I was fortunate to attend an excellent panel discussion at Bbworld a few weeks ago entitled, “How to Build a Virtual School.” The panel was made of up five virtual learning experts, including Tambre Tondryk of Clark County Public Schools’ Virtual High School, Jack Hawkins and Doug Renfro of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools’ Virtual School, and Linda Schriver and Ruth Paine of Clay County Public Schools’ Clay Virtual Academy.

While each virtual school represented came about for unique reasons and through various state legislation, they all have a common denominator: “It always starts from the top.” Every panelist agreed that in order for a virtual school to be successful, the first step is to get buy-in from executive administration. From there, you’ll receive the financial, technological and institutional support required to get your program off the ground and running.

One of the challenges expressed during the session was breaking the common myths about virtual schools to the education community. Many people see virtual schools as a completely asynchronous experience, where students are left to fend for themselves. That is certainly not the case at the virtual schools represented on the panel, nor does it have to be that way for your institution. In fact, many online teachers make themselves available nearly 24/7 so that students can get the help they need at times that are convenient for them. Online teachers may also incorporate synchronous class time or office hours using web conferencing technology, like Blackboard Collaborate, to instruct and connect with students in real time.

Another misconception comes from some educators who are considering teaching online. The assumption is that it’s as simple as uploading class material to a course page in an LMS, like Blackboard Learn. As one panelist put it, “Once you have an LMS, you don’t have a virtual school yet.” So much more goes into creating a dynamic and engaging learning experience. Teachers can utilize many additional tools and content to bring a course to life, such as Learning.com’s 200,000+ learning objects, NBC Learn’s rich digital video collection, or Softchalk’s customizable content creation tool.

Another piece of the puzzle is orientation.  Panelists agreed that students and their families should be given two types of orientation. The first part is to show them the mechanics of an LMS, such as logging in, accessing coursework, submitting assignments, etc. The second part is to teach them ways to be successful online learners such as setting your own schedule, contacting the teacher when you’re stumped, and connecting and collaborating with classmates.

There were so many great ideas flowing throughout the session, that I certainly couldn’t capture them all. That’s why I’m thankful we had an expert sketchnote artist to highlight and depict some of the key takeaways in a colorful infographic, posted on Pinterest. Another great resource is a report from the Blackboard Institute, “View from the Field: How to Launch District Virtual Learning.” It includes a guide to getting started and the seven questions to ask before launching virtual learning.

The main thing to remember when planning for virtual learning is that you’re not alone! Blackboard’s community of practice holds a wealth of information and best practices to help you get started. All you have to do is ask!

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