By Tracy Arnold
For the last 15 years, I’ve been introducing schools around the world to the value of online learning. It started at the Colegio Internacional de Caracas in Venezuela, where I first discovered The Virtual High School (VHS, Inc.). We began offering online courses to our students for enrichment. We were a relatively small international school, and we liked the opportunities that the platform offered us and the fact that our kids could take part in courses that we couldn’t offer.
I also liked the opportunities that the online platform presented for teachers—so much so that I enrolled in a 12-credit graduate course in online learning and taught VHS’ World Religions course for several years. In the years that followed, I’ve used online learning to help fill in coursework gaps, offer a broader range of subjects, and help students take credit recovery courses to graduate on time.
Over time, I learned how versatile and useful online learning can be for international schools, which tend to have very structured curriculums and learning approaches. I also learned several lessons along the way, including the fact that online learning isn’t for every student, and that it takes time to figure out who will or won’t succeed in that environment.
Here’s what else I learned:
- Online learning provides flexibility in an otherwise rigid learning environment. An international school’s programs are quite structured; we don't have a lot of the flexibility that other U.S. schools might have. For us to be able to offer our students the huge range of courses that are available through our online platform was pretty liberating.
- You can take it with you. As I moved into new positions at new institutions, I took that affinity for online learning with me. Working in Italy for four years, for example, I introduced it at the American Overseas School of Rome, where I taught the middle school Intro to Engineering course. I did the same at Istanbul International Community School, an IB World School that offers a variety of challenging programs for its students.
- It pushes students past their limits. Online coursework can really challenge how kids think and push them beyond just doing rote work. It helps them be creative, inquire, reflect, and do all kinds of things that are important for learning—particularly in the international school environment, where the traditional courses offered are quite commonplace.
- We can go beyond the ordinary. The fact that students can take extra courses through VHS as electives is very beneficial. For example, without an online program, all our 9th grade students enroll in a Humanities Nine course versus being able to choose from courses such as American history, European history, or geography. We just don't have those kinds of options offered face-to-face in our schools, and yet we have kids who are thinking, “I really want to learn more about psychology,” or “I'm really interested in business.” Over the past three years, our ninth graders have been able to take advantage of five different VHS Humanities offerings ranging from U.S. History to Criminology.”
- Use it to help students pursue their post-graduation aspirations. I often get questions from students who are worried that a poor grade will reflect negatively on their transcripts. I let them know that once they’ve completed the VHS coursework that we submit the results to colleges, who understand that they’ve been motivated to seek out other opportunities to extend their learning—and that they have the skills to be able to learn online. In fact, 82% of my students who have taken a flexible credit recovery course through VHS have been able to recover a credit that they need for college or to move forward in their high school career.
- Get parents more involved. Online learning is different than face-to-face learning, and one area where I personally need to be doing more is in the area of parental and family communication. We receive effective site coordinator training, but parents don't always have direct contact with the online instructors. We could all be doing a better job with this level of communication, which can be a bit tricky. That would help us intervene earlier when students need help.
To schools that are considering an online learning platform like VHS for their educational offerings, I’d say one of our biggest success factors has been an ongoing commitment to screening students before enrolling them. Over time, I’ve honed this process to the point where I can fairly quickly recognize whether a student will succeed in the virtual learning environment.
However, I’ve seen kids who did not necessarily meet the profile of a typical online student, but who turned out to be very successful at online learning. If a student is highly motivated and wants the chance to learn online, it is worth giving the student the opportunity.
Tracy Arnold is Secondary School Vice Principal at Istanbul International Community School.
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