2013 – Putting Theory into Practice: Flexible Learning and Course Development at VirtualHighSchool.com
Nicki Darbyson, Virtual High School

Virtual High School (VHS), located in Bayfield Ontario, currently offers over 70 online courses to students all over the world. The courses are created and revised to reflect the latest research on learning and curriculum design; some of the courses are in their 18th iteration in order to stay current and to accommodate these changes. This constant renewal is certainly one of the challenges (and rewards) of creating online courses. However, because we are a fully online private high school, we can design our lessons based on what we know about the learning process and based on Ministry guidelines, rather than on the learning process often practised in bricks and mortar classrooms.

Theory: so what do we know about learning?

The literature on theories of learning has been revived in the last decade as online learning, simulations and video and computer games have become mainstream. Scholars have seized the opportunity to re-examine how learning occurs—especially for “digital natives,” students who have grown up in the digital age (Prensky 2001, 2006). In 2001, James Paul Gee (2001) pointed out that students learn best when they are fully immersed in a given activity—whether it be reading a good book, completing a personal research project, or even playing a game. If students are immersed in an activity, they are more likely to engage in the learning process. For example, in the multiplayer online game America’s Army, students engage in role-play scenarios in which they are responsible for making the same decisions that soldiers make in situations of conflict. They interact with generals, as well as the nations’ leaders. A study conducted on the game found that more than half of the participants had learned mediation skills and leadership skills, such as reducing hostilities in groups and resolving conflicts (Belanich, 2004). These games allow students to relive historical or present-day situations and conflicts in different settings and conditions, teaching students second order concepts like historical context, empathy and cause and effect relationships. The collaborative element to these games is also effective for sharing and learning various strategies and such cooperation helps to sustain motivation (Iacovides, 2012). Rosemary Garris writes that “motivation is a key aspect of effective learning but that motivation needs to be sustained through feedback responses, reflection and active involvement in order for designed learning to take place (Garris et al., 2002). Therefore, the key challenge for effective instruction and course development is for the students to be engaged, motivated, supported and interested: ideally, they are motivated to reflect on what they are learning and to apply their findings to real-world contexts.

Practice: Virtual High School and Course Development

Virtual High School’s Philosophy of Education

Taking the latest research into account, Virtual High School makes every attempt to design courses that offer students flexibility, multiple instructional methods, immersive activities and engaging content. When students register for a course with VHS, they are able to start that day and have 18 months to earn their credit. This flexibility offers students the chance to work at their own pace; they can quickly move through concepts that come easily to them and take their time with ideas that are more difficult. Extended learning activities (additional reading, videos and games) are placed throughout the course to give students extra support where needed and they provide varied instructional methods for students so they can choose the options that work best for them. As the research shows, learning is an individual process. Students need to be fully engaged in activities to retain what they learn; this comes naturally when students can follow their own timelines. Learning happens where and when students work best.

Growing Success: The Ontario Ministry of Education and Assessment and Evaluation

VHS follows the Ontario Ministry of Education’s curriculum and adheres to the provincial assessment and evaluation policy as outlined in their document, Growing Success (2010). In this document, the Ministry explains that students should receive regular coaching from their teachers and have numerous opportunities to receive feedback while they learn, practise and fine-tune a skill. They should be evaluated on a skill only after they have learned and applied it in various practice assessments (known as assessment FOR learning activities). Students are also given the opportunity to reflect on their own learning and to assess their peers in assessment as learning activities. The Ministry refers to the graded evaluation of the student’s “product” as assessment of learning.

Building Engaging courses: A Case Study of CHC2D: Canadian History since WWI.

Using Growing Success, VHS begins its course development with “the end in mind.” The Ministry provides overall expectations for each course. These expectations outline the skills that students should grasp before they complete the course. VHS curriculum writers use these goals to design activities and assessments that provide building blocks for the development of specific skills. For example, before students complete CHC2D: Canadian History since WWI, they are expected to have used “the historical inquiry process and the concepts of historical thinking when investigating aspects of Canadian history since 1914” (The Ontario Curriculum, 2013). To meet this overall expectation, students are asked to analyse a primary source document and explain the document’s greater historical significance. Students need to be able to determine the following: the author of the document, the author’s motivations for creating it, their position in society and their biases. Students would also need to understand the concepts of historical thinking, and in considering historical significance, empathy and cause and effect. To help students learn the historical inquiry process, they are introduced to specific concepts of historical thinking with text and video, for example through using interactive matching games and questions with clickable drop-down answers that students pair the provided examples with the right historical concepts. Once they make assumptions about the correct answers themselves, a sample teacher answer is revealed.

Next, the course writer looks at the assignment’s required skills and breaks them down into manageable activities that allow students to practise individual skills. These activities are submitted only for feedback, not a grade. Knowing that students learn best when they are fully engaged and motivated to arrive at the best answer, VHS gives students considerable choice in the subject of their inquiry. For example, for the assignment above, students would be able to pick their own topic and find a primary source document that is of interest to them. The first practice activity asks them to identify the author and explain how they know their position in society and their biases, using the document alone. This activity is submitted to their teacher for feedback so they can work on specific skills for their next attempt. Having choice empowers the learners; they are able to develop questions that are meaningful to them and engage in the inquiry process with material that is relevant to their lives. Once they have received feedback on their final product, students are asked to reflect on their feedback and their learning experience in general in their ePortfolio, an online collection of their work that can be used to demonstrate their learning. This provides students with the opportunity to identify their strengths and weaknesses, set new learning goals and reflect on how they learn best.

Finally, VHS uses every opportunity to use games and immersive worlds in its course development to engage the “digital natives” that register. Research shows that young learners today “require multiple steams of information, prefer inductive reasoning, want frequent and quick interactions with content and have exceptional visual literacy skills” (Van Eck, 2006). We also know that games can be used to motivate learners, especially students with low literacy or language levels. Such students also often learn well in role-play situations. For example, in CHC2D students are asked to determine the causes of WWI by role-playing the ruler of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, in a history simulation provided by the Active History group.[1] The decisions they make have predetermined consequences so students can see examples of how cause and effect works in history. They can also compare their decisions with the ones Kaiser Wilhelm made in 1914.

Students are also engaged in role-play activities that give them exposure to potential careers. The culminating assignment for CHC2D asks students to role-play a museum curator and design an exhibit on a topic of their choice. They are required to tell a story using images of artifacts that they have researched and selected themselves and to provide brief object descriptions that explain how each artifact is important to the larger story. This exercise allows students to build a historical narrative, select appropriate evidence, justify the artifact’s historical significance and place it in the appropriate historical context—all of which are requirements of the Ministry of Education’s overall expectations for the course.

Based on what we know about learning—and VHS’s experience in the course-development process—the most important aspect of course development is designing engaging content that will motivate and inspire the student. Course writers at VHS make every attempt to infuse the courses with creative instruction, variety, choice and flexibility. Students need to be inspired by interesting approaches and need to have the flexibility to run with ideas in their own way. As the Canadian Council on Learning (2009) stated in its report, State of e-Learning in Canada, “delivery of resources does not guarantee learning, even when the initial barriers of access have been overcome.” Students must be interested and immersed in the material—and that is what makes writing online courses such a challenging and rewarding experience for educators.


Belanich, J., Sibley, D., & Orvis, K. (2004) Instructional characteristics and motivational features of a PC-based game. [Research report no. 1822]. Alexandria, VA. US Army Research Institute for Behavioural and Social Sciences.

Canadian Council on Learning. (2009). State of e-learning in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Author.

Garris, R., Ahlers, R., & Driskell, J (2002). Games, motivation, and learning: A research and practice model. Simulation and Gaming, 33, 441-467.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What videogames have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York. Palgrave MacMillan.

Iacovides, I. (2012). Digital games: motivation, engagement and informal learning. PhD thesis, The Open University.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013) The Ontario Curriculum, grades 9 and 10: Canadian and World Studies. www.ontario.ca/edu.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010). Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools, first edition, covering grades 1 to 12.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital game-based learning. New York and London: McGraw-Hill.

Prensky, M. (2006). Don’t bother me mom, I’m learning. St. Paul, MN. Paragon House.

Van Eck, R. (2006). Digital Game-Based Learning: It’s not just the digital natives who are restless. Educause. March/April.

[1] Activehistory.ca is a website that connects the work of historians with the wider public and the importance of the past to current events. The game can be accessed at http://www.activehistory.co.uk/WW1_CAUSES/ENGLISH/frameset.htm