning program, onsite mentors are critical to support and encourage students and serve as a point of contact for the online teacher.

Increasingly online courses are being used by brick-and-mortar schools as the primary instructional material for at-risk student programs. These programs combine the advantages of online courses to create an individualized learning experience for each student with proactive involvement by teachers who work 1-on-1 to support student success.

Question from Steve Zsiray, Consultant:

Why are so many people afraid of online learning?

Susan Patrick:

As FDR said, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Fear comes from the unknown. Everyone knows what a traditional “classroom” is supposed to look like . . .and very few people understand how online learning works. Pretty much everyone has attended a fairly homogenous school environment and knows what school is “supposed to look like”. Online education, both in higher education and K-12 education, is challenging those notions of what school looks like (and I think that’s a good thing). Online learning is a new innovation – and includes many models ranging from fully online blended classrooms using digital learning resources and virtual school programs that offer online courses at a distance. Many people simply don’t understand the basics of high quality online learning environments – it is far more sophisticated than trusting a computer or a computer-based software program. We’re talking about giving licensed and qualified teachers a whole new set of skills and training to provide online instruction, offering new online courses developed with instructional designers using the most well-designed curriculum (digitally), with new interactive communication tools, taking advantage of the Internet for learning and collaborating and challenging notions of time, place and pace in students learning. Most people have no idea what this looks like and how it works.

Online learning is opening so many new opportunities for students to learn – and new professional opportunities for teachers to teach – in rich, meaningful learning environments that are academically appropriate. Virtual education was listed as one of the top ten breakthroughs that would change life as we know it globally by the World Future Society in 2007. This is an exciting new development that is changing the face of education globally. I’m seeing it first hand all over the world. We are just getting started with 26/50 states offering statewide virtual schools – providing online courses to schools and districts that can’t otherwise take the course. Fifty percent of public school districts in the United States offer online courses.

What is online learning? Breaking it down: “online” means using the Internet . . . and “learning” is learning. It is just a new delivery model.

Just released today, NACOL partnered with the Cable Educational Foundation, Cable in the Classroom, to publish an entire journal volume of Threshold Magazine on the topic of virtual schools and online learning to help people understand it better. The highlight is a center spread graphic illustrating the big idea of “how online learning works”. I think having a picture of the various components – how the virtual school runs, how the teachers work, where the students are, how the traditional schools use them for additional classes, how many students can take full-time, how the funding for all public education is controlled by policy at the state legislature and how the governors control access by the programs they establish (like a toll booth on the information highway of “haves” and “have nots”. Please take a look at the illustration at:

Research shows that online learning is “as effective or better” than traditional schooling when based on student performance. So, it isn’t a question of whether it works. It is more an issue of people not understanding how it works and how states need to do effective oversight to maintain quality standards and guidelines. For more information on this topic, NACOL published the NACOL National Primer on K-12 Online Learning. The primer has an executive summary, covers the basics of online elarning, and also provides ten policy recommendations with a case study on how to strengthen accountability at the state level.

K-12 online education is growing rapidly at 30% annually and it meeting critical education needs (from expanding access to AP courses to providing highly qualified math and science teachers in areas of high need to offering new models of credit recovery and remediation to improve graduation rates based on academic performance). The issues largely center on fitting this new, innovative model of learning into existing policies and views of physical schools and redefining preconceived notions of educators, policy makers, legislators and the general public.

What’s interesting is that a Gallup poll in 2006 reported that 40% of all parents in the United States were interested in having their student take an online course before graduating from high school. Last year, NACOL commissioned a national study from Harris Interactive that showed that 47% of high school and middle school students were interested in taking an online course. The demand for online learning is far outstripping the supply of K-12 online education. While online learning is growing, in 2007 there were more than 1,000,000 enrollments in K-12 online learning. This is out of 50 million K-12 students in the U.S. So there is amply demand and still limited supply. But more than ever, we are working to over come the myths and misunderstanding for what online learning is – and what it isn’t, which is the crux of your question.

Question from Joshua Lord, Teacher, Hot Springs County HIgh School WY:

What do you do when the server goes down or the software you are using is having difficulties keeping connected?

Cheryl Vedoe:

As a provider of online learning solutions, I can tell you that availability, reliability, and performance are key areas of focus and investment for us. We recognize that when a school chooses to implement an online learning program, access to the online courses is critical. When an issue arises, resolution is our top priority, whether the issue is on our side or the user side.

In the event there is an issue and a student is not able to access a course, there are options. For example, our online courses do include offline activities, necessary to fully meet standards related to problem solving, critical thinking, and higher order thinking. Online teachers can engage with students via email and other online tools. If online courses are being used in a brick-and-mortar classroom, teachers can engage students in a project or discussion. Teachers continue to play a key role in online learning programs and the approaches they have traditionally used in the classroom can also be applicable in online learning programs.

Question from Yaozheng Zou, History Teacher, Nanshan middle School:

How to guarantee the effectiveness of elearning? And how to evaluate it?

Susan Patrick:

NACOL recommends that e-learning programs build in research and evaluation from the planning stages of a program. Many of the K-12 online learning programs in the United States use high quality education evaluators to assess the programs on an annual basis. Several of the evaluators are members of NACOL and active researchers with experience in e-learning evaluation.

For example, evaluators use the NACOL National Standards for Quality Online Teaching and NACOL National Standards of Quality for Online Courses, as well as a host of other benchmarks appropriate to the program goals and mission for student performance and program success. NACOL is also establishing National Standards of Quality for Online Programs. More information is available on:

Finally, the United States Department of Education published in 2008, a new report, “Evaluating Online Learning: Challenges and Strategies for Success”, available online at

The overall research shows that online learning is “as good or better than traditional education” when based on student achievement. An examination of AP test scores from students taking the AP exam and taking online courses from Florida Virtual School, Virtual High School and APEX -- all show that students taking the AP course online outperform the national averages of students taking AP. And, a report from Florida Tax Watch group found that Florida Virtual School was providing new opportunities for AP to a higher population of minority and disadvantaged students. Online learning works and is expanding access and leveling the playing field for students. Question from Jennifer Murtha - Manager of Web Initiatives - Urban Education Exchange:

How does online professional development for teachers affect in-person professional development services? What percentage replaces in-person versus enhances in-person services?

Julie Young:

Great question, Jennifer!

It’s tough to get to a percentage answer to your question, but let me tell you a bit about what we do.

We see tremendous value in BOTH face-to-face (f2f) and remote professional learning for our staff. We actually call our training “Induction,” based on the Schlechty Center’s model for learning organizations. When staff first join our school, we invite them to a four day face-to-face training in our Orlando headquarters. They often work with a cohort of other new hires, both instructors and non-instructional, who share in the challenges presented with a new teaching environment. We have an online course folks can complete before attending the training to get them comfortable with some of our internal jargon and practices, but it’s the culture piece that needs face time. Following that four day event, all newbies come back for 30 day and 60 day follow up training in the office where we immerse them a bit more in the details of our organization.

Beyond that, we offer many hours of PD for staff each week. We use Elluminate to host many web-based sessions for staff, pull in few vendor products for some tech training, conduct book talk conference calls in small groups, and generally have options available any day of the week!

Annually, we meet as an entire staff for a Professional Learning Conference for three days. We just finished this event in early September, and we had four key note speeches, more than 75 break out session topics, and time for teams to work on shared goals.

Question from Lyn Misner, teacher, East Valley Middle School, Nampa, Idaho:

Three of my own children did some online classes in addition to their regular high school courses to allow them to take additional elective courses. I was disappointed in what they actually learned. I think much learning comes when students hear the questions, comments, and discussions that come in a regular classroom. The online “discussion” was superficial. Too much emphasis in the onlien classes is on low level information. How can this be changed.

Cheryl Vedoe:

Online courses are available to meet a range of needs, from rigorous courses to prepare students for college to credit recovery and remediation. The experience a student has will depend on the selection of the online course. There are courses available that emphasize basic skills. There are also courses that challenge students to extend their learning.

For example, a student enrolled in an online AP course from Apex Learning or Florida Virtual School will be presented with rigorous, college level material. Students who complete such online AP courses perform at or above the national average on the College Board AP exams, a measure of the learning that takes place in these online classes.

It can be a challenge to replicate the experience of a group of students interacting in a classroom in an distance learning situation. However, it’s interesting to note that we often hear from students that they feel more comfortable - and more confident - participating in online discussions than they do in the classroom. Online teachers also comment on the level of participation of their students. The online teacher plays a key role in ensuring discussions are at the right level to achieve the learning objectives.

Question from Sue Holland, Teacher’s Aid, H.T. Wing School (K-8):

Is there going to be a growing need for instructors for Online Education? If so, what is the profile for the type of educators being sought?

Are there any certifications required with regard to the content being taught (i.e. Teaching license in which state(s)) as well as the tools being used to present the content? Is the industry standardizing around one course delivery tool?

Susan Patrick:

Yes, there is a growing need for online instructors. There are several teacher training programs that offer courses in effective online teaching.

A good guide for qualifications and skills needed is found in the NACOL National Standards for Quality Online Teaching. The standards are designed to provide states, districts, online programs and other organizations, such as teacher training institutions and organizations, with a set of quality guidelines and criteria for online teaching. The standards began with a thorough literature review of existing online teaching quality standards, a cross-reference of standards, followed by a research survey to experts in the field to ensure the efficacy of the standards adopted. As a result of the research review, NACOL adopted and fully endorsed the work of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) SREB Standards for Quality Online Teaching and the Online Teaching Evaluation for State Virtual Schools as a comprehensive set of criteria. The criteria are summarized as follows . . . Instructors need as a baseline to meet the state’s professional teaching standards and to have the academic credentials in the field to teach the subject and content to students. The teachers need: prerequisite technology skills to teach online. In addition, the teachers plan, design and incorporate strategies to encourage active learning, interaction, participation and collaboration in the online environment. The teacher provides online leadership in a manner that promotes student success through regular feedback, prompt responses and clear expectations. The teacher models, guides and encourages legal, ethical, safe and healthy behavior related to technology use. The teacher has experienced online learning from the perspective of a student; the teacher understands and is responsive to students with special needs in the online classroom; the teacher demonstrates competencies in creating and implementing assessments in online learning environments in ways that assure validity and reliability of instruments and procedures; the teacher develops and delivers assessments, projects, and assignments that meet standards-based learning goals and assesses learning progress by measuring student achievement of learning goals, the teacher demonstrates competencies in using data and finding from assessments and other data sources to modify instructional methods and content and to guide student learning, etc.

An example for state licensing and endorsement in online teaching: Georgia – the State Department of Education worked with the Georgia Virtual School in creating an endorsement for the state teaching license. Programs like Florida Virtual School have partnered with universities to develop certificates in online teaching; Connections Academy works with Boise State University to train online teachers and offer a certificate. Wisconsin just began to offer a Master’s in Online Teaching. There is tremendous growth in the field of online teaching and a focus on quality and certification will continue as a major trend in the field.

Online education is growing at 30% annually and good courses require good teachers, so the demand for teachers to teach these classes is also on the rise. Online education provides many opportunities – both for students and for teachers. NACOL members can access the NACOL Forums on our website where employment opportunities and positions are posted for K-12 online teaching and administration.

Teachers that are highly qualified have many new professional opportunities to teach online that will allow part-time teaching, adjunct positions as well as full-time positions with online programs and virtual schools. This is expanding professional opportunities beyond geography of where a teacher lives and bringing great teachers back into our public schools.

In October 2006, National Education Association released the “Guide to Teaching Online Courses” which is also a wonderful document for highlighting the important guidelines for high quality online teaching.

A number of pre-service university teacher training programs are adopting the NACOL National Standards for Quality Online Teaching to modernize their programs, and several are beginning to offer a Master’s in Online Teaching, based on the criteria in the NACOL National Standards.

This is a step forward for the United States. In Mexico, there is a pilot where every new teacher is provided a laptop and taught to use digital learning resources and digital content. The entire K-12 academic curriculum is made available online in Mexico. In China, they have made the digital conversion of all of their K-12 academic content and curriculum and are working with Master teachers to teach the content online. In Singapore, all teachers are trained to teach online. They stand ready to take advantage of the revolution happening to expand access to high quality courses and teaching through online learning. It is an innovation that can help focus on quality and expand access through a new distribution model, so we can reduce inequity in American education and build a stronger public education to provide every child with access to a world-class education, regardless of what zip code they live in (or what zip code their teacher lives in). We can overcome the disparities in opportunity and access to education using online teaching and learning as an important innovation – and move toward more student-centered, personalized learning.

We see a variety of course delivery models and tools being used, so it is too early to state that the industry is becoming standardized on a particular technology. All programs use a learning management system (LMS), or course management system, but there isn’t one standard tool. All programs use digital content and learning resources, but there isn’t one set of content that is a standard. Most programs use other communications tools with white boards, webinar capabilities, chat, VOIP, etc., but I wouldn’t say there is a standardized set of tools. All programs do use the Internet.

Question from Cheryl Spiva: pre-service educator:

I have read many articles in relation to online education. I find it a fascinating and viable alternative;yet as a preservice educator I wonder if the classroom teacher will be made obselete? I wonder this because I am in the process of finishing my education and I do not desire to spend thousands of dollars to acquire a quality education to become a highly qualified profession for a field that is becoming obsolete. I personally cannot see our skill set becoming something that a computer program can do. What is your opinion in this matter.

Julie Young:

I am right with you, Cheryl! Classroom teachers will NOT be obsolete. Think about student choice and blended models where students may access online content in a classroom, and that is likely what the future will hold. If you see my note above about quality feedback, that is all teacher driven. The student-teacher and teacher-parent relationships are key to the success of FLVS kids, and we know it!

You’ll be interested to know that FLVS is very eager to work with preservice teachers. We have two university partnerships in place so that we can pull people like you into our environment and let them learn how teaching and learning differ in our world. It is a small pilot at this stage, but we are pleased with the results, and the universities are, too!

Question from Debra Franciosi, Associate Director, Project CRISS:

I can see virtual schools appealing to some struggling students, as well as the independent learners seeking enrichment. How are virtual schools supporting students who lack self-direction and/or academic skills?

Cheryl Vedoe:

One of the greatest benefits of virtual schools is that they offer another alternative for students. Just as with traditional schools, virtual schools are serving a range of students. Online courses facilitate the virtual school’s ability to meet the needs of a range of students. Students can move through courses at their own pace, taking more time where necessary and moving quickly through material they have mastered. Taking advantage of multiple media types and interactive exercises, online courses offer multiple representations and address different learning styles. Many online courses include scaffolding throughout for students who need additional support to succeed in grade level courses. For students who lack certain academic skills, there are courses designed to bring students up to grade level.

The distance learning experience offered by virtual schools can be very effective for some students and is not a good fit for others. For many struggling students, distance learning is not the optimal situation. Increasingly online courses are being used by brick-and-mortar schools as the primary instructional material for non-traditional high schools, credit recovery programs, and remediation programs. These programs are able to offer the advantages of online courses combined with proactive, in-person involvement by teachers, providing each student with an individualized learning experience and 1-on-1 support to keep them on track to success. Question from Tina Daigle, Instructor, Hudson Valley Community College:

How does an instructor with online teaching experience find online teaching opportunities?

Susan Patrick:

Instructors with experience in online teaching are in demand. NACOL has a website for NACOL members called “NACOL Forums Job Postings” and many positions for online teaching are posted here. Many of the online programs, districts, states and virtual schools also have their own job postings. You need to meet the qualifications for K-12 online teaching, which include meeting the state’s professional teaching standards or license requirements (see also NACOL National Standards for Quality Online Teaching).

Question from Jan Mitchell, Provider of PD for Online Teaching:

What should drive the decisions we make about online lesson design--new technologies, successes in F2F classrooms, teaching standards, needs of students, availability and afford-ability of educational products?

Julie Young:

Wow, Jan, that’s a big question!

All of the items you list are important to consider in designing online content, but another important one surrounds student engagement. Are we keeping the kids interested throughout the learning process? Are we continuously changing to meet their ever-changing interests? Are we giving them choices to tweak the lesson to suit their individual interests?

Question from Cheryl Darville, Teacher, Therrell High School:

We have transformed from a comprehensive high school to small schools. A major drawback is the lack of AP classes. In the past, our students have had difficulty with online classes. Online classes can solve the problem with the course offerings but could be a two edge sword for those that need additional support. What can we do to offer AP classes with success?

Cheryl Vedoe:

There are many reasons a student may struggle with an online AP course. In some cases we find that students enrolled in our online AP courses are not adequately prepared to be successful with college level course material. In other cases, students find the transition to a distance learning situation a challenge.

In our model of distance learning a local, onsite mentor plays an important role. The mentor may be a teacher, a guidance counselor, a staff person, a parent. The role of the mentor is to provide in-person support and encouragement to the student. When one of our online teachers observes that a student is struggling, he or she will reach out to the local mentor to enlist onsite support. Similarly, we hope that the local mentor will reach out to the online teacher if a student needs additional support.

Two important things you can do to offer online AP courses with success is to ensure students are prepared for the rigor of the courses and actively engage a local mentor in the distance learning process.

Question from nani vakarau,nasters student central china normal university:

what are virtual schools?

Susan Patrick:

NACOL defines a virtual school as an online learning program in which students enroll and earn credit towards academic achievement (or graduation) based on successful completion of the courses (or other designated learning opportunities) provided by the school; online courses are offered by virtual schools and taught by qualified teachers. An easy-to-understand graphic description of virtual schools and online learning is available on

Question from Kathleen Carpenter, Editor, Teachers.Net Gazette:

How and by whom are virtual educators evaluated?

Julie Young:

Excellent question, Kathleen!

FLVS has a team of Instructional Leaders (ILs) who support teachers. Each IL is trained in our accountability standards for teachers and monitors teacher and student progress on a daily basis. They conduct virtual classroom walk-throughs, review feedback to students, monitor several data points including frequency of phone contact, student progress toward successful completion--and more! The ILs are highly accountable to the Directors of Instruction for maintaining quality standards in every online classroom. We take evaluations seriously, and teachers love being able to see know how they are doing with each student on any day! Question from Su Verma, Curriculum Specialist, Intermediate Unit 1, PA:

My dissertation topic is online teaching and learning. Any new publications, journals, resources, help are greatly appreciated. Thanks a million. su

Susan Patrick:

The NACOL website is rich in resources focused on K-12 online teaching and learning. The publications are available for free download on In addition, the professional development offered in our webinar series is archived on the website -- the webinars are available to watch at any time.

NACOL also has a Research Committee that examines issues in online learning and can be a valuable resource in guiding you through the process. Please let us know how we can help! They will be meeting at the VSS in October.

Question from Jan Bennett, Director of Staff Development, Wichita Falls ISD:

How can we ensure engagement and participation in online learning?

Julie Young:

Your question can point in many directions, Jan!

To ensure student engagement, ask students! We conduct focus groups with kids across the state to be sure we are on the right track and providing choices to students that hook them into the learning and keep them there.

Participation can mean more than just keeping them engaged. It could refer to getting more kids to try an online course. We do that, too! We work with school-based staff all over the state to help us get the word out to the kids and families. We also have an internal team who works as liaisons with schools, district offices, superintendents, and community organizations to help us identify populations who need us and to provide the help. We call all FLVS staff Ambassadors who share our student stories and help more kids find us.

Question from Brad Huff, Vice President for Educational Programs,

I am acquainted with the University of California UCCP online project to make AP courses available to students in schools that do not offer AP.

This summer I presented a review of online courses and tutoring at the Advanced Placement Conference in Seattle. (Retired after 40 years as a science and math teacher and administrator, I have been volunteering as an officer of

My first question is: How do you provide hands-on science experiences for students in an online teaching environment? I reject simulations - they are not the real world. I reject dry-labbing, that is, providing students with data they did not collect.

My second question is: How do you ensure the quality of online courses?

Finally, I have been tutoring students for the past 3 years using the technology - VoIP direct communication with the student and using the computer screen as a whiteboard and love it! It is just the same as working with a student at the kitchen table. And each session is archived on server computers for review later by the student, by parents, and by appropriate school personnel.

Cheryl Vedoe:

Your first question: How do you provide hands-on science experiences for student in online teaching environments?

If an online course is being used in a brick-and-mortar school, we encourage the local school to supervise the hands-on lab activities that are a part of our online courses. Hands-on labs are obviously a challenge in a distance learning situation if the student is at home. For our online AP courses we do include hands-on lab activities that can be conducted in the home with lab materials that can be readily purchased.

While I understand and appreciate your position on dry-labs, I do think they have value in supporting students with the analysis of data and drawing conclusions. For students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to take an advanced science course, online courses - even with only dry-labs - offer a tremendous academic opportunity to that student. It is not only virtual school students who are affected by this, but the many students who attend small high schools without adequate lab facilities or qualified teachers. Online courses offers access to courses that would not otherwise be possible. I would suggest that another option to hands-on labs in the course is for the student to be required to complete a lab course on entering college.

Your question 2 - How do you ensure the quality of online courses?

Our course development methodology is a rigorous process focused on ensuring quality. The scope and sequence for each of our courses is developed to meet national and state standards. We employee experienced instructional designers and curriculum experts. Instructional content and assessments are authored by subject matter experts. In the case of our AP courses, we are required to submit our courses to the College Board AP Course Audit just as any other school is. Further, we have gone through the same process that traditional schools do to become accredited.

Our course development methodology is similar to the process traditionally used by textbook publishers. We take it several steps further as we are providing much more than the textbook used in a traditional course. One interesting note about online courses, is that a traditional school may well have less knowledge about what is actually being taught in each traditional classroom. When an online course is being used, what is being taught is very clear.

Question from Andrew Kern, Academic Dean, Regent Schools of the Carolinas:

Has a “Laffer Curve” been identified and quantified that can tell us when the amount of administrative oversight interferes with the effectiveness of teaching? It seems to me like that should be the focus of a lot of attention.

Susan Patrick:

Your question is a very interesting question. It implies that a quantitative economic tool can be applied to the qualitative constructs of teaching effectiveness and administration. I have never heard of Laffer curves being used for any education analysis. NACOL has a Research Committee that would be interested in learning more about any studies using Laffer curves in education and for measuring constructs of teaching effectiveness and administration that could be applied to virtual schools and online education.

Question from Dana Hendrix, Special Education Teacher, Holbrook USD:

Who is monitoring student progress and who designs the progam of study in the online classroom?

Julie Young:

Hi Dana!

Start with my answer above about teacher evaluation, but let’s add to it!

Students, teachers, parents, school-based counselors, and FLVS staff can all monitor student progress. Our internal student data system (called Virtual School Administrator - VSA) has a teacher dashboard so that teachers can see when students last submitted an assignment, what their current grade is in the course, and several other data points that may impact a student’s performance. Parents and students also have a dashboard and can see the same information IN REAL TIME! Where else can students know moment to moment exactly how they are doing and where they are in the class? School-based (brick and mortar, that is) staff who support that student can also see current progress levels and often talk with FLVS teachers to ensure student success.

The program of study at FLVS is built on our state standards and national standards for courses. We have a team of developers and instructional designers who work with subject matter experts (teachers!) to build the course content to meet those standards and align them with our pedagogical philosophies and student engagement goals.

We call this our Symphony of Skills and include the following as a base of all our content and delivery: Working on the Work (Schlechty) Literacy across the curriculum Prisoners of Time Quantum Learning strategies 21st Century Skills

Question from Anne McGirt, Math Teacher, Dillon (SC) High School:

Question is for Ms. Vedoe We are in the process of purchasing the Apex system for credit recovery. I have 12 students out of 40 in two classes whose reading percentiles are 10 or less. Are the systems available for credit recovery geared toward students who are non-readers or extremely poor readers since most are computer based and, I assume, require a significant amount of reading? What else can we, as educators, do to help these students with their reading? (By the way, I am a math teacher but I know that reading is paramount to education).

Cheryl Vedoe:

The question of how to support high school students to succeed in grade level courses (such as Biology, or Algebra I, or 10th grade English) when they may be reading at a 6th grade level (or even below) is one that we frequently hear. There are a number of ways this is being addressed today with online courses.

Online courses can take advantage of audio, video, images, graphics, and interactive elements to reinforce concepts presented in text. For a student who has poor reading comprehension, this support can be a key factor in understanding course material. Audio transcripts of instructional text and annotated readings can scaffold poor readers. Rollover vocabulary provides valuable assistance with mathematical and scientific terms or other vocabulary that students may struggle with when they come across them in text. The use of graphic organizers and study sheets also help to support struggling students.

Foundational courses can play a key role in helping to bring students to a higher level of proficiency so that they are prepared for success in grade level courses. Courses such as our own English Foundations are being used in these situations and in many cases students are able to earn elective credit for these courses.

As I have spoken with educators about this issue the one thing that stands out is the comment one high school principal made to me that regardless of the subject you teach, you need to help students develop their reading comprehension skills.

Question from Ryan Reyna, Policy Analyst, National Governors Association:

What role can governors play in promoting innovative approaches to technology in and out of the classroom?

Susan Patrick:

Governor’s can play a major role in promoting innovative approaches using technology in education by funding web-based courses for K-12 students to meet state educational goals, by fostering growth policies and providing e-learning initiatives. Virtual learning is growing fast: in 2000, there were 50,000 enrollments in K-12 online courses and by 2005, there were 500,000 enrollments, and last year, in 2007, there were 1,000,000 enrollments in K-12 online learning. There were 3.5 million enrollments in higher education in 2007, with 1 in 5 undergraduate and graduate college students taking an online course. 30% of all work force training is done through e-learning. Online learning is a viable solution for education and economic development needs in every state.

Governors can acknowledge the opportunities that online learning offers to improve the quality of education within a state and expand access – and state policy will communicate that online learning is a quality alternative for schools and students to improve academic performance. Governors can make equitable access to quality courses a key state goal. Governors can set policy designed to enable schools to use online courses by allowing existing funding and new sources of funds in a way for states to help schools and students take online courses and enroll in online programs. States need to address leadership and oversight of online programs to ensure quality and equity of access for all students across the state to high quality online learning opportunities.

Some examples:

• Governor Riley in Alabama tied online learning to the state technology infrastructure. Governor Riley invested $30 million over 3 years: to upgrade state high speed network, put 21st century classrooms in every high school in the state, to train teachers to teach online, and to invest in conversion to digital content. The goal was to deliver high quality courses to students statewide through online learning. In three years, Alabama provides through the program called, ACCESS, to every student in Alabama: Chinese, French, German and Latin; advanced placement (AP) calculus, AP English literature and composition, AP macroeconomics, and marine science are courses now available (to name a few) . . . Governor Riley said, “Using technology to provide those opportunities not only increases the rigor of instruction, but it also acclimates students to the use of technology and prepares them for a 21st century workforce.” • In 2006, the Governor in Michigan signed a law to make Michigan the first state to require “online learning” as part of updated, more rigorous high school graduation requirements. In the new requirements: “every student must have an online learning experience or course” before graduating from high school. Why? The governor cited the need for online learning is greatest with students to “access skills they will need to get ahead and compete in an increasingly technological workplace.” • Kentucky Governor Patton announced the creation of the Kentucky Virtual High School (KVHS) in fall 1999. This state virtual school coordinates services and courses that schools offer to students.

Governors can set policies and develop programs encouraging schools’ use of the Internet and e-learning to help meet academic course needs as a first step. Online learning can help provide web-based courses as an alternative for credit recovery (for students who are failing a course, will drop out of school, who need one course to graduate from high school but can’t get the course because of scheduling problems), for alternative education programs. Half of all online courses are providing AP courses for students in rural areas who otherwise do not have access. K-12 schools, community colleges and universities are working together in P-20 initiatives to offer online concurrent enrollment so that students can take online college classes and start earning (dual enrollment) credit in high school. This is a way to strengthen college access and college readiness through online learning.

E-learning is a strategy for addressing school reform: •Teacher quality and shortages •Access to a high quality, rigorous curriculum for every student o Science, Technology, Math and Engineering (STEM) o Foreign languages (Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, Latin, etc.) o AP and advanced courses •Student engagement o Engaging, emphasis on writing and interaction o Core courses o Credit recovery and remediation for on-time graduation o Cost-effectiveness

Every state model is different and may include: supplemental programs - 26 state and many district virtual school programs help meet the need for more middle grades and high school academic courses; full-time K-12 virtual schools - these schools help meet choice options for parents in 18 states (and both or all of the models mentioned above). Governors should encourage the growth of both models for providing students with choices and take care to provide programs of high quality with effective state oversight and without artificial caps on enrollment.

Question from Robbie Grimes, Technology Training Specialist, Brownsburg Community School Corporation, Brownsburg, IN:

Do you have any experience doing part time online and part time onsite educating? If so, what does that look like? Tell me about the typical structure of a student’s day.

Julie Young:

Well, Robbie, we actually have many models of hybrid or blended models using FLVS. The fun part is that no two look alike!

Imagine a small rural school with no teacher certified in Physics. One period a day, the nine kids who want to take Physics go into a computer lab and work with an FLVS teacher who may live across the state. That teacher calls, emails, instant or text messages the kids, works with a school based person who monitors them in the room, and engages parents regularly. That’s one.

Imagine an overcrowded urban school where getting kids scheduled in classes makes the counselor pull out her hair. She has a computer lab third period and an adult to monitor the kids there. She fills the lab with 30 kids and each student is taking a DIFFERNT FLVS course--whatever course that student needs. Maybe one student is in an AP course not available on that campus. Maybe another is in Algebra I because he failed it last semester. Maybe another is in Spanish II because he’s also in band, and the courses are offered the same period. Come one, come all!

Hybrid experiences are quite successful, and FLVS currently has more than 75 of them going on in public and private schools all over the state!

Question from Paula Cronan, enrichment teacher, Buckeye Valley Schools:

How well do young students fare with online courses? I have taken several courses and know the graduate students do well, but is keeping up a problem for the younger ones?

Cheryl Vedoe:

Online courses - whether it’s distance learning as is the case with virtual schools or classroom-based programs - are not the answer for all students. There are, however, many examples of middle and high school students doing extremely well with online courses. Online courses developed for secondary students recognize that these students generally need more structure and support than their post-secondary counterparts.

Question from Ryan Reyna, Policy Analyst, National Governors Association:

What role does higher education play in helping ensure that teachers are equipped with the knowledge and skills to use technology effectively?

Susan Patrick:

Governors can help ensure that the teacher preservice programs at public universities include a required element of online instruction.

Today, many preservice programs in the United States do not require future teachers to take even a single course in how to instruct online. At a minimum, the preservice training for online teaching should include the criteria in: 1) The NACOL National Standards for Quality Online Teaching; 2) NEA Guide to Teaching Online Courses.

In addition, student teaching opportunities should also be made available in virtual schools.

Question from Nancy Campbell, Supervisor of World Languages and Libraries, Mt. Lebanon School District, Pittsburgh, PA:

What types of teaching and learning opportunities should be present in an effective online world language course?

Cheryl Vedoe:

Our world languages courses are developed to meet the standards set forth by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL). We balance between thematic and communicative approaches to learning language. Each lesson presents vocabulary, grammar, and culture in context. Our courses include both written and oral exercises and assessments.

Question from Debra Franciosi, Associate Director, Project CRISS:

Are virtual school teachers receiving professional development? What does it look like? What’s most effective?

Julie Young:

Hi Debra!

I think my reply above hit many of the highlights, but your title made me think of something else to add!

We actually have a team of Reading Coaches who work with our staff to infuse Literacy Strategies into all FLVS coursework. This would be right up your alley! The team of coaches work with teachers to design specific literacy growth plans for individual students who may be struggling. We recently launched a project called 3DT that allows teachers to get some diagnostic information about a student’s reading level and monitor their progress over the duration of the course. Many of our teachers are even working toward Reading Endorsements with our state certification program, and we have really internalized literacy at the core of our pedagogy.

Question from John Englander, Associate Director for Online Learning, Facing History and Ourselves:

It is so easy to feel anonymous online, and to not follow-through. What strategies do you suggest to keep kids motivated, engaged and accountable when they take an online course?

Cheryl Vedoe:

Teachers play a key role in online courses just as they do in traditional classroom instruction. Whether it’s a distance learning situation or an online course is being used in a brick-and-mortar setting, proactive involvement by a teacher helps to keep students motivated, engaged, and accountable.

Question from Surena Neer, Anatomy teacher, OHP:

I was wondering, how do you handle labs online? How do the online students perform as they go on to college? I’ve graded online classes for “make up” credit only. It’s interesting to compare the student “online” and then to really have them in class.

Julie Young:

I can hear the scientist in your voice, Surena!

Our science labs come in a couple of models: online simulations, kitchen science, and digital interactives.

Although I can’t speak with much detail about how they work, I can tell you that the students enjoy the trial and error ability that digital labs provide, and they often reflect on the ways that they learned more by “just seeing what would happen” than they might have with limited lab supplies in a physical setting. I can also tell you that FLVS AP Biology recently was approved in the College Board audit! To us, that speaks volumes about the quality of what we are providing our students. (And, as a side note, those AP students meet or exceed the state and national average for performance on the AP Bio exam!)

Question from Lajuane Brooks, Ed Tech Specialist, LB&A. LLC:

In what ways is blended learning, which is personalized learning delivered with technology in the face-to-face classroom, the most appropriate type of online learning for the K-8 setting? How is blended learning today different from how teachers have been using the computer in the past?

Cheryl Vedoe:

As Apex Learning is primarily focused today on meeting the needs of high school students, I don’t think I’m well qualified to answer your first question. However, I did want to comment on your second question.

I would observe that up until recently, the role of technology in the classroom was to supplement the traditional instructional materials. With the availability of comprehensive online courses, a new model of blended learning is emerging. Instead of online materials as supplemental, online courses are increasingly being used as the primary instructional materials. An online course provides a complete scope and sequence, delivers comprehensive instructional content (in a multimodal way that addresses different learning styles), provides frequent formative assessment, and concludes with summative assessment. When the teacher is freed from creating the lesson plan every day, delivering content, and grading much of the student work (other than that which only a teacher can effectively grade), the teacher is able to engage 1-on-1 with each student to help that student achieve to his or her potential. The teacher can bring the entire class together to introduce an important concept, to engage in a topical discussion, to work on a project that integrates 21st century skills.

Question from Greg Cobb, Teacher, Sweetwater Union High School District:

What interventions are used for students who require the personal interactions with educators and peers?

Julie Young:

Personal relationships are a key part of learning at FLVS. Although it may not be face-to-face on many occasions, connections happen every day in our classrooms just like yours. Our students tell us their online teachers know them better than teachers they see every day at “regular” school. Most conversations are one-on-one and provide opportunities to really delve into talents and challenges to support students to success.

Our teachers use Elluminate to conduct live web sessions for individual or groups of students, and we even host 10 online clubs! Our Latin club, for example, works with webinar and conference call technology during the year, but at regional and state competition time, they meet face to face for the first time and hug like old dear friends! It’s amazing! And, by the way, they win top prizes every year!

Question from Sherry Hsi, Exploratorium:

What have been the challenges and breakthroughs with doing online professional development in science and math? Is there a preference for doing live real-time professional development or are most professional development offerings asynchronous?

Cheryl Vedoe:

Online professional development is not something with which we have experience. Each of our online courses is developed as a comprehensive course of instruction to meet high school graduation requirements.

It’s interesting to note that although we support high school students with online courses, we deliver almost all of our professional development to support teachers and administrators in their use of our online courses to achieve their educational objectives in-person. What we have found to be most successful in terms of professional development is to provide onsite, in-classroom mentoring and coaching to teachers and program administrators. Question from Margo Nanny Math Content Specialist

What are some of the more innovative ways to increase student engagement that go beyond discussion boards and chat rooms. I’m particularly interested in ideas that increase student interaction with each other in a way that lead them deeper into the content.

Julie Young:

Well, Margo, as you can imagine, this is of high interest to us, too! Let me tell you about an event we held this summer. Several of our teachers, in different subject areas, decided to host an online career fair. They reached out to the staff, got about 30 volunteers from all over the country who participated in Elluminate sessions with students. We had hundreds of kids attend! They could TALK to experts and ask, “So how does algebra apply to your job?”

Our student clubs are another way that we help kids remote from each other connect and engage one another. With 10 clubs, we have many opportunities for kids to work together inside and outside our online classrooms.

Question from Ellie Goldberg, Consultant/Advocate,

I see great potential in self-paced online learning options to address the need for accelerated learning for a variety of students - gifted kids as well as those who miss school, especially those with frequent disrupted education for reasons such as illness, natural disasters, family needs, mobility, etc. as well as for supplemental services for special education (reducing pull-outs, reinforcing learning basics) etc. Do you agree?

Julie Young:

Yes, Ellie, I do!

I believe that the online learning environment gives students with different learning styles and educational needs the flexibility and support they need to succeed. FLVS is a mastery-based model, and we strive to ensure our students are successful. At times this means our teachers may adjust the pace at which students complete the course. Because online learning allows teachers to work one-on-one with students, they can help students fit course-work into their schedule when other issues — such as natural disasters, family, etc — arise.

Question from Arleen Morey, Assistant Principal/Academics, Cardinal McCarrick High School:

How can online courses be managed as far as scheduling them in a traditional eight period 43 minute class?

Cheryl Vedoe:

Online courses are being effectively utilized with a variety of class schedules, both traditional and block schedule. The nature of an online course is that it is not dependent on a specific length of class period. Students enrolled in one distance learning course in addition to their traditional classes will typically spend one class period a day in a computer lab working on that course. With anytime, anywhere access to online courses, students can continue to work on the course at other times if they have a computer with Internet access. A program that utilizes online courses in a brick-and-mortar school can easily accommodate the school’s class schedule.

Question from James Falvo, Faculty, University of Phoenix:

Many online learners are working adults with a lot on the plate. Should class assignment deadlines be more flexible for these students than for traditional students in brick-and-mortar campuses?

Julie Young:

Yes, sir! When we started building FLVS, we made a conscience decision NOT to require seat-time and the rigid schedule of the traditional school environment. For the past 150 years, American public schools have held time constant and let learning vary. As the Department of Education found in their report, “Prisoners of Time,” time is the one thing that must change if we are going to improve upon the educational quality for our students. At FLVS, our students are not bound by time or schedules. Teachers work with students on an acceptable pace. Very often this pace is adjusted if a student needs more time on a particular concept or because of an unexpected interruption in their life. Online learning certainly can support students who are working and who need that extra flexibility.

Question from Ryan Reyna, Policy Analyst, National Governors Association:

What can states learn from the international community’s use of technology as an innovation in education?

Susan Patrick:

In the next three years, students across the European Union will be enrolling in online courses through the new International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma online. The IB program will hire master teachers from 26 countries and train them to teach rigorously online. The “gold standard” of online IB courses will be developed and perfected to teach a thorough, world-class curriculum toward an internationally-recognized high school diploma, demanding that students are fluent in multiple languages. These students will interact with other students in their classes from more than 26 different countries, they will learn from master teachers across the continent, they will collaborate on a global scale – preparing them with skills to become global citizens, as well as effective communicators that are technologically-savvy.

In Singapore, every new teacher is trained to teach online. 100% of secondary schools in Singapore offer e-learning. Lockers have electrical outlets to power-up laptops. Singapore holds e-learning week every year where they physically shut schools down. They ensure that every teacher continues to teach courses online and every student continues online during e-learning week. Why? This is a disaster preparedness exercise – to ensure the continuity of learning in case of a pandemic avian flu epidemic, for example . . .

Mexico has digitized all of its K-12 educational content into digital learning resources. Teachers in Mexico are trained to use the digital content with online teaching strategies in pre-service teacher training programs in Universities.

In an InfoWorld article recently: “Chinese University of Hong Kong president, Lawrence Lau highlighted the importance of the Internet in terms of knowledge distribution. He said access to broadband was crucial to overcoming poverty.” China struck a huge e-learing deal with the United Kingdom in October 2007, to provide K-12 online learning, so that Chinese students could have more access to English educational opportunities. The BBC article quotes that e-learning exports from UK to China total 29 billion pounds (that’s 58 billion in U.S. Dollars).

Online education is now an international export, and no longer a cottage industry. However, the United States is shutting itself out of many of these opportunities both for the U.S. educational industry – but more importantly for our students. We need to change our approach to education to recognize globalization. Every student in the United States needs access to a world-class education. And, if students can get this by walking to their local school – that’s great! But, I purport that too many of our schools are experiencing the appalling disparities that exist in our public education system. We need to take advantage of a new distribution model (global) – it is using the Internet to deliver high quality courses and instruction. We can reduce inequity, level the playing field and accelerate learning and track student performance better, too.

I hope this is helpful. NACOL conducted an international survey of e-learning and it is available on our website if you would like more examples:

Question from Brian Reid PhD:

What systems do schools have in place for quality control? My point is that more time will be ineffective, if there is no evidence that the current instruction is effective.

Cheryl Vedoe:

Online learning enables new models of teaching and learning, with the potential to increase opportunities for students, from those not succeeding in the traditional model of classroom instruction to those capable of accelerating their learning. Distance learning has played an important role in increasing access for students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to take certain courses, such as Advanced Placement courses. In brick-and-mortar classrooms, online courses are increasingly being used to provide an alternative for at-risk students or students with a history of low performance.

As with any instructional program, schools should carefully evaluate online courses to ensure they meet relevant content standards and the requirements specific to the educational program being implemented and the needs of students, teachers, and administrators.

We believe the measure of success for an online learning program should be whether the educational goals are achieved. For example: What is the completion rate for courses? The passing rate? How many credits are earned? How do students who complete an online learning program perform on exams (such as the College Board exams for AP courses)?

Question from Monica Beglau, Director, eMINTS National Center, Univ of Missouri:

How do providers of online courses locate high-quality content when developing the courses?

Susan Patrick:

Several state virtual schools and district online programs are using the NACOL National Standards of Quality for Online Courses in their RFPs and in their selection process.

Michelle Davis (Moderator):

Thanks to Julie, Susan and Cheryl for participating and to our audience for such great questions. We had many more than we could answer since this is such an interesting topic and growing area.

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