Virtual Learning Academy Charter Schools (VLACS) Succeed

(Photo: Public Domain, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Public Domain, Creative Commons)

The VLACS education model, or Virtual Learning Academy Charter Schools, are gaining worldwide attention with the United States seeing a nationwide boom in online learning academies.

The last decade has seen a sharp increase in the number of full-time virtual schools, with over 450 now active and enrolling more than 260,000 full-time students and millions more attending part time.

The VLACS model is notable for its flexibility. As is also the case with MOOCs, however, recent studies have highlighted poor performances at online schools.

Despite this, Wired’s Chris Berdik writes, VLACS stands out as an online success story, with the school’s full-time students, on average, equaling or modestly exceeding New Hampshire average scores on state reading and math tests and the SAT.

The secret to VLACS’ success, Berdik writes, is likely in the fact that they do things differently from the average virtual school: traditional courses are broken up into specific skills and abilities, called “competencies,”; funding is based on student performance rather than enrollment; and there is a real focus on building strong student-teacher relationships.

While most virtual schools enlist parents or guardians as unpaid “learning coaches” who are responsible for keeping students motivated and up to date with their studies, VLACS take a different approach. Teachers are encouraged to communicate frequently with students and check their progress.

Lisa Kent, a VLACS physical education and wellness teacher, expressed the importance of upholding this communication-based approach for VLACS:

“Being ever present is paramount to building that working relationship. Students need to know you’re there, seeing what they do, and that you care about and support them.”

During her interview with Wired, Kent showed her academy dashboard on her laptop that she uses to track her students. She can sort the students based on different criteria, one being the last time they contacted her. If a student has not been active for more than a week, she reaches out to check if everything is ok.

The parents and students interviewed for the Wired piece also elaborated on the communication focused courses, saying that they had more one-on-one interactions with teachers on the VLAC course than they did in traditional schools.

The University Herald has also cited the recent boom in technology-aided learning. The Herald’s Michael Lagura focuses on the view expressed by industry and academic professionals that universities must put themselves at the forefront of these technological changes or risk being left behind in a rapidly changing learning environment.

The feeling is that despite poor performance records in many online learning courses, new methodologies, such as the one seen in VLACS’ communication focused approach, can join the best of traditional learning advantages such as the proximity of personal tutoring and a virtual learning environment.

Taking into account pressures on education systems worldwide, with teachers at traditional schools complaining their classrooms are too full, there are certain approaches that will be more readily achieved in a future tech-based learning landscape, making the changes desirable for education experts. Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute, expressed her excitement:

“To do competency-based education at scale you need to use technology. Imagine 30 students in a class truly moving at an individual pace and then having to test them all at different times in different ways.”

Advocates say that VLACS and other online learning programs like it have the potential to empower students by putting them at the helm of their own learning experiences.