During the 2017-18 school year, Michigan Virtual implemented various new initiatives, including collaborative partnerships with Michigan districts, credit recovery courses, and middle school elective course bundles. Throughout the implementation of these three new initiatives, emphasis was placed on understanding the design and impact of the new models. What follows is a report on the three initiatives.
Based on feedback from existing district partners, as well as a desire to better serve customers by continuously improving upon existing products and developing new ones, Michigan Virtual launched three new products and services in the 2017-18 year. Each product or service met a need directly expressed by a partner or filled a known gap in either Michigan Virtual’s offerings or the supplemental K-12 online field overall. Collaborative partnerships allow districts to maintain control over their online learning programs while still maintaining access to the high quality courses and robust and on-going professional development offered by Michigan Virtual. The credit recovery initiative filled a need by offering high quality, teacher-led courses with open-entry and open-exit as needed for students attempting to recover credit from failed or missed courses. Finally, the middle school bundles allow schools to create custom combinations of short-duration courses designed to serve as an introduction to online learning and provide students access to high quality elective content. The three initiatives are presented in detail below, starting with an overview and description of each program, followed by some early outcomes based on the limited roll-out during the 2017-18 year. Each initiative concludes with a discussion of the unique and sometimes unforeseen challenges that arose during development and implementation.
Collaborative Partnerships Initiative
Impetus for Collaborative Partnerships
As part of last year’s strategic planning process, Michigan Virtual sought input from educational stakeholders across the state, specifically school and district leaders. These leaders overwhelmingly identified budgetary constraints as a major challenge associated with students’ increasing demand for online learning. Out of this challenge and others associated with staffing, scheduling, and providing professional development to teachers, Michigan Virtual developed the Collaborative Partnerships Model. In this model, Michigan Virtual provides the course content and hosts the course in its Blackboard Learning Management System (LMS) while the district provides the certified Michigan teacher.
Building Capacity & Solving District Challenges with Collaborative Partnerships
The collaborative partnerships model builds capacity of local district teachers to teach Michigan Virtual courses to local students, while solving many of the challenges expressed by educational stakeholders. Specifically, these partnerships provide more learning options and flexibility for students while providing an opportunity for local school district teachers to not only learn how to teach online but also to build their skill set to be district leaders championing this effort. The first step in the collaborative partnership is to work with the partner (school, district, ISD) to ensure that teachers chosen by the partner are screened using criteria demonstrated to be advantageous for teaching online. This process was developed and put in place to guide collaborative partners in their decision making regarding what teachers to assign to the online courses.
Collaborative partners provide a web-link to all prospective teachers they would like to have participate in the Collaborative. In some instances, this is open to all teachers, and for others, the partner selects specific individuals. With the link, the local teacher has access to the Michigan Virtual Frontline system to apply for an online teaching opportunity through the Collaborative. With this application, candidates complete the HumanEx tool, which is a research-based tool found to be very accurate in predicting a teacher’s capacity to be flexible and apply the skills needed to work well in an online environment. Once the application is submitted, an HR representative schedules a follow-up interview with a HumanEx screener. The follow-up interview is a series of research-based oral questions with clearly defined responses; the representative conducting the screening is looking for matches with the desirable responses. This provides further evidence of a teacher’s likelihood of being successful as a teacher in an online environment.
Information for all applicants garnered from the HumanEx screener and oral interview are provided to the collaborative partner. Currently, determining who teaches the courses as part of the collaborative partnership is the exclusive decision of the partner. However, as the program expands and evolves, all parties would be better served to only consider those teachers who have demonstrated successful outcomes per the HumanEx screener and oral interview.
Training Teachers in Collaborative Partner Districts
Once selected, instructors are provided an initial training in the systems that Michigan Virtual uses to facilitate online courses. This training, thus far, has consisted of a day-long face-to-face training in which the collaborative partnership coordinator and Michigan Virtual coaches meet onsite to train the teachers. The teachers are trained in the use of Blackboard and the Student Learning Portal, as well as introduced to strategies for effective online teaching (further explored in the follow-up virtual Onboarding course). Full-time Michigan Virtual teachers facilitate the face-to-face training and discuss best practices for online teaching.
Collaborative teachers must meet the same standards of effective online teaching as Michigan Virtual instructors and are enrolled in the Michigan Virtual Instructor Onboarding course in the Blackboard LMS. The Instructor Onboarding course consists of ten online modules that introduce the new online teacher to essential elements of successful online instruction, including online organization, tools in a teacher’s toolkit, communication, engaging students, meeting learners’ needs, Michigan Virtual policies, creating learning environments in an online classroom, and connecting with students and colleagues. The course requires the new teacher to develop and submit practical materials for their courses, such as student welcome letters, course announcements, and supplemental learning resources. The course is facilitated by Michigan Virtual administrators and coaches and is approved for 21 SCECH credits. Prospective teachers must achieve a score of 90% in the course.
Following successful completion of the course, collaborative teachers are paired with coaches who are veteran Michigan Virtual teachers. Coaches provide monthly newsletters with timely tips, strategies, and tools for teaching successfully online. Coaches are available to meet with Collaborative teachers on an on-going basis to provide additional assistance or guidance as needed. Once Collaborative teachers complete the Michigan Virtual Instructor Onboarding course, further training opportunities are provided by Michigan Virtual department leads and coaches via live webinars. The webinars are “just in time” professional development sessions offered one to three times a month.
Michigan Virtual holds events to continue supporting the Collaborative teachers. For example, at St. Clair County RESA, Michigan Virtual coaches, administrators, and teachers met for the ELEVATE conference, a day of professional development which included interactive sessions. Sessions focused on Relationship Building through Effective Feedback, Performing Classroom Walkthroughs, Engaging Students in the Online Classroom, Virtual Video Conferencing in the Online Classroom, and Blackboard Basics. The ELEVATE conference also provided sessions where Collaborative teachers, mentors, and coaches could work together and learn from each other. In coming years, as the Collaborative Partnerships Model grows, Collaborative teachers will also be invited to attend Michigan Virtual’s Collaboration of the Minds annual professional development conference.
As new Collaborative teachers come onboard with their respective district, continual training takes place, as does ongoing training throughout the year based on the district’s needs, which as is discussed below, vary considerably from district to district.
Collaborative Partnerships: Offering Solutions and Future Directions
Adapting the Collaborative Partnership Model to meet the unique needs of each district has emerged as a significant challenge. Districts have had varying motivation for entering the partnership and vastly different implementations. Simply speaking, the end goal is increasing the ability of local teachers to teach Michigan Virtual courses; however, local policies, programs, and processes require different strategies for achieving that goal. For instance, Gull Lake School District was interested in re-engaging the large number of homeschool students in their district. Through the collaborative partnership and offering high quality online courses, Gull Lake now has over 1,000 homeschool enrollments in their online courses.
A second partner district, Unionville-Sebewaing, was interested in partnering with other small rural districts in their area to offer elective courses not previously possible for a single district to offer financially due to low overall enrollment numbers. These electives are now available to students in similarly-sized districts that would not otherwise have had access to the courses.
Port Huron and St. Clair Shores were interested in allowing greater flexibility for their students and providing opportunities for students to participate in jobs, internships, sports, and other activities. Additionally, these districts had concerns over an online charter school that had recently begun enrolling students from local districts. Through the Collaborative Partnerships Model, the district was able to compete directly with the online charter while also offering increased opportunities for their students.
Finally, Lake Shore Public Schools wanted to provide online learning opportunities to students in preparation for college and beyond. By having a trained Collaborative instructor in the building, they were able to offer online courses and also provide face-to-face support for students struggling in the new educational environment. Additionally, the Collaborative instructor allowed for more flexibility in learning, offering students options between fully online and blended.
To date, there are three single-district and one multi-district model, so growth is happening, albeit slowly and deliberately, given the unique needs of the collaborative partners. An administrator joined the Michigan Virtual team in the summer of 2018 to understand district needs and to facilitate partnerships for the 2019-20 school year and beyond.
Credit Recovery Initiative
Background on Michigan Virtual Credit Recovery
Michigan Virtual has offered a full suite of high school courses to help students fulfill Michigan’s core high school graduation requirements for a long time. Historically, the vast majority of students and schools enrolling in these online courses do so for reasons such as personal preference or scheduling. A small minority of students enroll in the traditional, full-length, teacher-facilitated online courses for credit recovery reasons; and, on average, these students have lower completion rates when compared with other students. Furthermore, typical online credit recovery programs rarely combine features such as diagnostic testing with the support and facilitation of certified and content-area endorsed teachers. For these reasons, Michigan Virtual chose to offer a unique credit recovery program that combined both of these features, along with additional wrap-around supports for students struggling academically.
Overview of Current Michigan Virtual School Credit Recovery Programming
Michigan Virtual’s Essentials program for credit recovery was designed around six specific tenets: Diagnostic Testing, Mentor Training and Support, Evidence-based Instructional Models, Flexibility and Personalization, Highly Qualified Michigan Virtual Instructors, and Comprehensive Coverage of Michigan High School Graduation Requirements. Each is briefly described below.
Diagnostic Testing. Michigan Virtual’s Essentials courses only report student scores on end-of-unit level assessments. Diagnostic assessments at the start of the lesson give students the opportunity to advance immediately to the next unit. If a sufficient threshold is not obtained, students must complete lesson assignments and an end-of-unit assessment.
Mentor Training & Support. Students enrolled in Essentials courses are also assigned a mentor – either a staff member employed by a local school district or the student’s parent or guardian if the student is enrolled in a homeschool environment. Upon enrollment, mentors receive an invitation to enroll in a no-cost online course focused on mentoring students in Essentials courses via Michigan Virtual’s Professional Learning Portal. An Outreach Coordinator employed by Michigan Virtual provides an additional layer of support to mentors.
Evidence-based Instructional Models. Michigan Virtual partnered with a vendor to supply the Essentials course content based on a multi-faceted review. In addition to the course content, Michigan Virtual contracted with the vendor to (a) develop and supply practice tests for each unit in math and science courses; (b) provide personalized study paths in math skills aligned to elementary and middle school grade-level standards to address prerequisite gaps in math learning; (c) develop a goal-setting framework for students; and (d) provide multiple attempts to demonstrate mastery of assessed standards in each unit.
Flexibility and Personalization. Michigan Virtual decided to offer a single school year long term of Essentials corresponding with typical school calendars that run from August through June and open entry opportunities for enrollment through the end of March, permitting students to enter an Essentials course as needed. An additional summer term to meet summer school needs ran from June through early August.
Highly Qualified, Michigan Virtual Instructors. All instructors assigned to teach credit recovery Essentials courses hold active teaching certifications issued by the Michigan Department of Education and are endorsed in the grade level and subject area pertaining to the Essentials course title. Instructors are tasked with providing regular communication and guidance to enrolled students, monitoring student progress, grading student work, and communicating with mentors.
Comprehensive Coverage of Michigan High School Graduation Requirements. A total of 27 Essentials courses pertaining to Michigan’s high school graduation requirements were adopted, representing four years of coursework in English Language Arts, four years of coursework in mathematics, three years of coursework in science, and two and half years of coursework in social studies.
Outcomes of Credit Recovery Enrollments
Several themes were identified as noteworthy for future years of implementation. One of the most significant pieces to emerge was recognizing local school mentor support as potentially one of the most important factors influencing student completion in Essentials courses. The degree that the mentor (a) felt comfortable with the course content and features, (b) ensured that students began by completing initial orientation activities, (c) actively monitored student progress (d) assisted in troubleshooting technology issues, and (e) stayed in communication with Michigan Virtual’s instructors and Outreach Coordinator seemed to play a large part in the success of students enrolled in Essentials courses.
Mentor training and participation in outreach and training events seemed to also be very important; however, it certainly wasn’t the only aspect influencing student success in the credit recovery course. The second highest pass-rate was for students with a mentor who did not complete the training or participate in outreach events; therefore, the team at Michigan Virtual explored other factors that may have contributed to student outcomes. Course length seemed to have an impact on student success; specifically, courses with three or fewer units generally had better overall pass rates than courses with four or more units. This was not altogether surprising given that Michigan Virtual received feedback from both instructors and mentors that the courses were very challenging, requiring levels of coursework that was perceived as more rigorous than in Michigan Virtual’s PLUS courses or in face-to-face classrooms. Specifically, the mathematics courses were perceived as too long, and the mathematics required in the science courses were frequently above what students were capable of completing successfully.
Additionally, it seemed that physical location where students completed their online Essentials courses had an impact on their course outcomes. Students who completed their online course work in a face-to-face lab, completely or in conjunction with some remote work, were more successful on average than students who completed their online course entirely remotely. This is in line with other best-practices for online learning, which has suggested a dedicated lab space for students to complete their online course work.
Challenges in Implementing Michigan Virtual’s Essentials Program and Future Directions
Michigan Virtual ran two pilots in the early stages of development of the Essentials program. The first pilot included a single high school. While the certified teacher was present in the course, the pilot lacked many of the wrap-around services described above and struggled with low overall completion rates, frequent changes in local personnel assigned to the mentor role, and lack of training in the components of the Essentials program. This pilot was valuable, however, in pointing Michigan Virtual toward the need to develop many of the wrap-around services.
The second pilot involved four high schools. Several of these changes and wrap-around services were deployed, and the scope and frequency of ongoing communication between mentors and Michigan Virtual’s Outreach Coordinator were increased. The overall passing rate in this second pilot exceeded our organizational targets as well as the statewide average completion rate for students in online courses during the prior year.
As the Essentials program continues to evolve, several considerations remain, including (1) the impact of operating a single open-entry term in which students may have had anywhere from ten to 42 weeks to complete their courses; (2) other local environmental factors that have an impact on student success; and (3) re-evaluation of the adequacy of the vendor course content in particular subject areas.
Middle School Bundles Initiative
Meeting the Unique Needs of Middle Schools
Opportunities to enroll in online courses at the high school level are well established and steadily increasing year after year. Middle schools, however, often find it difficult to fit standard, semester-length electives into their unique 6-, 9-, or 12-week exploratory rotational model of non-core offerings. Prior to implementing Middle School Bundles, Michigan Virtual offered only semester-length courses at the middle grades level in core subject areas of English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, and World Languages, and only a single non-core course in Leadership Skills Development. Overall enrollments in these courses was low, compared to high school enrollments, and was stable, with little growth year over year. Michigan Virtual’s Middle School Bundles were designed to meet the unique need at the middle grades level by providing an introduction to online learning through short, focused, and engaging segments related to a wide variety of topics that generally are not covered in a school’s core curriculum.
Overview of Current Michigan Virtual School Middle School Bundles
Michigan Virtual located and partnered with a third-party vendor to provide content and a platform upon which to host curated bundles of short courses. Courses were selected within four themes: (a) Digital Literacy and Computer Programming, (b) Literacy Skills and Literature (including both a standard and “honors” track), (c) Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS), and (d) Skills for Successful Living. Each theme contains a menu of 15 to 25 short course options from which schools select a customized bundle to create full-length course offerings. Pre-selected bundles were also created in 6-, 9-, 12-, and 18-week formats to aid ease of use for schools. Enrollment numbers in the first year were low likely due to lack of awareness of the product and its novelty. Digital Literacy and Computer Programming ran both fall 2017 and spring 2018 with 28 enrollments per semester for a combined 56 enrollments. PBIS ran during fall 2017 with 24 enrollments and spring 2018 with only one enrollment. Pass rates were determined by local districts based on student completion of specific models assigned by the districts.
Challenges in Middle School Bundles and Next Steps
The Middle School Bundles were first offered for the 2017-18 school year. The Digital Literacy and Programming and Positive Behavior Interventions and Support themes were most popular with schools. Three customized bundles were developed in partnership with local school districts in the 2017-18 school year. Enrollments are expected to increase for the 2018-19 school year as schools become aware of the opportunity and have more time to plan and arrange the bundles into their school’s schedule. As enrollments increase so will feedback regarding the initiative, which will help to guide the program’s continued improvement in future years.
While there were certainly challenges associated with each of the initiatives, and, in some cases, limited success, the first year of implementation provided valuable information to the Michigan Virtual team that allows for refinement of each of the models moving into the 2018-19 year. The Collaborative Partnerships Model is growing, albeit slowly, to fully support the needs of existing and new partner districts; the credit recovery initiative showed encouraging results and identified practical paths to improvement through the pilot process; and middle school bundles, while small in scale, were well received. Michigan Virtual will build on feedback from customers to offer solutions to meet school’s needs.