5 Tips for Adding Online Courses to Your School’s Academic Offerings

Thinking about an online learning initiative at your school? Follow these five steps to success!

By Jim Dachos

Online learning provides schools with powerful ways to expand their presence and maximize financial and instructional resources. Using blended classrooms, rotation models, personalization within single classroom periods, flipped classrooms, and hybrid approaches combining two or more of these models, schools are leveraging online courses to individualize the learning experience, enhance face-to-face curriculum, and provide alternative learning options for all students.

These discoveries are based on more than twenty years of experience collaborating with schools throughout their investigation, planning, and implementation of online and blended learning alternatives. Here are five tips your school can use to create an online learning program that exceeds your expectations:

  • Gauge your teachers’ and students’ appetite for online learning. Determine whether your school is ready for online learning by talking to instructors, curriculum directors, students, and parents about the opportunities available to them by expanding student access to online and blended curriculum. Are teachers and students aware of the benefits of online/blended learning and do they have an appetite to learn more? Who has the desire to move forward? And, will your community support this effort? The answers to these questions will help set the foundation for a successful online learning initiative.
  • Identify curriculum gaps and use online learning to fill them. If you are interested in integrated blended learning into your school’s curriculum, start by investigating technology access at school. Does your school have the necessary infrastructure? Next, find online courses and instructional methodologies that enhance your school’s course offerings and meet your learning objectives for all students. For example, if your high schools are unable to offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses for high achieving students due to limited teaching resources, an online learning platform like The Virtual High School (VHS) can fill gaps by giving your school and students access to AP courses taught by qualified teachers. As you begin to implement an online learning initiative, work with school leaders and curriculum directors to identify online providers that will supplement your school’s offerings and help your school meet essential learning objectives. Paramus Catholic High School in Newark, NJ, has been using online courses for six years and nearly 130 Paramus students have taken VHS online courses, including Geometry, AP Calculus, AP Environmental Science, AP Music, AP Government & Politics, Biotechnology, Genes and Disease, and more. “VHS expands our course offerings and fits nicely with our curriculum,” says Dr. James Vail, the school’s former president, “and students can take classes that we couldn’t offer previously.”
  • Develop a program that augments (and doesn’t replace) face-to-face teaching. Integrating blended learning can improve the richness of face-to-face teaching and help keep students engaged in learning. E-learning can increase course access, provide more learning flexibility, enhance a school’s competitiveness, and attract/retain students. Online learning can also help a school better utilize its in-house resources while expanding its catalog of courses. Online programs can also give students the opportunity to explore potential career paths with unique elective offerings. Saints Peter and Paul in Delaware uses VHS to augment its existing curriculum. “Instead of saying ‘We do not offer that class,’ we can say, ‘We offer that class online,’” says Nancy Crowley, Technology Integration Specialist. “VHS fits into our plan to continue to meet and exceed the needs of our students, and it has a comprehensive program that gives students the opportunity to explore content areas of interest.”
  • Maximize virtual learning’s unique qualities. Blended and online learning when done well can provide flexibility in scheduling and pacing, and increased student collaboration. Students can learn at the time, place, and pace that is best for them, introverted students are more comfortable interacting with teachers and peers within a safe and supportive online classroom environment, and students can work ahead or go back over areas where they need additional assistance or reflection. For best results, consider your school’s resources and determine whether students will have the space and the time to complete assignments during the school day, and/or whether they will complete online work outside their school day.  Providing a designated time during the student’s academic schedule and a place for the students to work is often the best approach as it helps students with time management. Online learning taken in-school, with on-site mentors to provide local oversight, provides both flexibility and the structure that students need to be successful. 
  • Strive for a collaborative course delivery model. VHS’ paced asynchronous cohort-based methodology allows students to interact with curriculum and learn with and from each other and their course instructor. The online teacher engages, assesses, and supports students virtually. Students pace themselves within established lessons and activities guidelines, and can complete course work at school, at home, or both. Teachers and students take part in collaborative and robust class discussions and lessons, all within small classroom cohorts. Students log into their online course at a time that works for them to complete their weekly assignments; check in regularly and privately with their teacher and school-based point-person to ensure they are making progress and fully understanding the course materials and objectives; and interact with their online peers in class discussion boards and collaborative projects. 

As you formulate your online learning approach, be sure to factor these five considerations into planning your initiative. Online programs can be either comprehensive or supplementary to a student’s education, and they can be delivered in multiple ways. Be sure to include all stakeholders in the early decision-making process, consider your school’s current resources, and talk to institutions that already have established online/blended learning programs. By completing these essential steps upfront, you’ll see a much better outcome while also developing a more engaged, excited, and enthused student body.

Jim Dachos is Vice President of Educational Partnerships for the Massachusetts-based non-profit education organization, The Virtual High School (VHS, Inc.), and is a member of the National Catholic Education Association’s (NCEA) Advisory Council.

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