How to make virtual instruction work

The head of Wisconsin Virtual School on what it takes to succeed at online learning

children at school looking at a computer
Children at school (photo by Lucélia Ribeiro, Creative Commons sharealike 2.0)

Dawn Nordine has been the executive director of Wisconsin Virtual School for the last 18 years. If there is one person who has the most hands-on experience in virtual education in Wisconsin, it is probably Nordine.

Dawn Nordine (center) and staff at Wisconsin Virtual School (photo courtesy of WVS)
Dawn Nordine (center) and staff at Wisconsin Virtual School (photo courtesy of WVS)

Wisconsin Virtual School (WVS) is a public-school program of the Cooperative Educational Service Agency in Tomahawk which in turn coordinates with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction through the Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative to offer online instruction to secondary students, and advice and support to public, private and charter schools throughout Wisconsin on virtual education. Schools contract with WVS to provide individual online instruction when the classes students want to take are not offered by their schools or the existing classes at the schools do not fit into the students’ schedule. Last year, nearly 10,000 classes were offered to over 6,000 Wisconsin students.

WVS does not accept every student and only offers online classes to students in sixth grade and above. Students must have a sixth-grade reading level in order to use WVS’s online programs. WVS also screens students and requires that they have adequate supervision from their home school.

WVS has used its experience to help individual schools choose the best commercial virtual instructional computer programs or to develop their own programs. WVS continues to advise schools in preparing their own teachers to provide virtual education on their own. At no cost, WVS will guide a school in setting up its own program. Before the pandemic, WVS was serving over half the school districts in Wisconsin; that number is increasing.

The pandemic hits

When the pandemic first hit in March, WVS’s phones were fairly quiet. Nordine surmises that school districts viewed the shutdown as temporary, and things would get back to normal in short order. 

By early July, the phone calls started to come in. In previous years, the 6,000 students that WVS served would join over time, after the start of the year. Today all the seats are filled before the beginning of the school year. WVS has hired an additional 24 teachers and is interviewing more. Nordine says it’s hard to see how WVS can double or even triple its capacity to serve more students. Yet the demand is there.

WVS was never designed to be a full-time replacement for an entire educational program for students. It was designed to fill in a class here and there for students who were taking most of their classes at their home school. It has taken some students on a full-time basis with the understanding that these students would still be enrolled in their home schools, not WVS. 

Now districts were asking WVS to take 80 or even 100 students full-time because they had no virtual program of their own and had muddled through the spring with a cobbled-together online program. WVS has increased the number of full-time students, but cannot meet the demand.

“We turned the conversation back to districts, asking them ‘What did you do for your kids back in the spring that you could provide for your own kids?’” Nordin says. 

Some school districts were better prepared than others for the shutdown beginning in March, says Nordine. Because of a change in DPI regulations, school districts could apply for online education to count as regular school days or minutes of instructions through a program called Virtual Learning Time (VLT). Schools were planning to use online programs to replace a regular school day in case of snow or other inclement weather. VLT guides a school in setting up a virtual learning experience when a school must be shut down one or more days. Few envisioned being shut down for an extended period of time, but when the pandemic hit, these schools were better prepared. They used their VLT plans to finish out the school year beginning in March. 

At last count, some 66 of the 446 Wisconsin school districts submitted VLT plans before the pandemic. Other school districts had to start from scratch because they had not made plans to plug into this virtual program.

To really do online instruction well, says Nordine, schools need nine months and sometimes as much as  three years to get teachers prepared. But some schools and districts really didn’t begin to prepare themselves until some time in July. Taking only two weeks to develop a program is inadequate, she says. “It’s just not a good situation.”

While schools can contract with vendors to provide prepackaged instructional programs, that means schools will most likely have to provide the teacher educational support on their own.

Navigating virtual elementary education

For younger students, Nordine says virtual education is best handled at the local level, not by a program somewhere else in Wisconsin or even another state.  That is why WVS serves only students in grades 6-12. She says that schools trying to figure out how to support their younger students can look for some ideas from virtual charter, private and public schools that have been providing virtual education to elementary schools for years — some with better results than others. WVS also has K-5 curriculum it can provide to schools for teachers to work with their students.

“A parent just can’t be just checking a box, ‘I want full time virtual,’” she says. “I fear those families are set up not having a good situation.”

Successful online instruction for younger students requires a lot of parent involvement.

“It looks like homeschooling,” Nordine says. “You cannot sit a young child in front of a computer for five or six hours and walk away and do your job… It does not mean the teacher is going to get online at 8 o’clock in the morning and direct a class until 3 o’clock. That is not how it’s going to work.”

If parents can’t sit down and work with their child during the school day, it might mean that some education is going to have to be shifted to the evening. Or, if parents can’t provide their children with educational support, they will need an additional caregiver. This is hard work.

With children with special needs who have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) schools will have to be extremely creative.

The challenges of secondary education

One parent at an Oconomowoc school board meeting was worried that some high school students wouldn’t go online and do virtual curriculum. In fact, she was worried that some students might hang out together without parents around and actually spread the virus more than if they were in school. 

Nordine recommends that school districts follow the monitoring protocols that WVS uses: “In our program we require a coach, mentor, or local education guide. That person is always in the loop on education. Our teachers send out a weekly progress report to the district, to the student, and to the parent or guardian that is in the system. There is no mystery week-by-week if the student is on track, what their current grade is, how many assignments they are ahead or behind in… Sometimes even how many minutes they have spent online.”  Not all the work is being done online. They might be reading a novel or doing a science experiment. 

It is important that parents ask school officials how progress will be monitored and what communication will look like with the family. Parents should not think that while elementary students need guidance and support, secondary students can do it on their own. Parents can’t leave it up to the school. Says Nordine, “The online teacher has only so much control. They can’t sit them down in a chair and say, ‘You have to get this done, now.’”

The one thing Nordine stresses above all else is communication.

“Give your school a chance to come up with a plan,” Nordine says. “Be patient; they’re working as hard as they can to come up with something better than what was working in spring. I truly believe every district’s heart is in that place.” 

But as long as Nordine has worked in the virtual education world, she still remembers her experiences working with students directly as a classroom teacher and school superintendent. Virtual education, she says, will “never, never, never replace being with a teacher.”