Across The Digital Distance: The Virtual School

(graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer)

(graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer)

When I was a teenager, I used to dream of a future where I didn’t have to actually GO to school.

I think all teenagers go through that feeling at one point or another.  I remember lying under the warm covers, cursing the fact that I couldn’t just walk into a holodeck in my house and start my work day from there.  How cool would that be?  A digital environment from the comfort of your own home that allows you to do all your schoolwork in your pajamas.

Ah, but for as ambitious as my holodeck dreams where, the idea of an online school was a fantasy back in those days.  Unbeknownst to me, there were already big plans in the works that could change the way students live and learn.

Plans that, I’m excited to announce, are finally coming true.

Patricia Riley is the Chief for the Distance Learning and Virtual School Program at DoDEA headquarters.  Yes, you read that right.  A virtual school.  A totally digital scholastic experience for the leaders of the future.

I sat down with Patricia to get the real scoop on this online (futuristic?) school.

Tell me a little about the Virtual School.

“The Virtual School was established to provide flexibility so that students could attend school in a different sense of time and spaceThe DoDEA Virtual School was specifically stood up to address transition needs of our military-dependent students and to ensure that they can — that our DoDEA students can meet their graduation requirements.”

Is it like a virtual classroom or is it individual like in college?

“In some ways it’s similar to the college experience in that there is a virtual classroom.  The courses are held in what’s called the Learning Management System, and, in fact, we use a Learning Management System that is often used in the higher education setting.”

See?  Look how happy and glowy these people are!  It HAS to be cool!  (grpahic illustration provided by DoDEA Virtual High School website)

See? Look how happy and glowy these people are! It HAS to be cool! (graphic illustration provided by DoDEA Virtual High School website)

“We want our students to have a scheduled time so that they learn to manage their time.  They do participate in their classes from school.  The ideal of this is that they can do their homework.  They can access their course work anywhere that they have access to the Internet.   Also most of the classes don’t need a textbook because all of their content is online.”

It’s sort of like a 21st century solution to the international lifestyle of military kids.

“I think you could look at it that way.  It is particularly aimed to meet the needs of our military dependent students because they do tend to travel more.  Many of our students in DoDEA are in foreign countries.  It helps to transcend those distances.  I think the real value is it helps them to be able to meet the curriculum and instruction requirements that serve as standards or benchmarks for their education”

What is the goal or mission of the Virtual School?

“Okay, there are actually two goals for this.  Most virtual school entities are often classified as what they call a supplemental, or an institution designed to meet supplemental needs.  You may have one that is designed as a comprehensive high school.  That means that they have the means and meet the requirements to be diploma-granting.”

We actually do both.  For the vast majority of our students who are located in our DoDEA schools we’re secondary, so very often we even have middle school students who are taking high school courses for credit.  That could be in a foreign language or in a mathematics course.  These students may be enrolled in one of our DoDEA brick and mortar schools somewhere in the world, but they take a course through the Virtual School to supplement the course work.”

This is no alternative high school environment.  This is the real deal, folks.

“Our courses meet all of the curriculum standards and the expectations of our brick and mortar schools.  These are not watered-down courses.  These are not credit-recovery courses.  They are held to the same level of accountability as the student sitting in each and every one of our classrooms throughout the world.”

“It’s not a backup school, it is a legitimate, 100 percent high school experience education opportunity.”

What is it about the virtual school that makes it so significant?

“Well, I think the thing that students and teachers enjoy about it is the flexibility that it provides.  Many of our students now are digital natives and so they’re comfortable communicating using these technologies.  They are less apprehensive about asking questions or interacting with their teacher.”

“I think the other thing that’s very important is that it’s designed to fill gaps.  For instance, for some of our advanced placement courses, foreign language courses, or even very specialized courses like a computer programming course, a student may not have the opportunity to enroll in that course at their local school.  They’re looking for things to round out their high school experience.  They can do that using the DoDEA Virtual High School.”

How does this Virtual School benefit military families?

“I think the greatest way that it helps to benefit the military families is it fills the gaps.  Very often what happens for military students is it’s difficult to match up their courses, and to be sure that they’re meeting all the requirements in order to earn a diploma.  Sometimes – either through our full-year program or our summer program – they will have that opportunity to catch up, so to speak, or to fill those gaps.”

They also provide flexibility for the children of wounded warriors.

“We could have a student whose parent may be a wounded warrior that’s recovering, or in other types of situations.  The advantage of our program over others is the fact that our teachers are trained.  They’re experienced.  They understand the challenges of being a military-dependent student.  We work very hard with our families and with our students to ensure that they’re getting a quality educational experience.”

What do you think is the most beneficial thing about the virtual school?

“We’re beginning to use our online courses to help us to address blended learning needs in the traditional classroom.  [We want] to be able to take that curriculum and to provide it throughout our system so that we have a comprehensive approach.  It also helps us to leverage resources within our system.  We’ve just recently added four new math courses to our DoDEA curriculum.  It’s going to take a while for us to ramp up at all of our schools to be able to teach those courses worldwide, but we can use the Virtual School as sort of a repository, or a centralized means of being able to distribute those resources.”

Are there any other projects in the works right now?

“Well, it’s a big plate.  We’ve got the Virtual High School launched, and we continue to engage in projects for middle and upper elementary.  This past year we’ve been working on some foreign language initiatives.  [We’re] looking at how we can support them in our Spanish program, in a blended learning approach.  We’re also looking at what would make sense in terms of digital or virtual applications for middle school students.”

Sounds like a solid plan.  I only have one question about all of this: how does one perform digital detention?  Inquiring minds…

Want to know more about the virtual school online learning program?  Click here!

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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