Virginia Leads Way to Online High School Diplomas

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Virginia leads the way to completely online public high school diplomas.1 “Virtual Virginia, the commonwealth’s online high school program, is poised to recruit as many as 100 students to pilot the state’s first full-time online diploma program.” The really good news is that the state is jumping into the virtual with eyes wide open. They’re “set to operate within the program’s existing $4.6 million budget.” They’re also aware that, at this point in time, “the online format suits some students more than others.” They’ve done the homework and learned that “those most likely to succeed in an online school tend to be self-motivated, self-directed students, and their learning style is suited to an environment that involves discussion through posts on message boards.”

It’ll be interesting to watch Virtual Virginia develop in the coming months and years. They’re opening a massive door that remains locked for most school systems in the country. The qualities for success online — self-motivation, self-direction, and active engagement in discussions — are perfectly aligned with those for success in MOOCs and the growing number of affordable online college offerings, which means an open door to college courses and the possibility of earning college credits while still in high school.

The possibilities for learning online are endless, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the last vestiges of classroom walls are eventually removed, allowing students to earn high school and college credits via widely available open learning resources such as MOOCs.

The potential for online resource sharing with high school systems in other states (and other countries) is also real, providing an infinitely richer array of courses, interactive opportunities, and experiences. In other words, geographical isolation will become less an issue, and in the early going, it may be a blessing in disguise, hastening the migration to online options. The challenge for administrators and teachers will be to maintain an open attitude toward schooling. 

The original impetus for Virtual Virginia was “to harness the power of technology to increase opportunities for students in places that lack the resources to justify staffing certain courses,” but as we’re seeing, time and again in the U.S. and the world, addressing the problem of accessibility with online technology releases a disruptive force that, at first, enfranchises the underserved student population and, eventually, enhances the learning of all students as well.

In the end, the most valuable lesson from Virtual Virginia may be its price of admission: self-motivation, self-direction, and engagement. As it transforms educational opportunity, so does it transform the student by encouraging a learning style that’s ideal for not only success in learning but for life-long learning.

* * *

In colleges and schools, BYOD has evolved into BYOE, Bring Your Own Everything.2 Implied in this abbreviation, however, is the need to go to a place where “everything” isn’t available for mobile communications that have become an essential part of our lives. It is a glaring indication that the technology gap between the real world and school is widening. To close it, educators are throwing huge amounts of money into the void, trying to catch up in a race that finds them further behind by the day. BYOW (Bring Your Own Whatever) is less an approach than a towel tossed into the classroom, a submission to forces driven by a technology that exposes schools for what they have become, fortresses to keep out the horde of information that’s available anytime and anywhere in the world beyond the walls.

* * *

Josef3 is the face of the young professional in the 21st century who is thoroughly immersed in the digital world that technology is building. He realizes that a college degree is not an end but a beginning. He says, “Learning is a constant job that does not stop. College helps you learn the basics, but it is up to you to enhance that foundation so you can succeed in the workforce after graduation. Online courses can help with that.” He’s also aware that success in the workplace is increasingly driven by actual knowledge and skills rather than degrees and that MOOCs may be both the cause and the means: “Instead of going back to school to pursue a second bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, consider taking a MOOC. The MOOC may give you the same knowledge, but without having to spend thousands of dollars. Ultimately, that knowledge will help you get ahead, not an additional diploma.” Josef and his growing number of peers may be a signal that the college degree is quickly becoming, like the high school diploma, more a rite of passage than a symbol of achievement, to be eventually replaced by certificates that represent operational knowledge and skills.

* * *

“It may not be time to write [MOOCs] off,” says Derek Newton. “Perhaps one of the overlooked values in MOOCs is not in sharing Ivy League wisdom with the masses, but in teaching educators — and, in turn, improving traditional K-12 schools.”4 Cost has been an ongoing obstacle to teacher professional development, and, as Newton points out, MOOCs may be just the answer. My own experiences (spring 2012 and fall 2013) with MOOCs designed for professors, offered by Greg Walker5 and his team at Leeward Community College, were extremely rewarding. We were able to log in and complete assignments at times that were convenient for us, allowing us to maintain our routine schedules at work. They were free, and we had the option to work toward certificates and badges. The approach was pure cMOOC à la Downes, with participants networking and collaborating to construct the shared knowledge base. The added benefit of MOOCing is the experience of engaging, firsthand, the essential technology of online learning. The first step in teaching online is learning online, and the skills we hone as students become the tools we use to build courses in the digital world.

1More Steps Toward Online School,”, 25 June 2015.
2Rhea Kelly, “Tackling BYOE in Higher Ed,” Campus Technology, 25 June 2015.
3Josef, “Learning for Free This Summer with MOOCs,” SALT, 25 June 2015.
4The (Accidental) Power of MOOCs,” Atlantic, 23 June 2015.
5Distance Education Coordinator, University of Hawaii-Leeward Community College.

2 Responses

  1. I am at the ISTE conference and just saw a demonstration of Virtual Virginia. How exciting. Thank you for this article.

    • Hi Bonnie. Reminds me of the old saw, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” or, in this case, dire need forces innovation. It’s no wonder that schools the world over with the greatest need are reaching out to technology for answers — and finding them in online learning. This also means that your long battle for digital equity in the form of universal broadband access is making headway. Virginia is providing the answer to the question, Why spend billions on broadband? The answer is simple: Because improving the infrastructure for online learning is infinitely more cost effective and, in the long run, sustainable than throwing our limited tax dollars into building and maintaining concrete and glass classrooms that promise more of the same. It instantly eliminates the space and time barriers that define isolation and, in most cases, its related poverty.

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