Virtual Learning 2.0

from Technology & Learning

Professional development is a whole new ballgame for educators who teach online.

According to the 2006 report Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning, funded by the North American Council for Online Learning and the K-11 online Connections: "…38 states have now established state-led online learning programs, policies regulating online learning, or both. Enrollments in online courses have surged in the past year, increasing by as much as 50% in some states. Twenty-five states have established state-wide or state-led virtual schools. Michigan this year became the first to require high school students to take at least one online course for graduation."

Well-designed online learning courses offer increased opportunities for differentiating student-teacher interaction and differentiated instruction.

With sustained, dramatic growth across the nation, online learning is here not only to stay but also to drive innovation in both core curriculum and professional development areas. Encompassing everything from a single Web site that links to resources (such as Virtual Learning Resources Center) to just-in-time lessons, a total school experience, workplace training, or part-or full-time online courses for students and educators, virtual learning's adaptability is proving itself well-suited to the 21st century.

The Connections Academy—a pioneering virtual school that began serving K–8 students in 2002 and has now expanded to K-11 in 12 states—"combines strong parental involvement of learning at home, the expertise and accountability of public education, and the flexibility of online classes." Teachers work with their students using a variety of methods including Web-based exchanges, phone conversations, and videoconferencing. Students work on collaborative projects, and the schools even facilitate face-to-face field trips and gatherings for students in the same area—or beyond.

Personal Attention

Sarah Ault, principal of the Denver Connections Academy, taught for four years in a traditional setting, two years at Connections Academy, and is now starting her second year as principal. She touts the advantages of the online venue. "I had 34 kids in my last year, which made it impossible to reach every kid. To be able to talk with every kid and get them what they need is heaven for me! The parents are also very involved here, and in a brick-and-mortar school, sometimes I never even met teachers." Connections Academy works with states and districts to set up regional virtual schools, and teachers within an area work together in a physical place so that if one is having difficulty with a student, he or she can talk with colleagues on the spot.

Mickey Revenaugh, vice president of State Relations at Connections Academy, whose job it is to smooth the pathway of virtual learning with legislators who may be unfamiliar with the concept, explains that bringing together Connections Academy teachers from the various states is a priority. "We want them to interact with each other through online courses and become friends and colleagues in the same way their students do. In fact, they learn to teach online by learning online."

A 21st-Century Model

Several years ago Connections Academy contracted with Boise State for custom graduate level courses for its teachers and administrators around the country. Kerry Rice, EdD, assistant professor at Boise State, explains that the program includes exploring many aspects of teaching that make an effective online program, including project-based and hands-on learning, distance learning, community building, engaging instruction, and technology tools. Rice explains that the "overarching themes are community building, collaboration, and teamwork, and how you build those features into online teaching." Specific aspects include active listening, modeling collaboration in big groups and small groups, as well as teaching specific skills, such as the instructional design for developing courses for asynchronous delivery, and understanding the ever-growing palette of online learning tools.

Not surprisingly, according to Rice and Revenaugh, good online teachers share many of the same qualities as teachers in traditional settings: caring about kids, mastery of their subjects, flexibility, and an interest in lifelong learning. Teachers of online courses also consider online instructional design, engaging students through online materials, and individualized planning and management.

Founded in 1997, Florida Virtual School was the first statewide virtual learning effort. It currently provides virtual education for grades 6 to 12 in Florida and beyond, as well as courses for adults working on GEDs. Mary Mitchell, program manager for Professional Learning Development at FLVS says, "Professional development at FLVS is multifaceted. After a face-to-face training, follow-up sessions include shadowing another teacher, phone calls, online and offline materials, peer coaching, Webinars, podcasting, and access to a variety of workshops, sessions, and just-in-time learning through chats, videoconferencing, and other means." The BITES program (Beneficial Instructor and Non Instructor Training to Engage Students) addresses needs as they come up, at the introductory as well as more advanced levels. For example, topics might include: How do you manage your monthly calls? How do you operate to fullest potential? How do you turn the discussion area into an engaging environment? At FLVS, both instructional and noninstructional staff are included in professional development. When noninstructional staff understand the goals and practices of the school, they can better support the teachers to the benefit of students. Mitchell recalls, "Professional development has changed—when we were small, we didn't really know what our needs were. Now we know and we evaluate our programs each year and make changes accordingly."

Claire Schooley, senior industry analyst at Forrester Research, a technology and market research company, explains how the corporate world's early acceptance of virtual learning helped pave the way for schools. Early on, corporations saw the need for deepening and extending the training they were doing. "They needed to get their people as smart as they could, with learning aligned to the objectives and goals of the company because it's directly tied to the bottom line." Corporations have come a long way in developing "blended learning" experiences, where synchronous and asynchronous sessions occur, with the opportunity for reviewing archived sessions at will. These courses have embraced Web 2.0 tools—such as blogs, wikis, podcasting, videoconferencing, Web-based conferencing, and teleconferencing—that encourage interaction and participation.

And business organizations must be responsive to the needs of their people to survive. Schooley tells the story of a real estate organization that tried asynchronous sessions, and found that its realtors—naturally gregarious folks—didn't like them, but loved the sessions where they could share with others. They also appreciate access to training on-thefly with such tools as podcasts that might list the top five points of a new product, for example, that they can listen to as they drive to see a client.

Access to experts in remote locations is one big advantage to virtual learning.

Learning communities unlimited by distance, time zones, and schedules can be very powerful. And learning within the context of a group is motivating, with shared ideas and support making the difference in really understanding and applying what is learned. Barbara Bray, president of My eCoach, an online learning community powered by both face-to-face and e-coaching, insists that the power of online learning environments for teachers (and others) cannot be denied, but that the environment must be a safe place in which ideas can be shared. Privacy issues must be addressed—and having a facilitator or coach provides a depth to the learning not found when you go through a pre-packaged course on your own. "This is the reason I developed My eCoach—there had to be a place for confidentiality, to put proprietary materials, and a public place to share," Bray declares.

More and more for-profit and open source companies are offering a range of products that focus on learning management, content management, virtual learning environments, or a combination of these. Consumers will of course review each offering in view of their own goals and the characteristics they are looking for to meet the needs of their clients. Happily, the emphasis on collaboration in online learning is increasing, and more products include a variety of ways for sharing and working together to occur.

An early effort in online learning environments for teachers, the NSFfunded Online Internet Institute continues to provide workshops and presentations that help educators and students "combine content and context to create dynamic learning communities" using today's tools such as blogs, wikis, and social networking. Ferdi Serim, OII co-founder explains, "We were the first cohort of online professional development funded by NSF. Since we did that 11 or 12 years ago, we were waiting for the type of capability that is widely available now." As the "first organization that was formed online before it existed on the ground," OII provided a unique service. A number of collaborators who were quite active bringing the Internet to classrooms saw the need for teachers to learn how to use the potential even if they could not meet face-to-face to discuss the issues.

The multiuser virtual world of Second Life is an environment where educators can network and share resources.

Second Life, a multiuser virtual environment (MUVE), is a 3-D virtual world that boasts more than 10 million "residents" from around the world who create virtual spaces for a variety of purposes. Serim is a proponent of Second Life as a professional development tool. He explains that the added dimension of a visual setting increases the depth of the experience. Educational organizations such as the International Society for Technology in Education have spaces in Second Life for lectures, participatory exchanges, social networking, and tools such as the new Emerging Technologies Task Force Idea Library. Conversations between K-12 and higher education, between content and technology developers, between theorists and practitioners are fostered. For those who might be reluctant to try something new such as Second Life or who feel overwhelmed with the variety of emerging technologies, Serim says, "Become comfortable that you don't know something. Go to the places that artists go every day to help bring artistry into teaching. Provide for innovation and creativity—we don't have those spaces in schools. Having the creative and innovative space in the online world opens up possibilities, and we can't get to these new places using the model we've always used." After all, Serim continues, "Learning is a journey, not a destination. Many travelers right now are in discovery mode, and exploring tools like SL is how we're going to get there—it's going to be a group that gets there, not a single person who will define a formula."

Our challenge is to explore and adapt the tools, and participate in the online, worldwide discussions about how they can improve teaching and learning—our own, and our students'.

Sara Armstrong, PhD, is an education consultant. Her Web site is

A Sampling of Virtual Learning Tools and Schools

Adobe Connect

ANGEL Learning



Connections Academy



Florida Virtual School

Master of Science in Education,
Option in Online Teaching and Learning—Cal State East Bay


My eCoach

NACOL—North American
Council for Online Learning

Online Internet Institute


Second Life

Tapped In

University of Phoenix

Virtual Learning Resources Center