Michigan Virtual School Expands Students’ Choices

Published March 1, 2009

Imagine your local high school offering courses in forensic science, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, human space exploration, Web design, Latin, and film studies, plus advanced placement courses in science, English, math, and history.

Though not unthinkable, it’s certainly unlikely. Amanda Erwin, a high school junior who lives in a rural village in south central Michigan, thought so, too.

Erwin, an honor student who plans to pursue an education in medical research after graduation, said she went to her guidance counselor to find out how she could take advanced placement classes when none was available at her school in Nashville, a town of fewer than 2,000 residents. That’s how she discovered Michigan Virtual School (MVS).

“Online learning is an innovation that will greatly improve America’s educational system,” said Erwin, who took AP history and chemistry classes online last fall.

Diverse Needs

Erwin was by no means alone. More than 15,000 middle and high school students from across Michigan are taking courses this year through MVS, based in Lansing.

The reasons for enrolling in MVS classes vary as much as the students themselves. Some need to take a class a second time; some need to fulfill the state’s online experience requirement; and some are being homeschooled. Others, such as Erwin, are looking for opportunities not available at their own schools.

MVS was created in 1999 as a pilot program with 100 students. At the time, only six other states had online classes available for middle or high school students. MVS now offers more than 300 classes and works with 500 of the 700 schools in the state.

“In 1999 there was not a whole lot of online learning going on,” said Jamey Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of Michigan Virtual University, a nonprofit organization that runs the Michigan Virtual School. “Now, every six months a new state enacts an online learning platform.”

Changing Minds

When MVS launched, many legislators and educators did not know anything about online learning. Fitzpatrick said about 5 percent of the officials were supportive of the program and 5 percent were strongly opposed, while the other 90 percent did not have an opinion.

“People really didn’t know what to think,” said Fitzpatrick. “Now the support is overwhelming. Reaction has clearly changed as people have gained experience with the program.”

Evolving Education

Fitzpatrick, who spent 10 years as director of technology for the Michigan Department of Education, was involved in creating MVU in 1998. In the beginning, MVU focused on workforce development, but within a few years it began focusing on K-12 education. MVS is now one of the largest virtual schools in the country.

As advances have taken place in computer and Internet technology over the past 10 years, MVS has incorporated many different learning formats, such as chat rooms, discussion boards, live sessions, flash animation, newsgroups, and streaming audio and video.

Though many people think online learning runs the risk of being depersonalized, Fitzpatrick said he has been “pleasantly surprised” that this is not the case. Many of the teachers report to Fitzpatrick real one-on-one experiences with their students.

“They really get to know their students,” said Fitzpatrick. “I don’t know if we would have predicted that when we first started.”

Individual Experiences

Melanie Laber, who teaches a seventh-grade math class at a traditional school in addition to having taught pre-algebra, geometry, and trigonometry online for MVS over the past four years, said she first developed a passion for online learning while earning her masters degree entirely online from the University of Phoenix.

“What I was learning I could apply in the classroom immediately,” said Laber, who has helped develop math classes for MVS.

Laber said she enjoys being able to customize the experience with the students she teaches online, based on their learning styles. She said she is amazed at the wide range of students who can be enrolled in the same class. For instance, a sixth grader enrolled in her high school geometry class was able to help many of the high school students who were taking the class for a second time.

“Online learning takes away many barriers. It takes away your age, your race, and your gender,” said Laber.

Lifelong Learning

Erwin agrees.

“I felt this was the closest to a college[-level class] I have ever taken. My success depended on my own responsibility to meet deadlines with no teacher right in my face reminding me every day,” Erwin said. “I feel I’m a more responsible student because of it.”

Fitzpatrick believes teaching kids to be successful online learners is the most important contribution MVS has made for Michigan students. Michigan was the first state to require students to take an online course or have what educators call “a meaningful online experience.”

In November, the state was ranked second in the nation for online learning and policy by the Center for Digital Education. Later this year it may become possible for students in some districts across the state to take all their courses online.

“At the end of the day, the thing that people value the most [about MVS] is teaching students to be online learners,” Fitzpatrick said. “That is a skill that will serve them for the rest of their lives.”

Georgia Geis ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.