Waves Across the Oceans
Steve Baker, Principal – Virtual High School
In 2012, Virtual High School (VHS) had 66 distinct high school online courses with almost 300 course sections. All 18 full-time administrative staff work in an office in the small, rural village of Bayfield on the shore of Lake Huron (CTV, 2012). VHS contracts the teaching to approximately 70 certified teachers working from their home offices. More than 4600 student credit registrations are expected in 2012, which means that VHS, against all odds, has become one of Canada’s largest private online high schools (Bennett, 2012).
History of Virtual High School
In the fall of 1995, a grade 11 biology course written in HTML on Notepad became the first Canadian high school course I developed while working as a staff member at Goderich District Collegiate Institute within the Huron County Board of Education—now the Avon-Maitland District School Board in Ontario (Avon-Maitland District School Board [AMDSB], 2012). A second course, Canadian Literature, written by John Smallwood in 1996, won a North American award for course development (Hall, 1997). On January 2, 1997, the VirtualHighSchool.com domain was purchased and used to situate these two online courses on the Web (WHOis.com, n.d.). Working with the local Internet service provider Odyssey.com, operating at the time from the backroom of a jewelry store in Clinton, we built a very rudimentary learning management system to run the two online courses.
Two years later, the AMDSB claimed full ownership of the four online courses at VHS and dissolved the fledgling business arrangement. As the VirtualHighSchool.com domain had been personally purchased, it was retained as the uniform resource locator along with the content of the two original courses. Using this domain and content, attempts were made to revive the school. However, not having the ability to grant credits meant that success was less than assured. New online courses continued to be written, developed, and offered largely on a volunteer basis for the next four years. In 2001, VHS still had only six courses and one single student.
In 2002, VHS applied to the Ontario Ministry of Education for permission to exist as an accredited private school (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2012a). Private schools in Ontario have the ability to grant Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) credits (Education Act, 1990). Following a number of in-depth inspections by the Ministry of Education, in April 2003 VHS became a fully accredited, inspected private school in Ontario. This action meant that VHS could now offer its six online courses to students for OSSD credits. VHS has remained an accredited private school offering online OSSD credits ever since.
Growing International Audience
An interesting development at the VHS is that 17% of the credits issued by the school are earned by students who are not residents of Ontario. Students from every other Canadian province and 63 other countries (Antigua to Zimbabwe) are discovering that they may now receive a world-recognized Ontario education in their own communities, far-removed from Bayfield, Ontario. All of this raises a significant question:
Why are international students beginning to move outside their own school systems towards VHS to take a single course or the whole OSSD program?
VHS places tremendous personal responsibility on its students. Students choose when to come to class, when to study, what to study, when to submit assignments, when to write tests, and when to write the final exam. Giving students the personal responsibility to manage their own education is quite rare in any school. Typically, if the student is five minutes late for class in a bricks-and-mortar school, only a late slip from the office will allow access to the ongoing class. VHS takes the attitude that students are young adults and if treated as such, will respond accordingly. Attending classes at VHS promotes independence, maturity, and self-motivation within the learner. VHS has given students personal responsibility for their own education, and the students have responded in a very positive manner to this opportunity for growth.
Canada currently enjoys an envious position on the world stage with respect to its educational system. The Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations considers Canada to be “highly developed” in all of its dimensions, but especially in “education.” According to 2011 data, Canada’s Education HDI of 0.927 compares favourably to other countries such as Hong Kong (0.837), the United Kingdom (0.815), China (0.623) and Nigeria (0.442) to list a few (United Nations Development Programme, 2011). Canada’s provincial education systems are extremely attractive to students from many countries. The World Wide Web has broken down nearly all of the physical barriers that have prevented such students from attending a Canadian school in the past,. Allowing international students to pay the same tuition rate as Ontario students is just another example of the equality afforded to all students by VHS.
One of the attractions for students attending VHS is the tremendous flexibility afforded to the student. After students register and pay their tuition, they may begin their course(s) on any day and work through them course at their own pace. The only limitation applied is that they must complete the course within 18 months. There are no set deadlines for assignments or tests. The students decide when their school year starts, when their day starts, and even when they do their work. Teenagers especially appreciate this flexibility, most notably when it concerns matters early in the day. The asynchronous nature of the entire school is desirable because students often have busy social lives. When students are in entirely different time zones, a synchronous online course is exactly what they would want to avoid. The geographical and chronological flexibility of online courses equally allows any student in the world with an Internet connection the ability to attend the VHS.
Empowerment and Self-Advocacy
In addition to the personal responsibility granted to VHS students, they are encouraged to set educational goals for themselves. In this regard, the students can easily contact key people within the organizational structure of VHS in order to address any problem, which may prevent them from attaining their goals (Virtual High School, 1996-2012). Students are encouraged to take a position, to stand up for themselves, to disagree with any statement by a teacher or administrative person, or to request special circumstance if warranted. Having open access to all administrative staff members and advocating for themselves, the VHS student can effect change in the existing school procedures and even in the content of the courses. Empowering the student and encouraging self-advocacy allows them to take ownership of the issues in their lives and makes them better students.
Course Content Design
The quality of the content is another reason for the success of VHS. All content is written and developed by VHS curriculum writers and is designed to meet and frequently to exceed the curriculum expectations established by the Ontario Ministry of Education. The curriculum coordinators and instructional designers then present this content in online lessons to students using Desire2Learn’s learning management system (Desrie2Learn, 1999-2012). VHS consistently receives positive feedback from students, parents, universities, and colleges on the quality of its courses. The online course content is written as a hybrid between the textbook and what happens inside a typical classroom. The content has to be informative, interactive, pleasant, connected to prior learning, and engaging for the student—everything that a great teacher would do inside a bricks-and-mortar classroom. The litmus test of the online content is that it has to motivate the student to want to learn. VHS’s success indicates a positive result.
The OSSD credits issued by VHS are fully recognized by all universities around the world. International students consistently express that they view the Canadian provincial educational systems in very high regard. VHS has an impressive reputation with all universities. It is not uncommon for a student in a second or third year university program to register with VHS for a particular grade 12 course that he or she needs in order to change university program. Admissions personnel at their university often recommend VHS to the student in such cases (Ryerson University, n.d.). International students conditionally accepted into a Canadian university are often sent to VHS by the university to upgrade or to take additional grade 12 credits in order to gain acceptance into the university program. VHS students attending university will not have their admissions downgraded because they have taken a course or their entire high school at VHS. Learning occurring in a well-constructed online course is as good as the learning that takes place within physical classrooms (Ary & Brune, 2011). Universities, having their own courses and whole programs fully online, know the value of a well-run online program. Online delivery of the education does not diminish its capacity.
The most important aspect of education, from the perspective of the VHS student, is the quality of the teaching in the online course. VHS teachers make considerable effort to establish a personal connection with each of their students. Online teaching affords the teacher and student a new and exciting opportunity to interact as never before. VHS teachers make every attempt to routinely—that is, daily—answer emails and discuss their courses with students. Such communication must be of an extremely high quality as online correspondence is the only way for students and instructors to interact. Interestingly, teachers at VHS find that the relationships they establish with students are often more open and more educationally positive than relationships are in conventional classrooms, because unfortunate biases that may stigmatize students no longer exist. Protocols for email messages are established with the student at the beginning of the course. Learning such skills sets a precedent for students who will be emailing professors or teaching assistants in regards to college or university course work. Thus, online education deals with both the “soft skills” required of students today as well as the more traditional academic skills required of all graduates. Students attending VHS respond to the quality teaching by either returning for additional courses or spreading the word to other potential students either directly or through their social media contacts.
Assessment and Evaluation
The content of each VHS course covers the specific curriculum expectations, organized in various strands, as published by the Ontario Ministry of Education for every course in grades 9 to 12 (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2012b). Each online course is designed to properly implement the curriculum expectations using a variety of instructional strategies to help the online students achieve the curriculum expectations. Assessment is the process of gathering information from a variety of sources that accurately reflects how well the student is achieving the curriculum expectations. As part of the assessment process, VHS teachers provide students with descriptive feedback that guides their efforts towards improvement. Evaluation refers to the process of judging the quality of student work on the basis of established criteria, and assigning a value to represent that quality. Assessment and evaluation is based on the provincial curriculum expectations and the achievement levels outlined in the curriculum policy document for each discipline (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010). A variety of instructional, assessment and evaluation strategies provide students with numerous and varied ways to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding while developing their thinking skills, their communication skills, and the skills to make connections with and among the various educational contexts in each course. The primary purpose of the assessment and evaluation in each online course is to improve student learning. VHS teachers realize the potential they have in the context of online education to establish good learning practices and to foster superior performance in their students. Students recognize this instinctively and often return for additional courses.
Assignments are returned to students within three to five days, more quickly than they are in secondary schools in most cases and unquestionably much faster than is the case in university settings. Students submit files, usually as Word documents, with the work being graded with “track changes.” VHS teachers are strongly encouraged to include fully detailed, comprehensive notes in their marking and to end with a concluding paragraph that begins with positive feedback and ends with recommendations on how the work might be improved. The comments must at all times be respectful and constructive. In the Desire2Learn feedback box, teachers mention a particular part of the work in the attached file to draw the student’s attention to an element of the work and how it might be improved, which causes the student to pay attention to the instructors’ suggested amendments. Student testimonials always reflect positively on the quality of the assessment and evaluation offered by VHS teachers. The days of “Good work – 85%” or “Keep trying – 55%” have never dawned on the VHS online classroom.
Simply replicating the elements found in conventional education into an online program—the courses, the textbooks, the office administration, and the OSSD program—pose a significant challenge for online educators. This challenge can be met by educators who are committed to involving their students in the process and practice of new methods of instruction. Creating an educational environment that allows students to feel that they are in control of their own education is, agreed, a much more challenging endeavor. Attempting to treat all students as individuals, placing them at the center of their learning experience, and allowing them full control of all aspects of their schooling deviates radically from the historical “batch” manner of handling students in bricks-and-mortar schools. Innovative thinking among teachers, subject coordinators, forward-thinking administrators and design personnel makes this approach entirely feasible and enjoyable for students who have already adopted the new technologies which deliver concepts in innovative ways. With this new, wider approach to student-centered learning, VHS course activities provide a high quality learning experience for international students. By focusing on the specific educational needs of international students and students closer to home as well, effective online education provides direct intervention to meet students’ needs in meaningful ways. Judging from the increasing number of registrations of international and North American students, VHS is succeeding in its goal of reaching out to national and international students and in providing learning that is as new and as creative as the technologies that are integral to the lives of younger learners around the world today.
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