Back at the turn of the 21st century, it seemed so far-fetched: A complete public school experience, delivered via technology, independent of brick-and-mortar campuses, to students as young as kindergarten. As part of a small team that came together to dream up what would ultimately become Connections Academy and later Pearson Online & Blended Learning, I remember the existential questions we grappled with. Can we really create a whole school that is virtual -- and who in the world would want it anyway?
Now the first Connections Academy-supported virtual public schools are celebrating their 16th anniversaries. Tens of thousands of students have graduated from what is now a network of 30-plus schools across the country and around the world, and more than a few alumni are back as teachers and parents. As we mark Founder’s Day this October, remembering pioneering CEO Barbara Dreyer and the ragtag crew that got all of this started, the moment seems apt to reflect on the rhythm and pace of education innovation in this still-new century.
K-12 education technology had been on the rise for more than a decade before online learning emerged in the early 2000s; I was fortunate to be in on that early ferment as a journalist and advocate. Our most passionate discussions back then were about how to integrate computers into the classroom and into teachers’ face-to-face practice. The advent of the Internet meant that content from afar could be part of the mix, but the focus was on connecting distinct in-person-only places: the classroom, the computer lab, and home, for homework purposes. It took the splash of online higher education to suggest other possibilities. The reality of Internet-delivered college combined with the emergence of charters and other forms of K-12 school choice -- and a generation of kids with technology as their birthright -- to create a petri dish for completely new school models. The Connections co-founders jumped right in.
The Big Shift
Even an innovation as profound as virtual schooling becomes familiar over time, and that’s exactly what’s happened over the past decade and a half. There’s the initial head-scratching (which I am reminded of these days every time I discuss K-12 online with educators and parents outside the US) and the brave, sometimes desperate leap of first adopters. There’s the overheated rhetoric -- Online will completely transform American education! Virtual schools will destroy our American way of life! -- and the proliferation of providers. There’s the ferocious commitment of users for whom this form of schooling is literally a lifesaver (I think of the severely bullied kids who seek refuge at Connections Academy schools, and the children undergoing traumatic medical procedures), and the equally ferocious critics. Earnest concerns about student performance dovetail with the reality that online allows a level of school-switching mobility unseen in any other form of education. Meanwhile, year after year, there’s been a slow but inexorable expansion in the number of families who consider what once would have been an outlandish option. For a growing cadre of younger parents, virtual school is about as weird as buying your groceries online or working remotely at your corporate job.
As a result, a form of schooling that was once wildly innovative by its very existence now must be intentional in adapting to the needs of next-generation students for whom learning online is like talking on a cell phone: The instrument is a lot different from what mom and dad had growing up, but its ability to carry a voice is actually the least tech-forward thing about it.
The Horizons Ahead
So how will virtual schools evolve in the next decade? A look at education trends suggests several frontiers worth exploring.
The end of linearity: The uni-directional pattern of lessons, units, and courses is being challenged in all kinds of schools by a shift toward personalized and competency-based learning, in which students may master knowledge via a wide variety of experiences in bespoke order. Virtual schools have typically reverse-engineered their offerings to mirror the standard linear approach, and are now figuring out how to make the online learning experience more dynamic and diverse.
New ways to assess: The linear learning pattern was necessitated by point-in-time, summative assessments. The focus in virtual and many other kinds of schools now is on integrating authentic formative assessments that allow a teacher, the student, the platform -- or ideally all three -- to chart a learner’s personalized path toward mastery.
Social-emotional learning: Schools all over America are waking up to the fact that learning is often as much about the heart as the head. Finding additional new ways to engage students with one another and with the adults who care about their development is an area of opportunity for virtual schools.
Mickey Revenaugh is Director of New School Models–Pearson Global Schools, co-founder of Connections Academy, and vice chair of iNACOL. Previously, she helped launch the E-rate program to wire every school and library to the Internet, and served as education technology magazine editor at Scholastic.