The “Virtual Academy”: Online Learning Goes Mainstream

After witnessing the success of digital learning with its alternative education programs, Berrien Springs officials set out to expand digital learning opportunities to more students in the district. “We decided it was time to take that concept of online learning to the mainstream students,” says Brandon Waggoner, director of the Berrien Springs Virtual Academy.

The district created the Virtual Academy in September 2010. This virtual academy provides middle and high school students in Berrien Springs the same benefits provided to students enrolled in the district’s alternative education programs.

Good teachers are critical. Classrooms may look different, and teachers’ day-to-day duties may change, but the guidance, mentoring and support that good teachers add to digital learning programs are essential.

Waggoner says, “The whole purpose behind the virtual school is to create a place that’s flexible for students to be able to learn in the way that they’re most comfortable. [It] also gives them options beyond what’s available in the traditional high school as well.”

Students use the Virtual Academy in a variety of ways. Some use it so they can fit more courses into their schedule. Others use it to accelerate their learning. Still others use it to take remedial courses. Courses are offered through e2020®, powerspeaK12, Keyboarding Online, Moodle, and Michigan Virtual School®.

The district dedicated a new building to the Virtual Academy. The facility is open from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and is staffed with teachers and paraprofessionals who provide on-site mentoring and assistance. The building is also used for proctoring exams, since the district requires all students to take tests on site, though they can complete their other work remotely.

The results are entirely human.

Bermingham believes building this new facility was crucial for the development of the Virtual Academy: “The concept was if you build it, they will come.” He also highlights that the district paid for the $2.1 million building out of its general operating fund, noting that most districts wouldn’t think of building anything similar without raising local taxes and selling bonds.

In the end, Bermingham says the district “took just the opposite approach.” He views the Virtual Academy as a financial benefit for the district: “[The Academy] is making the district money. It’s allowing us to have offerings right now that develop a contrast between what we have … and our competition around us, and we’re pretty excited about that fact. ... It was part of the solution instead of being part of the potential problem.”

It seems to be working so far. According to district officials, in the 2011-2012 school year, there were 180 students supplementing their traditional classroom coursework with at least one Virtual Academy course, while another 63 took almost all of their courses remotely.

More than half of all enrolled students in the Virtual Academy are residents of districts other than Berrien Springs.