In the ‘Virtual’ Vanguard

The critical addition has been digital learning, and central to that was the Oxford Virtual Academy, which uses student-paced instruction that is accessible online, anywhere, anytime. Students can choose from a wide variety of course providers, including e2020, Aventa Learning, PowerSpeak, Lincoln Interactive and K12 Inc. Altogether, the OVA provides more than 180 different courses for first- through 12th-graders.[6]

The range of the OVA’s offerings is reflected in the variety of students signing up for classes. About 400 students took at least one OVA course in 2011-2012, with 300 of them enrolling from another district or through the district’s homeschool partnership.

Some of these students are seeking credit recovery — that is, a chance to pass a class they’d failed to complete earlier. Others are taking advantage of the scheduling flexibility offered by online classes. Yet others are pursuing upper-level coursework, such as an Advanced Placement course not offered in the district’s traditional classrooms. Some students are pursuing the OVA’s unique elective offerings, such as art history, solar technologies, Java programming and introduction to screenwriting.

The OVA’s technology may involve wires, boxes and circuits, but the results are entirely human. One student writes that the OVA gave her a “new outlook on my future.” She had dropped out of school three times, but she eventually found the OVA and finished two-and-a-half-years’ worth of course work in just one year. She’ll be able to graduate on time.

Another student shares a similar story: She was behind her peers and had enrolled in an “alternative school” before trying the OVA. She was able to catch up and move slightly ahead of her peers in just one year.

A visiting parent explains that she enrolled her son in the OVA over the summer so he could catch up on some of the material he struggled with during the school year. Her son appreciated it, because it meant staying current on his school work without having to sacrifice one of his summertime passions: baseball, with its out-of-town tournaments.

Janet Schell, a teacher at the OVA, says she has witnessed several success stories first-hand. She adds that she enjoys the variety of tools she can use to facilitate student learning in an online setting. “What I’m finding is kids thrive in an environment where we have lots of ways of learning,” she says. 

Schell seems to thrive in it, too. She says she appreciates the personal interaction she can maintain with each student, whether she’s emailing them, Skyping them or leaning over their shoulders to help them solve a problem on the computer.[7]

The OVA’s courses and Schell’s work there reflect the diversity of digital learning programs now available. Depending on the type of course, instruction is provided either through Internet-based software or through teachers’ lectures, live or recorded, streamed via the Internet from remote locations. On-site instructors like Schell often help facilitate that digital instruction through tutoring or personal supervision, though some of the digital instruction may be “full-time online,” requiring little to no face-to-face interaction. Ultimately, the educational model and degree of on-site teacher involvement is chosen by the students and their parents when they select among the courses the OVA offers.

In addition to the OVA, Oxford has received state approval to launch a virtual Early College Program specifically for accelerated learners. These students can take online courses through Lawrence Technological University, Rochester College or Oakland Community College, and they can earn college credits up to an associate degree by the end of high school.

Similarly, beginning in the sixth grade, students can start accumulating credits, some of which are earned in online courses, toward a high school diploma. This approach, like the OVA, helps customize instruction to an individual student’s needs and learning pace.

Interestingly, Oxford’s teacher professional development program is also going digital; Skilling says that just like students, teachers want the benefits of digital instruction. In response, the district created the CatsCast Educator Academy & Repository. This teacher professional development program uses an online, digital curriculum that is self-paced and available for teachers to access anytime, anywhere.

Good teachers - click to enlarge