The Electric Educator: iNACOL Virtual School Symposium

Saturday, November 20, 2010

iNACOL Virtual School Symposium

This past week I had the opportunity to fly down to Glendale, Arizona (just outside of Phoenix) to attend iNACOL's annual Virtual School Symposium. The conference brought together 1,800 leaders in the field of online and virtual education.

Keynote presenters included Susan Patrick (iNACOL president), a fun panel of students in grades 6-12 who gave their perspective online learning, Deputy Secretary of Education Jim Shelton and former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise who spoke on policy issues related to online learning.

I attended seven different break-out sessions on a range of topics:

  • From model to practice: building successful online learning programs 
  • Using a digital curriculum to provide a personalized education for diverse learners.
  • What we've learned in 10 years that could save your program’s budget: building a thriving online program through effective grassroots marketing. 
  • From feasibility to pilot to launch: putting vision into action
  • More than technology: preparing teachers for the online environment.
  • Supporting Online Instructors and Assessing their Instruction
  • Best Practice to Guide Student Responses in Online Discussion Forums: Moodle in the classroom.
  • Life after the CMS: the future of the platform
  • Engaging a Gaggle of Googlers

Rather than write a summary of each of the above sessions, here are some of the general things that I gleaned from the conference as a whole.
  • Online learning is the future of education-- there is no doubt. There is a growing pool of data an anecdotal evidence that shows that there is a great demand for online learning opportunities, and that a growing number of schools are developing online programs.
  • Those teaching online are on the cutting edge-- this is both good and bad. While it is clear that online learning is the future of education, no standards, best practices, or norms have been established for k-12 virtual instruction. The research that does exists is predominantly from the collegiate setting. Everyone is trying to figure out the best, most efficient, and most effective way to teach K-12 students virtually; Everyone is learning on the fly.
  • The "factory model" is out-- Online learning was initially seen as a panacea to solve all of K-12's challenges: teacher shortages, aging infrastructure, budget cuts, etc. This was due, in part, to the perception that online schools could be run like a factory-- fewer teachers and more students aided by automated digital technologies. As this segment of the industry matures, it is becoming clear that there are new costs and challenges associated with online learning. Because of this more and more districts are developing hybrid programs that are a mix of online and face to face instruction. It is clear that a significant level of face to face interaction is critical for student success. This can be done virtually (through tools like skype) but does represent a significant level of interaction on the part of the teaching staff. This, in turn, will increase the cost of an online learning. Don't get me wrong, I do think that there can be significant costs savings associated with online learning, but it won't be the goldmine that some hoped it would be. 
  • Teacher training and development is key-. Teaching online is NOT the same as teaching in a face to face or blended environment. Successful virtual schools will need dedicated staff who believe in online learning as an effective form of instruction, not just as way to earn money while staying home and working in their pajamas. The level of personal attention and interaction with students that an online teacher must achieve does not make virtual instruction any easier than face to face instruction. Not everyone is cut out to teach online. Here are the minimum requirements for virtual instructors: 
    • Blazing fast typing ability
    • Impeccable grammar and spelling (this is the "face" of the teacher that the students will see and as such it must be brilliant).
    • A deep grasp of their subject matter.
    • A working knowledge of digital tools and resources that can enhance learning, collaboration, and communication.
Next year the VSS will be held in Indianapolis, IN. I'll be there once again to hear how education is changing for the 21st century. 

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