An early pioneer in the virtual high school movement, Prince William County Schools’ (PWCS) Virtual High School (VHS) began with just three courses and one teacher. The program offers 22 courses and has enrollments of 760 students, giving even more individual learners the opportunity to achieve their educational goals, graduate on time, and gain invaluable experience with 21st century technologies.
A Learning Experience that Never Stops
To address the surge in demand for online courses delivered through VHS@PWCS, respond to overcrowding challenges, and ensure students comply with new state regulations for a compulsory online course credit, PWCS has initiated a blended learning expansion to share VHS@PWCS content with teachers in traditional classrooms across the division. This has not only alleviated stress on the system itself, but also enabled students by improving access to the courses they need to successfully graduate. The Brightspace platform and content authoring solution SoftChalk Cloud form the backbone that has facilitated this expansion.
Gina Jones, Administrative Coordinator at VHS@PWCS explains that the program is indispensable to students who, for a variety of reasons, may need more flexibility to acquire the necessary courses to graduate. “Given our proximity to Washington D.C., many of our families are in the military and often face relocation. Students may be shy of a few credits at the time of the move, and this program allows them to graduate and earn their diploma. Or, as in another case last year, one of our students was selected to the US Olympic ski team. She was a senior and wanted to finish up her credits to graduate. Thanks to the VHS@PWCS program powered by Brightspace technology, she was able to take her course online from her training camp in Utah.”
Cloud-based Content Creation and Expedient Delivery Ensures Consistency and Alignment
VHS@PWCS teachers have relied on D2L partner SoftChalk’s desktop-based content authoring platform for the past four years to create and curate their own master content. The blended learning expansion, however, introduced a new requirement to centralize control over the authorship function in order to ensure continued alignment among the participating schools.
To satisfy this requirement, PWCS appointed a learning content author (LCA) for each of its twenty-two courses who would be responsible for creating and maintaining course content. At the same time, PWCS introduced SoftChalk Cloud. This would allow LCAs to create, update and store their master courses in the Cloud so they can easily and efficiently upload lessons into the Brightspace platform for dissemination out to participating schools.
The blended learning expansion has also provided an answer to the overcrowding challenges facing several district high schools. “VHS@PWCS’s blended learning expansion has given schools a way to deal with their overcrowding issues,” says Jones. “This past year, we’ve had an additional 180 students from the blended program involved in VHS@PWCS,” she adds. “Students have been able to participate in a school-funded summer jump start program where they work ahead taking courses through VHS@PWCS and then choose a period next term where they stay home or use the time to enhance their extracurricular lives.”
Benefits for Both Teachers and Learners
One of the objections to online learning programs is that they can be impersonal and distant. For the teachers involved in the VHS@PWCS program, the experience is entirely the opposite thanks to some of the tools in the Brightspace platform—for example, online discussions, blogs, and chats. The VHS expects teachers to teach live lessons each week, which are recorded and archived for students who cannot participate in real time inside the virtual classroom. One-third of the VHS teachers are working exclusively online, and the district experiences very low turnover.
For VHS students, course curriculum delivered through the program is rigorous, adhering to the same schedule set out in a traditional classroom. Students working online must be highly motivated with a strong desire to learn and achieve. However, the majority of students engaged in the program find VHS has enriched their high school learning experience and provided them with important new skills in digital literacy, outside the box thinking, and time management.
“I simply love teaching online. Through the Brightspace platform, I actually feel I am building stronger relationships with the students because the system provides ample opportunity for one-to-one, personalized instruction and communication. It also gives me more flexibility as a teacher to optimize lessons for the way my students learn and allow them to set their own pace.”
Beth Miller, English 12 Teacher (Blended Expansion Program & Traditional Classroom)
Since 2000, over 10,000 students have completed online courses through the VHS@PWCS program with an average pass rate of 90% and a standards of learning (SOL) exam pass rate of 91%. Thanks to the use of the Brightspace platform and SoftChalk’s content authoring solution, what began as a pioneering virtual high school program in the State of Virginia has now realized its goal of providing students with greater flexibility to learn anytime and anywhere. It’s also provided teachers and schools with the ability to offer students a personalized and highly engaging learning experience.
 Results courtesy of Prince William County Schools