Innovators in Online Learning: Growing a Successful Virtual School Program



gina.pngGina Jones has been with the Prince William County Virtual High School program since it’s inception in 2001. She has served as an instructor, course developer and administrative coordinator since 2003. Her role with the VHS@PWCS has evolved to include oversight of 45 instructors, development and refresh of 26 courses and liaison with schools and central office staff. Gina has served on local and national committees related to the growth of online and blended learning and has been with Prince William County Schools since 1998.

In this interview, Gina updates us on the progress at the Virtual High School at Prince William County Schools (VHS@PWCS), from how the course offerings have grown, to addressing personalized learning and the implementation of their virtual classroom.

We last spoke with VHS@PWCS about their curriculum development effort in summer, 2013. This interview is an update on their progress during the past few years…

SoftChalk: How would you describe the Virtual High School and what you do?

Gina Jones: The VHS@PWCS is a division-based supplemental program offering 26 full credit courses in three semester length sessions. Students are paired with a highly-qualified instructor and offered courses that are fully aligned with local and state curriculum standards. We typically create all course content in-house, using SoftChalk, and other tools and work closely with the curriculum office to ensure quality and rigor.

SoftChalk: Since your Innovators Webinar in 2013, how many online Master Courses do you offer now and approximately how many students are enrolled?

Gina Jones: We started with 1 math and 1 English course. Now, we have 26 courses that include math, science, social studies, HPE, business, language arts and world languages and an annual enrollment of about 1,800.

SoftChalk: You created online and blended courses in an effort to offer more options for on-time graduation—what challenges did you face when implementing this program? What were some of your successes?

Gina Jones: Challenges include development delays with SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) that are adjunct with limited time and issues with funding for development and student enrollment.  Maintaining master courses was a challenge because edits would need to be changed across multiple course sections.  This was solved by using SoftChalk Cloud—which enabled us to have one SME in charge of the course content while distributing the course copy/sections to multiple teachers.

Successes include the growth of world language courses, school partnerships to reduce overcrowding, and expansion to allow more middle school enrollment.

SoftChalk: Since implementation, how has the Virtual High School grown/changed and what have you learned from your initial challenges and successes?

Gina Jones: We have grown tremendously in both enrollment and institutional knowledge since 2001. We now better understand the intricacies of developing and maintaining content, the value of needs assessments when deciding which courses to develop and offer. We always use instructional designers, who work in SoftChalk, to ensure our courses are designed for student engagement. We have also partnered with Quality Matters to further explore design standards and accessibility and compliance requirements.

SoftChalk: How have the teachers responded to the growth in online/blended learning requirements?  

Gina Jones: The teachers are excited about the growth and our full-time pilot program. They often take what they learn in VHS and utilize it in their blended or flipped traditional classrooms.

SoftChalk: You expect teachers to teach live sessions each week and make the recordings available to students unable to attend “live” in the virtual classroom—what kind of training and technology do you make available to aid the teachers in fulfilling this expectation?

Gina Jones: Teachers are trained both in-house and by the virtual classroom vendor, YouSeeU. They also have opportunities to collaborate with each other about strategies and resources to improve attendance and engagement at live lessons.

Desire2Learn Partnered with YouSeeU to deliver integrated video capabilities within Brightspace, the LMS used by the Virtual High School at Prince William County Schools.

SoftChalk: What kind of feedback are you getting from students going through the online program or taking the online courses? How are you making changes based on feedback from students?

Gina Jones: We always survey students at the end of each session and value their feedback. Students are typically very surprised by the time requirements and challenges in online learning. They tend to underestimate the rigor. That said, they are very satisfied when asked to be self-reflective in their feedback. They know if they spend the time and are pro-active learners, they are usually very successful. We always have students who indicate they learned as much, or more, as in a traditional classroom. Our growth has been enhanced by a 30% increase in students returning to take another course each semester/year.  

SoftChalk: Personalized Learning is a popular topic currently, how do you address the different needs of different students when creating “Master” courses?

Gina Jones: We ask that students complete a learning styles survey in our program orientation lessons and then reflect on how they will be successful as an online learner. When developing the master courses, we ask that developers present the content in multiple formats to address learning styles. We also incorporate ReadSpeaker on our content pages for students who are auditory learners or have visual impairments. Teachers find it much easier to personalize learning in the online format since they can work individually with students and modify assignments and pacing to meet their unique needs. The addition of a virtual classroom element has really helped the teachers personalize learning as well since they can interact synchronously via audio/video/chat with students either in small groups or individually. We also now have video assignments which have been very popular with both students and teachers in terms of authenticity and personalization.

SoftChalk: State and Federal regulations are ever-changing—do you have a process in place to keep up with these changes and make sure you’re meeting the requirements?

Gina Jones: I collaborate often with local and regional colleagues and try to serve on committees, like the iNACOL Program Committee, to stay abreast of relevant legislation and regulation.

SoftChalk: For other schools looking to implement an online or blended program at their school, what advice do you have for them as to how to begin?

Gina Jones: I would say to seek out as many experts as possible to discuss the benefits and challenges. Look at your audience carefully and design a program that will meet the needs of students and schools. Don’t underestimate the time involved with course development. Find a good, robust LMS and maximize it’s potential for student engagement and connection. Likewise, if you are developing your own content, utilize a program like SoftChalk that is cloud-based and user-friendly. Don’t forget public relations—in other words you have to advertise your program and explain how it works so students and schools can make an informed decision in recommending or participating in the program. Most students and teachers underestimate the time it takes to complete a course successfully. Be sure counselors know how to vet students and make them aware that online courses are not shorter or easier than traditional courses, they are simply more flexible.

SoftChalk: What inspires you?

Gina Jones: I’m inspired by students who self-advocate and seek opportunities to personalize learning. I’m inspired by the tremendous resources now available in terms of technology, tools and resource, available to online and blended educators. I’m always inspired by the students who have not been successful in traditional environments, yet shine in our program—maybe they have medical challenges, or anxiety, or simply want to maximize their schedules—those students who are so thankful for the opportunity to “choose” a non-traditional course vs. having it prescribed make me the proudest.

Inspired to Learn More?  Here are some additional opportunities and resources:

  • The VHS@PWCS story was originally featured in an Innovators in Online Learning webinar, recorded in summer, 2013 and done in collaboration with Desire2Learn. In that webinar, Gina Jones discussed the surge of interest in their online courses and how they explored ways to embed them into the student’s schedule with blended options. The collaborative method of creating Master Versions of courses created a scalable model allowing them to have a single learning content author make all edits without ever needing to access the course shell.
  • You can also read the success story, written by Desire2Learn in collaboration with SoftChalk, “Prince William County Schools: Anywhere, anytime learning”.

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