Last month, the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) in New Hampshire launched a new set of pathways for students. Although proponents of personalized learning often talk about affording students more choice regarding how they learn, few schools have managed to figure out a coherent architecture to get there. In their latest incarnation, VLACS offers one such architecture: the virtual school now allows full-time and part-time middle and high school students to choose among five pathways to learn and demonstrate mastery of the New Hampshire state competencies.
VLACS has long been on my radar as an important experiment in how to scale competency-based approaches by offering students self-paced learning modules broken down to the grain size of the competency, rather than an entire course. These allow students to move through learning at a more flexible pace, on an as-needed basis. Their new model scales flexibility in both pace and path: students can learn through courses, projects, experiences in their communities, team-based activities, or dual enrollment in local colleges. For existing virtual schools, VLACS marks an important outgrowth of pure play, fully online courses that providers typically offer. For brick-and-mortar schools, VLACS offers one vision of how schools might offer different formats of learning experiences to different students.
I could go on about the huge potential of this new model, but instead I wanted Steve Kossakoski, the visionary behind VLACS, to explain it himself. Here are his answers to some of my questions about VLACS’s unique approach.
Julia: What compelled VLACS to innovate beyond the purely virtual course model?
Steve: A strong belief and commitment to the potential of student-centered learning as a way to help every student become college, career, and citizenship-ready. We use the Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) definition of student-centered learning which is based on four tenets: (1) learning is personalized, (2) learning is competency-based, (3) learning takes place anytime and anywhere, and (4) students own their learning. It’s important to note, however, that we like to push the envelope of this definition in the following ways:
- Learning is personalized: Many personalized-learning options are actually individualized models where the school or teacher allows the student to choose from one or two options. But in our model, we allow the student to make the decision about how he/she would like to learn. It may be that a student chooses to meet the competencies for English III by mastering two competencies through an online course, two competencies through project-based learning, and by completing the final two competencies via an internship.
- Learning is competency-based: Competency-based learning, in many schools, is seen as a new way of assessing and reporting grades, but potential exists to revolutionize the way we define school. We have designed our learning model to utilize competencies as the vehicle to unchain learning from the traditional course format. Courses are and will continue to be a powerful method for learning, but students don’t have the opportunity to personalize or customize their learning if they are the only options available to students.
- Learning takes place anytime and anywhere: Typically, this is the mantra of all online schools, however, we expand this definition beyond the use of technology to include learning in an environment that best meets the needs of students. For instance, when a student chooses to learn through an experience outside of school (internship, travel, etc.) that’s anytime and anywhere.
- Ownership: In my opinion, many people confuse ownership with interest or engagement in learning. In an individualized setting, students may be excited about a project or activity, but they may not have the deep commitment to doing difficult work that is a product of ownership. It’s much like renting a house versus owning a house. I would certainly put forth the effort to remodel a house that I own, but I would not commit the same personal or financial resources to a house that I rent.
Our belief is that a learning model that is based on these four tenets will result in engagement and commitment to the hard work that is required for students to become college, career, and citizenship-ready.
Julia: How are you helping students make educated choices about which “path” they want to pursue?
Steve: Part-time students have access to our office staff, guidance counselors, and of course our instructors. We are also providing partner schools with training opportunities about our new learning model. Our full-time students are required to participate in advisory throughout their VLACS career. In advisory, students identify strengths and weakness, explore their interests, and create a personal plan to become college, career, and citizenship-ready (CCC) by graduation. Part of each student’s CCC plan includes a detailed study of how they will meet their post-secondary goals. Students have regular discussions with their advisor and have the flexibility to design a learning plan that responds to their interests, talents, and dreams.
Julia: Do you think certain pathways are better suited to certain subject areas or competencies?
Steve: I think the case can be made that some competencies are a better fit in certain settings or pathways, but we don’t limit how a student can master a competency. In the end, the determining factor is if the students can show evidence that they have mastered a competency. Our instructors will spend time with students identifying competencies that fit best with a pathway before the student moves forward. It’s pretty safe to assume that a student will not master every competency in Algebra I during a semester-long internship. However, during an internship, a student may master two Algebra competencies and a science competency and come away with an understanding of how important these disciplines are in the real world.
Julia: VLACS is funded in a unique manner that rewards mastery rather than seat time. Do you anticipate that certain paths will cost more than others to pull off? How do you square that with your business model?
Steve: During the planning process we spent a lot of time ensuring that each pathway would fit within our funding and compensation model. The overall amount time and effort required for each learning pathway is the same, but the percentage of time dedicated to assessment, communication, instruction, and support may shift depending on the pathway and the needs of the student.
Julia: You’ve managed to build experiences that students can learn from… how has VLACS partnered with people on the ground in students’ communities to make these experiences possible at scale?
Steve: To start, we’re depending on students and their support network of local parents, teachers, and employers to help them find companies, museums, travel opportunities, etc. We are planning to reach our to the businesses community and to partner with organizations that are already identifying real-world opportunities for students. Also in the works is the development of an online app that will connect students with real-world opportunities in New Hampshire and beyond.