Four Ways Online Learning Enhances Our Total Academic Offering

With limited staff and a small student body, Archbishop Williams High School is leveraging The Virtual High School’s online learning platform to prepare pupils for success in college, the workforce, and life.

By Mike Volonnino, PhD

As a small, Catholic high school, we know our limits when it comes to offering a broad array of core and advanced courses to our students. We also understand the value of partnering with strong providers, and it’s something we’ve been doing with the non-profit, The Virtual High School (VHS) since 2000.

At the time, the concept of “blended learning” was just coming to be and schools were just beginning to experiment with the notion of augmenting their existing educational offerings with virtual learning. 

Fast-forward to 2018 and the need to provide a wide array of elective studies and also train students to be independent learners has become imperative for schools like Archbishop Williams High School (AWHS). Serving about 620 students in grades 7-12, we offer the VHS online learning platform to students in grades 10 through 12 who want to experience AP and other college-level courses.

Here are four key ways online learning supports and enhances our school’s total academic offering:

  1. The more we can do to expose students to technology and advanced education in high school, the better. And while some educators may be under the assumption that today’s digital natives will somehow absorb tech skills naturally, getting students to use technology productively in the classroom requires a concentrated effort. Youngsters are good at using iPads (AWHS is a 1:1 iPad school) and tapping buttons, and they have excellent hand-eye coordination when it comes to gaming or using social media. But using technology with a certain level of seriousness — and maintaining focus and attention without distraction — requires a completely separate skill set. Our online learning platform helps us reinforce these skills and get students thinking about learning, working, and functioning in a technology-centric environment.
  1. Provide enhanced learning and training in a low-stakes environment. We’re cultivating a population of self-directed learners who have the discipline it takes to complete the coursework with very little hand-holding. Students set their own pace, take responsibility for their own learning, and then carry those skills right out into the workforce. Using VHS, we can get them up to speed and trained in an environment where the stakes aren’t as high as they would be out in the workforce or in college. The approach works well: all AWHS students who participate in the program graduate on time and go on to attend a college or university. 
  1. Let high-fliers do a little more, or struggling students switch courses out seamlessly. At AWHS, 10th and 11th graders who participate in the virtual schooling are given dedicated time to do so, and use their devices and/or their own laptops in the library during those periods. And if a student has a particularly difficult exam coming up, he can adjust his online work schedule and get in some extra studying instead. Our high-fliers, in particular, like having the flexibility to be able to pace themselves like that. On the other hand, the platform also lets us adapt on the fly to students’ personal learning styles. Last year, for example, a student who was struggling with physics — and who had a deep interest in art — was able to drop the former course and pick up a semester of art history instead. Our students like having that power, and especially as their senior-level workloads begin to pile up. 
  1. Provide a wider, deeper educational core without the need for additional staff. Without the staff needed to cover an expanded catalog of course offerings, we rely on VHS to fill in those gaps and let us offer AP computer science, AP calculus BC, computer programming, and other advanced courses — something we wouldn’t be able to do in-house. We just don’t have the capacity; the online learning platform lets us provide a wider and deeper core offering for students.

As a Catholic high school, one of our biggest pride points is our ability to take care of our students. We work closely with them, follow up with them, and support them through the entire educational process. We don’t just “let them do their own thing” and hope that they succeed; we make it happen. Our virtual learning platform supports this mission by providing good communication and collaboration tools along with the curriculum that pupils need to be able to succeed and excel.

Mike Volonnino, Ph.D., is principal at Archbishop Williams High School (AWHS) in Braintree, Mass. Serving about 620 students in grades 7-12, the Catholic school offers Virtual High School’s online learning platform with 10th, 11th, and 12th graders who want to experience AP and other college-level courses.