Online institutions support Michigan as leader of online education

Across the state, students in small, rural and even urban districts use Michigan Virtual School for online world language courses, specialized electives, credit recovery and Advanced Placement courses that aren't available in their brick-and-mortar schools.
 
Due to Michigan's sheer size, rural regions and online learning graduation requirement, the state has been a pioneer in online education over the last decade. Essentially, the creation of MVS has brought equity, accessibility and interesting course offerings to students stuck in the sticks or struggling to stay on pace with their peers.
 
MVS continues to be recognized as one of the leading and largest virtual schools in the U.S. for its emerging best practices and research. It's also part of Virtual School Leadership Alliance, a national network of K-12 online learning organizations collaborating on the development of high-quality programs and services for students and educators.
 
Michigan Virtual University, a nonprofit organization established by the state legislature to supplement and expand online learning opportunities, is the umbrella organization for MVS, Michigan LearnPort and Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute.
 
MVU's role has continued to evolve along with the growth and development of online learning in Michigan's K-12 schools. It took on the role of course provider when, in 2000, Public Act 230 created Michigan Virtual School to work in partnership with hundreds of Michigan schools to deliver online instruction for public, private and home-school students.
 
Since its inception, MVS has recorded over 200,000 course registrations and presently offers a variety of courses from remedial to accelerated for middle and high school students. It also offers six world languages, American Sign Language and 20 Advanced Placement courses.
 
Michigan's investment in online learning has been driven, in part, by the 2006 mandate making online learning a requirement for high school graduation. Michigan was the first state in the country to have such a requirement, and is the only state with a research institute dedicated to studying emerging best practices and trends in online education.
 
Nationally, MVU stands out for its research and reporting of online course enrollment, completion, student demographics and other data not tracked in other states, says John Watson, founder and CEO of Evergreen Education Group, a Colorado-based company providing K-12 digital learning market and policy research and advisory services.
 
"Michigan is unusual in terms of the amount of survey work it does," Watson says. "It does a lot with research and helping policymakers understand what's happening across the state."
 
For example, in many states it's hard to find out the number of students taking supplemental online courses. The data doesn't exist, Watson says.
 
Evergreen Education Group provides project management and other support for Virtual School Leadership Alliance, bringing virtual school chiefs together from more than a dozen states and lending its expertise, national research and data analysis to issues like accessibility and equity, interpretation policy and regulations, and other emerging trends. Evergreen also publishes the annual Keeping Pace with Online Learning report.
 
"They have a set of similar issues that they're grappling with and we help them think through those issues," Watson says.
 
MVS continually looks at best practices for online learning and how to improve its course content and virtual instruction, says Butch Gemin, a senior consultant for Evergreen Education Group.
 
"Michigan is a good example of a program that has a lot of quality control measures in place," he says. "MVU uses online course best practices and guidelines from various national nonprofit organizations to ensure online course quality."
 
Besides providing an annual report to the legislature, MVU has a variety of resources available to districts, parents and students that also can be viewed on the website. This includes information on Mentor Fundamentals, the Parent Guide, Student Guide and Michigan's K-12 Effectiveness Report.
The legislative report is designed to be transparent and is shared with Michigan legislators and school superintendents, says Dr. Joe Freidhoff, vice president of MVU. It includes a list of districts served by MVS, a list of online courses offered, course enrollment and completion rate information by course, and the overall completion rate.
 
MVS also tracks the reason the student is taking a MVS course, such as a scheduling conflict or to retake a failed class, and how that correlates to success and completion rates.
 
The Effectiveness Report presents information on all virtual learners including the state's full-time virtual public charter schools operated by third-party companies.
 
Depending on the district, some students strictly access MVS courses online, while others can use the computer lab at school. All participating districts have a mentor teacher available to meet with students who might need help with enrollment, have questions about the course, or need extra support services at home or school.
 
MVS's instructional design staff develops many courses in-house that are tailored to Michigan standards and invests in highly qualified Michigan-certified teachers to teach its online courses.
 
"They are subject matter experts," Freidhoff says. "They provide support and feedback (to students) and they receive significant training from our staff on how to teach and support online students, which is different than a face-to-face environment."
 
MVS has close to 30 courses that have been reviewed and are certified by Quality Matters, an international organization with a faculty-centered, peer review process that is designed to improve and certify the quality of online and blended courses.
 
It's been a great opportunity to evaluate MVS courses and processes against nationally recognized standards and receive feedback on ways to improve.
 
"Since we've created these courses ourselves, it's always nice to have someone else look at your work and review it," Freidhoff says.
 
There are other quality control measures in place, like internal design features that can lock a course so a struggling student can't proceed without intervention and support from the teacher. State virtual schools also have written guidelines for communication with students, which can be tracked and monitored as another level of protection for students and teachers.
 
MVU also introduced innovative online professional development programs and services available to all Michigan K-12 education personnel.
 
"There's a lot of course vetting that happens along the way," Watson says. "The other piece that's important to recognize is a successful online course is a lot more than just the content. It has to do with the teacher. They do really good work with their teachers."
 
Another growing role of MVU is to provide support to local districts as they develop their own online learning programs, including blended models using classroom-based and online resources.
 
MVU's MyBlend program helps schools train teachers, acquire online content, develop online assessments, monitor quality, conduct evaluation and improve infrastructure and technical support services.
 
"I see MVU as one of the outstanding state virtual school programs across the country," Gemin says, noting that MVU goes far beyond providing supplemental courses with its MyBlend, LearnPort, online professional development programs and ongoing research conducted by MVU's Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute.
 
The research institute, created in 2012, is another outgrowth of the ever-changing, ever-expanding online learning landscape. Its purpose is to study, evaluate and accelerate the interrelationship of learning and technology as it relates to policymaking, strategic initiatives and learning outcomes for Michigan students.
 
There are critics of online learning, especially 100 percent virtual schools, but experts in the field agree students do need a certain level of comfort and proficiency with virtual courses if they are going to graduate college and be career ready. It helps develop soft skills like time management, self-pacing, independent learning, and being able to communicate questions and concerns to instructors.
 
"That's really important to a well-rounded quality education in general," Freidhoff says. "So many college courses have online learning management systems, discussion boards, and more students are taking online courses in a university setting because it's much cheaper."
 
Marla R. Miller is an award-winning journalist, veteran education reporter and professional writer based in West Michigan. Connect with her at http://marlarmiller.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/MarlaRMillerwriter.
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