Virtual Schools Blend Real Experiences with Online Learning

California and New Hampshire schools create flexible learning paths for students that revolve around their interests.

by / August 14, 2014 0
Senior Savannah Lane checks on third-grader Zoe Mannara's project during an internship at Brighton Private School in Folsom, Calif. | Photo credit: Jessica Mulholland
EL DORADO, CALIF. — When she was little, Savannah Lane would play teacher with her younger sister. Because she enjoyed teaching from a young age, she wanted to see what it was like to teach at a school.
During her senior year at EDUHSD Virtual Academy, she taught a third-grade class at Brighton Private School in Folsom through an internship that the academy set up. Over four months, Lane spent several days each week at Brighton, where she taught for 45-minute periods. 
On her last day of teaching this year, Lane had students wrap up projects for the book Rules by Cynthia Lord and asked them questions such as, "What was your least favorite part of the book?" 
Zoe Mannara answered that her least favorite part was when one of the characters made bad word cards with another character. "He said 'stupid,' and I did not like that; that is just cold."
These types of hands-on experiences are becoming more common as virtual schools recognize that students need to get out in the real world to learn. Virtual schools are taking a fresh look at how to engage students by mixing learning with student interests and real-world experiences.

The Learning

Self-directed learning and learning by experience are where education needs to go, said Sarah Luchs, K-12 program officer for Next Generation Learning Challenges. This type of learning allows students to solve real-world problems and prepares them for life as they master competencies, which include explicit, measurable and transferable learning objectives, according to CompetencyWorks.

Aaron Palm, director of educational options and innovations, only had to suspend one student at the EDUHSD Virtual Academy this past year because students generally choose to attend the school to pursue their interests. In his previous job at Oakridge High School, he suspended a student a day. | Photo credit: Jessica Mulholland
In the EDUHSD Virtual Academy, students have the flexibility to mix and match online courses with traditional face-to-face classes and internships in fields they're interested in. They can also take classes at Folsom Lake College and other district high schools. 
"We're not just sticking them in clay sculpting because that's what's open," said Aaron Palm, director of educational options and innovations at the dependent charter school in the El Dorado Union High School District. "We're really trying to find out what their passions are." 
With a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant, the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) in New Hampshire is figuring out how to assess students' real-world experiences. By working with advisers, students are creating personalized learning plans that revolve around their interests at New Hampshire's first statewide virtual school for middle and high school students.
These personalized plans allow students to choose how much of their learning to do online and through experiences such as internships, travel, independent learning and opening up a business. Because students own their learning, this approach results in meaningful work.
"We've got to engage them, and one of the best ways to do that is getting out in the world," said Steve Kossakoski, CEO of VLACS.
When they go out into the world, they go deep into a content area and remember what they learn because they're passionate about it, he said. Typically, students have to wait until they enter a doctorate program for this type of experience. But with this program, students can dig deeper in high school.  

The Interests

These types of models help serve students who are interested in different things, but aren't being served by traditional schools, said Greg Young, a school design coach with Big Picture Learning and director of experiential learning at VLACS.
"When you really see how students react to these opportunities and what they can do and what they become, it's very profound, it's very powerful to see," Young said.

Erik Arnold has been riding horses since he was 3 months old, and now he can combine his interest in horses with his education at EDUHSD Virtual Academy. | Photo credit: Jessica Mulholland
Traditional school didn't work for Erik Arnold, but the junior who's been riding quarterhorses since he was 3 months old now has a place where he can work with horses and learn at the same time. He started attending EDUHSD Virtual Academy during his sophomore year, and the flexible schedule and an internship with Cedar Springs Arena are helping him pursue his interests. 
The EDUHSD Virtual Academy students go through a college and career class where they shadow jobs, take a skills inventory and identify their interests. Students do job shadowing and internships in career fields that interest them to see what they like best. 
Students in this class also look at the job growth outlook for 2020 to see which careers could take off and which ones make sense financially. For example, a degree that puts students in $100,000 of debt doesn't make sense for a career field that pays $30,000 a year, said Brenda Vargas, internship coordinator at the EDUHSD Virtual Academy.

The Experience

Every week, Erik spent five hours working with troubled horses, training horses in a round pen and cleaning stalls, among other things. His goal is to eventually open an equine rehab facility for high-end sport horses, and his internship this past spring exposed him to different techniques while working with trainer John.
"He has a totally different way of working with horses and people," Erik said. "He's just really friendly."
Back at Brighton Private School, third-grade teacher Katie Mickela showed Lane how to plan lessons and shared her experiences in different types of schools. This ongoing mentoring relationship allowed Mickela to understand Lane's goals, give her career advice and provide support as she taught in class.
Once her internship was over, Lane demonstrated what she learned at an academy exhibition with other students. In front of the community, students shared their evidence of learning, including products, research papers, presentations and display boards.  
At Folsom Lake College this fall, Lane is pursuing her Associate of Arts degree in liberal studies so she can become an elementary school teacher.
"I wanted to see what it was like, and I love it!"   
Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.