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The evolution of online learning in policy and the classroom

In 2007, Pete Bush became the principal for Coopersville High School near Grand Rapids, which had no online learning opportunities in place. But because he knew Michigan Virtual Schools was offering new foreign language course offerings, he thought he'd seize the opportunity to help students learn in a new way and take a course the small school of just 800 students couldn't offer itself.

"We found some students who were interested in Mandarin Chinese online, and I served as their mentor because I wanted to learn as much about the process as I could," Bush says.

By around 2010, those few students taking a variety of online courses, evolved into about 40 per semester. At that point, Bush designated a staff member to the program.

"In the first couple of years we almost had to find things for him to do to justify his full-time position," recalls Bush, who is now the superintendent of Coloma Community Schools. "But by the time I left Coopersville in 2014, there were nearly 300 students each semester taking online courses."

Out of 800 students, that's a big portion of students. Over the last decade, that growth has happened in schools all over Michigan. According to Michigan Virtual University, between 2010 and 2015, the number of online learners has grown 250 percent, and online course enrollments have increased by nearly 500 percent with 445,932 enrollments during the 2014-2015 school year.

The online learning landscape has changed substantially since a decade ago when Michigan became the first state in the nation to require students to have an online learning experience before graduating from high school. Here, we explore how online learning has evolved over the last ten years, from the way classrooms work to what it means to "go" to school.

An evolving culture

"The story of the changing landscape of online education in Michigan can't be divorced from the story of the landscape of education in Michigan from a broad scope," says Jeff Williams, CEO of Public Sector Consultants, a research and program management firm specializing in governance and regulation.

That's because ten years ago, everyone from policymakers to teachers were very nervous about any type of learning that didn't look like the traditional format, from online courses to charter schools.

"Online learning was seen as something to dabble in," Williams says. "But everybody in the know would say, 'Too early, too soon, not ready.'"

And it's no small wonder why. Early on in the Coopersville online learning program, Bush fielded concerns from teachers regarding whether online courses were going to eliminate their jobs or lower the quality of education the students were receiving.

"The educational culture and climate in the building had to change a little bit," Bush says. "Part of that was educating our staff about online learning and the opportunities it presented for students, and the rigor and value of it as well."
But as the culture of technology changed, and teachers and administrators acclimated to leveraging virtual learning in their own lives, that reluctance to change began to evolve.  

"Ten years ago we didn't know what YouTube was," says Williams. "But the moment you start to gather information at home in short two- and three-minute segments, you start to think, 'Huh, this is like a mini lesson. I wonder if I could do something like this with my classroom.’"

A new way to teach

And into the classroom online learning went, from teachers using virtual tools to complement their own curriculum to schools like Coopersville growing online course programs. As more students engaged with online learning, the more the schools themselves had to change to accommodate the new way of learning. After all, kids taking online courses at their own pace altered traditional school schedules for many students.

"We tried to create a really sound set of expectations so everybody understood that kids weren't just going to be walking around the building," Bush says. "We were clear that if students were in the building, they were expected to be in the online class or working with their mentor." Or, provided they were on pace with their course, students could sign themselves out of school and leave.

For some schools, the opportunity to offer online courses changed the way they marketed their services to students. For Gobles Middle-High School, the number of parents choosing to home-school their kids has long presented a funding challenge, as fewer enrollments means less revenue.

"We understood that home-school students had to buy curriculum somewhere, so we could offer that curriculum for free to them," says Phil McAndrew, principal of Gobles Middle-High School. "We looked at online learning as a way to add additional ways for students to learn without necessarily adding additional staff."

A new way to learn

The school experience has changed for students, too.

"As a smaller high school we were limited in what we could offer in terms of courses," says Bush. After that first Mandarin Chinese course, however, the conversation evolved into allowing kids to take ethics courses, forensic science, Arabic or introduction to veterinary medicine.
"So they could find out before they go to college if it's what they really want to do," he says.

Though the courses are online, most schools still have a dedicated hour of the day in students' schedules for their online class. If they're in school, they are in a computer lab or other designated space with a mentor, who helps them stay on pace and problem solve in the absence of their online instructor when needed — a vastly different setup than the traditional classroom.

"It has really opened up a world of possibilities for a lot of our students," says McAndrew.

The push and pull of policy

The 2006 law requiring high school students wasn't the last piece of legislation to support online learning in Michigan. In 2008, school districts could allow eligible, full-time students to take all of their coursework online while still being enrolled. And in 2013, legislation guaranteed  students could enroll in up to two online courses per semester.

"Basically, a school can't say no," explains Bush. "Fortunately, we already offered these flexible options for kids, but people started coming to us to learn what we'd been doing."

For those schools with less advanced or no online learning programs, the policies did allow students to push their administrators into the practice. But by and large, says Williams, many schools were, like Coopersville, ahead of the policy. And that trend continues today.

"Policy is still playing catch-up," he says. "But at the classroom level, you see teachers doing things in classrooms today that policy doesn't comprehend. The on-the-ground experience is far in front of where the policy is."

The next decade of online learning

Some parents and teachers, of course, are still getting used to the idea of online learning, even with a decade of experience behind many Michigan schools. But Williams expects that while online learning will never replace a major portion of the K-12 system, ten years from now, most students will get some of their education online every year. That sounds about right to Bush, as well.

"I thought we'd hit a mark where the program wasn't going to grow anymore, but quite honestly, that didn't happen," he says. "It kept growing and growing. As kids came up through the system, they were more comfortable with learning in that environment."

And over the next decade, students and teachers are likely to be even more comfortable with online learning, growing the demand for the alternate approach to education throughout Michigan. 

This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Michigan Virtual University.

Photos by Adam and Kristina Bird
Q&A with Kathy Stewart
Q&A with Kathy Stewart
Supt. of Saginaw Intermediate School Dist
By Natalie Burg
Every intermediate school district offers a unique set of services to their local districts, so how each one has engaged with online learning over the past decade is different. Here, the superintendent of the Saginaw ISD explains how her staff has provided technical assistance to local districts, and how demand for those services has grown.

As an ISD superintendent, why do you value online learning?

In general, online course offerings are beneficial to a wide variety of students who might not be able to attend school because they have obligations, like training with a team outside their regular school team, or if they're homebound for one reason or another. The online course experience is so valuable. And having an adult facilitator for students in the online classroom is essential to the success of the online experience.

From your perspective, how has online learning changed the way ISDs function?

My technology team is working very hard to assist our local school district with accessing the online learning opportunities and tools that are there for teachers and students.

Their schedules are very busy, because we have a few districts that have transitioned to one-to-one device initiatives, so the opportunities for my staff to assist our local teachers and administrators has expanded greatly.

Has the level of assistance local districts need changed over the past decade?

Oh, it's changed tremendously. Even more so in the last five years, with a lot of teachers interested in blended learning opportunities. Our technology team is helping and assisting teachers with how to organize that blended learning experience.

How do they deliver that assistance?

Our tech team provides that assistance during professional learning days, attending staff meetings — whatever fits into the school's schedule, they go in and help.

What is the biggest challenge for providing technical assistance to local districts today?

The biggest challenge right now is the number of devices and strength of internet connection.
Just having enough devices on hand and finding the time to help students is a challenge. Time is a big resource.

We're stretched for staffing. As an ISD, we're tenth largest in the state for student population. But ISDs are funded in part by local millages, and in millage revenues, we're 52 out of 56. So while we would like to expand our technology team, we're not able to. All of us here and there spend time providing tech tips and helping out wherever we can.

What do you hope to see over the next ten years from online learning?

I see the demand for growth, but I see we have the capacity for that growth. I want to make certain that we don't lose sight of the fact that teachers are valuable facilitators and are so important to the learning process. Having that face-to-face and social interaction is so valuable for helping students to grow socially and emotionally, as well as academically.