(Ed.D. ’13 Admin & Supv)
Director, Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center
Since 1995, online learning has exploded into public education across the United States. Today in 2013, students in more than half of our 50 states have the opportunity to enroll in full-time online high schools. Think about that for a moment: students have the option to elect out of crowded cafeterias and one-size-fits-all instruction. That is quite a change to the usual business of schools!
A 2006 CATO Education Market Index report gives a great perspective for those of us at UVA: “The last dramatic instructional innovation occurred while Thomas Jefferson was president: the introduction of the chalkboard, around 1801” (Coulson, p. 5). That sounds like a harsh criticism. After all, schools have been using all new kinds of gadgets and devices to change schooling…or have they? Did the Apple II, or the Scantron machine, or a student’s iPhone really transform instruction? Or, were these just new tools to facilitate instruction? As online learning grows, more and more students nationwide are engaging in an instructional medium that transforming the traditional roles of students and teachers—and leaders—within public schools.
In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the growth of online learning has been bolstered by legislation through the General Assembly. After legislating the creation of “multi-division online providers” (HB1388, SB738), the General Assembly in 2012 required the completion of one online course for all graduates in the class of 2017 and beyond (HB1061, SB489). For the first time in the history of schooling within the Commonwealth, students are required, by law, to engage in a medium for teaching and learning that no longer employs the traditional roles and responsibilities of teachers and students present in all other brick-and-mortar instructional scenarios.
What does this have to do with leadership? Why should principals be concerned? The answer lies in the numbers. In SY2011-12, Virtual Virginia—the state-run online learning program within the Commonwealth—reported 6,352 enrollments. Consider the projected membership of Virginia’s freshman class in SY2013-14: nearly 95,000 students; compound that number by four years, and over 375,000 students will be required to complete at least one online course in order to earn a standard or advanced studies diploma.
With demand outpacing supply by more than fifty times over, school leaders are faced with myriad decisions ranging from “What program do we choose?” to “How do I evaluate online instruction?” to “What resources are needed?” Compounding the issue is the fact that most leaders have little or no experience with online learning or with leading it. Moreover, the state provides no policy guidance on the implementation of online learning or evaluating its effectiveness.
As school level leaders, we need to accelerate our own learning about online instruction and leadership. As a state, we must make policy development and direction for online learning a top priority. The students are coming next year whether schools and their leaders are prepared, or not. From Highland High to T.C. Williams, principals from the smallest to the largest schools will be faced with a new instructional paradigm: online learning, and they’ll be required to make it happen. We must adapt with great haste—over 375,000 students will be counting on us in four short years.