Michigan leads in quality, innovative, multifaceted approach to online education

Julia Dean is a student at Metro Detroit’s Brighton High School. She’s also a competitive golfer who travels extensively throughout the school year. 

Instead of sitting in class alongside her fellow seniors, Dean does her school coursework online, completing accredited courses delivered by certified Michigan teachers and fully supported by her mentor and school administrator. Currently, she studies film, journalism, personal finance and the math of baseball, and has taken classes online since eighth grade.

“Online classes have had such a huge impact on my golf success,” Dean says. “It allows me to travel to tournaments year round, live in Florida in the winter and practice as long as I want each day. If I didn't have online classes available to me, I would not be where I am today with golf.” 

Meeting the needs of many students

Jennifer SimsDean’s experience is just one example. Students choose online education for as many reasons as there are students, says Jennifer Sims, senior vice president in the northern region of K12, Inc., an online public school option in Michigan. 

“The student might have specific academic needs best met in an online learning environment, or it may be in response to social or emotional factors,” Sims explains. “Many times the move to online courses is to deal with an issue very unique to a student’s needs or learning style at a particular moment in time.”

Michigan homeschoolers, competitive athletes, working actors and students seeking diverse academic subjects, all take advantage of Michigan’s progressive approach to online education, which serves to supplement and provide alternatives to brick-and-mortar experiences for students.

Structured and supported

As the first state to pass an online learning requirement for high school graduation, Michigan has a fully developed, carefully considered, multi-layered approach. The Michigan Merit Curriculum now requires at least one online course or online learning experience for each student.

“There is a whole policy developed around it, and Michigan is a pioneer in that,” says Bruce Friend, chief operating officer for Virginia-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL. “Maybe five or six states require it, but that doesn’t mean districts haven’t enacted this on a local level, too.”

As early as 1998, the State of Michigan predicted the future of education and established Michigan Virtual University, which launched Michigan Virtual School to provide online course enrollments public to schools. The nonprofit organization also provides professional development support for districts setting up online learning, a statewide catalog of all available courses offered by all providers, plus educational standards updates, support for blended learning classrooms and a research arm that studies effectiveness, informs future policies and establishes best practices. 

Rigor, not online games

“To know the value of online education is to understand what it is,” says Thomas Soria, central region representative at MVU. “Quality online courses are not do-it-yourself, teacher-less canned video, nor are they Netflix-style on-demand content.”

“Students learn at their own pace, and there are pacing guides to help them plan,” he says. “All content is developed and taught by highly-qualified, Michigan certified teachers.” 

Through its iEducator program, MVU actively hires recently graduated teachers to provide them with additional skills specific to leading an online course.

“They can then go into the work environment with great credentials in technology-based instruction. They can create a blended learning classroom or work for MVU as a full-time teacher,” says Soria.Thomas Soria

Teachers are the critical influencers

“Quality educational practices initiated by individual teachers remain the foundation of online learning,” says John Watson, CEO of Colorado-based Evergreen Education Group, a private consulting and advisory firm. “Making sure you are hiring the right teachers and that they are well supported is another hallmark of a successful program,” he says. 

“Because of the instructional design, online students find that they have even more direct teacher contact than their face-to-face peers,” Watson says. 

Instructional design means that online courses engage students in active learning with content based on student needs. According to iNACOL, instructional design for online courses provides ample opportunities for communication from student to student, student to instructor and instructor to student.

“Programs we see as being successful are invariably the ones that support a high level of touch between teacher and student,” Watson says. “That is true whether it is fully online, with communication over the internet, or a school with an online component. Face-to-face is not necessary, but what is necessary is communication — and that could be happening online.” 

An additional, critical layer of mentor support is built right into the experience, helping to engage and keep each student on task. While individual districts apply the mentor role in a unique way, students are closely monitored and are responsible for frequent connection with their mentors.

Innovation from every angle

According to a report published by MVU, blended learning provides student control over the pace of learning and now accounts for more than half of all course enrollment by 2019. Michigan is poised to meet this need through a variety of innovative solutions. 

MVU’s blended learning team provides professional development, content and consulting services to schools in Michigan and beyond, helping teachers incorporate blended learning into their own classrooms.
Elementary and middle schools in the Detroit area have also taken advantage of consulting agencies. Matchbook Learning provides individualized learning to students working at vastly different levels, even within the same grade. The educational organization uses Spark, a real-time assessment tool that aggregates educational tools to provide individualized start points and student-driven pathways, assessments and small group, teacher-led skills conferencing.

“Students gain insight on how they learn,” says Sajan George, CEO of Matchbook Learning. “They can choose from 10 ways to learn how to add fractions, then they articulate what to do next.” 

Teachers know, in real time, where every student is in the learning process and can see progression over time, allowing them to optimize their time and direct it appropriately.

The critical importance of understanding how to learn online

While it’s not always entirely appropriate to expect every student to initiate their own learning, some schools across the country are taking steps to help students understand their own responsibility in their education. 

“We have seen a number of high performing schools move toward using online learning, blended learning and other forms of technology, in part because they recognize the extent that students need the skills for college,” says Watson. “Students are learning to take more control over their time, and learn the responsibility of reaching out to a teacher at the appropriate time.”

In many ways, online learning requires even more student investment than traditional learning. Students who coast by showing up and paying attention in brick-and-mortar classrooms learn they have to work harder and more actively to succeed with online work. 

“If you are a passive learner in an online learning environment, you will sink right away,” says Friend. “In order to be successful, you have to take action to complete assessments on time and reach out to the teacher when needed. We also have to educate parents about how they can help their children be successful.”

Competency-based education is truly individualized

In an effort to address those issues, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, is aims to make Michigan a top education state in the next ten years.  

“ESSA is creating new opportunities for districts, schools and states to get involved in developing new measures, and from a pedagogic and tech perspective, accountability should be based on how individual students are doing, rather than groups of students,” says Watson. “There is tremendous opportunity there.” 

Friend agrees, saying, “Online and blended learning can be a great catalyst of competency-based learning models by moving away from the idea that you have to be here for 36 weeks even if you only need 20 weeks. Students can work at a pace and a rate that is appropriate for them. We should be trying to move away from the model that says the day of the year determines where you are in your understanding.”

Michigan’s forward-looking approach to online and blended education for all of its students means that what some consider to be “tomorrow’s technology” is in place today, and students are benefitting from it right now.

“Districts will say, ‘yes, this is where education is going in the future.’ But that’s not the case. It’s happening right now,” says Soria. “Each must decide as a school or as a district where they want to be in that space. Students will get these experiences in college or right in the workplace. It is where we are today.”

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