Online-learning options for district students in Oregon

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Apr 24, 2014

Many school leaders see the potential to improve the course choices and experiences they offer their students by using online learning. Nevertheless, the road to adopting online learning can be difficult. High-quality online-learning options often require not only new resources, but also new instructional models and mindsets regarding teaching and learning. Because truly innovative online-learning models do not just plug in to traditional classrooms, making the shifts to online learning can be a major endeavor in organizational change management for any district that decides to do it.

I spoke recently with Tres Tyvand, the student services coordinator for Bend-La Pine Schools Online, to learn more about how they have addressed the challenges of implementing online learning. Bend-La Pine Schools Online is a program of the Bend-La Pine School District in Oregon that offers both full-time and part-time online-learning opportunities to over 2,000 of the district’s students in pre-K through 12th grade. The program works with FuelEducation, an online course provider, to offer a wide selection of full-time virtual and blended learning (A La Carte, Flipped Classroom, and Flex) options. The story of how the program became what it is today illustrates a few valuable lessons that can help other districts as they wrestle with how to foster online learning.

Autonomous operation

Back in 2005 when Bend-La Pine Schools Online began, the district set it up as an independent charter school that was funded through an innovation grant from the state. Two years later, it was incorporated into the district, but allowed to continue operating independently. This initial autonomy proved invaluable for the program’s early success. It gave the program freedom to build itself from the ground up around its own unique value proposition, rather than being influenced to follow the pattern of a traditional brick-and-mortar school. The focus of the program became to provide course options to students with scheduling conflicts, unique course interests, or an inability to attend a brick-and-mortar school.

Demand-driven growth

Much of the program’s initial growth was slow, but in recent years that growth has been accelerated by increasing demand from parents and students. In almost a decade, the program has never explicitly advertised at the district’s schools. Instead, adoption is entirely driven by word-of-mouth. As a result, growth has resulted from the program’s ability to prove its value to students and families, rather than by a district reform agenda or a technology hype.

Support from teachers

The program has also been successful at establishing itself in a way that is non-threatening to the teachers and school leaders in the district’s traditional brick-and-mortar schools. One of the keys to this success is that the superintendent recently revised the staffing formula to make the program’s funding non-competitive with that of the traditional teachers at the traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Additionally, teachers have come to recognize that the program provides students with options that they know their schools would never be able to offer. In fact, many teachers have enrolled their own children in courses offered through the online-learning program and have become advocates for the benefits that the program offers.

Focus on people and relationships

When I asked Tyvand what she thought was the biggest factor that contributed to the success of the program, her answer was profound yet unsurprising. “It’s all about relationships,” she explained. “It fails when you just enroll kids and walk away. When it’s personal, it really changes the whole approach.” For Bend-La Pine Schools Online, making online learning personal means first putting interested students through three to four screening mechanisms to make sure that the program is a good fit for them. Students who then enter the program are assigned a mentor or program coordinator who works closely with them to develop a custom-learning plan. Once students begin their online courses, the program staff works closely with counselors at the students’ schools to make sure the students are well-supported and on track to completing their courses. The result of this emphasis on supporting students is a program-wide course passing rate of 91 percent.

Tyvand’s enthusiasm for the online-learning program at Bend-La Pine was palpable throughout our conversation. As she described her work, she said, “All day long I feel like Oprah. I feel like I’m passing out hundred dollar bills by giving families options.” Bend-La Pine Schools Online is just one example of a growing trend where districts are using online learning to provide better course options to their students. As more districts consider how to create their own online-learning programs, the Bend-La Pine Schools Online example illustrates some important principles that can help them succeed.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.