‘Think big, dream big, and don’t let existing bureaucracy disparage your dreams.’
That’s some advice Julie Young, president and CEO of Florida Virtual School (FLVS), got from an interesting source years ago and has taken to heart ever since. The advice came from Jeb Bush, then-governor of Florida, who was an early strong supporter of the effort that is now one of the largest public school districts in the U.S.—if you count online learning schools, and in 2011 you might as well. Although the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL) regards K–12 online learning as a new field, it’s already an estimated $507 million market growing at an estimated annual pace of 30%, with 27 states as well as Washington, D.C., having statewide full-time online schools. Many virtual schools show annual growth rates between 20% and 45%. Of high school administrators in the U.S., 82% had at least one student enrolled in a fully online course and 38% had at least one student enrolled in a blended or hybrid course. So let’s take a closer look at one of the strongest virtual schools and hear what its leader has to say about the area.
Founded in 1997, FLVS has been a leader in elearning and was the country’s first statewide, internet-based public high school. With help from the Florida legislature and proponents such as Bush, it’s one of the only public schools with funding tied directly to student performance. It offers courses not just to Florida students but also to students in 49 states and 46 countries with 110-plus courses—including core subjects, world languages, electives, honors, and 15 advanced placement courses by way of more than 1,400 staff members who reside throughout Florida and beyond. In the 2010–2011 school year, FLVS served more than 122,000 students in 259,928 half-credit enrollments. The school’s enrollment graphs tell the story: Rising higher and higher each year, its growth is nothing short of explosive, but an inside look reveals a steady, measured rate led by a stable executive leader.
“There was a time when we had about 10,000 students and [Bush] said, ‘I’m looking forward to the time when I come in here and you tell me you have 100,000 students,” says Young, who pioneered the launch of the school with the goal of providing high-quality online courses to students throughout the state of Florida but grew it into one of the largest providers of internet-based courseware and instruction for middle and high school students in Florida and worldwide. “Very early on he saw potential for huge growth and gave us a vision for what we could do.” Bush’s other advice: Go directly to parents. By this he meant for the school to ensure success through appealing directly to those who mattered most—the families involved in getting their children an education.
Technology and Change
All that said, what about the technology behind the school? “It changes every day,” says Young. “We knew early on that technology was going to change this business because it was built on technology.” Even so, technology is not something talked about very much. “We spend our time talking about students and kids and instruction. Technology is just the vehicle for us to do what we do,” she says.
“We knew technology evolved a lot faster than traditional education has been able and willing to change. As we built the culture of the program, it was top of mind that we needed to have people willing to change with it, that we didn’t have to drag along, cajole, or convince people that this—new technologies—was the right way to go, but that it was changing underneath us, and we had to move forward and remain somewhat nimble—even though we’re large,” Young says.
As for the rapid rate of technological change, Young concurs with the iNACOL viewpoint about K–12 online learning. “It’s such a new industry that every day, every 6 months is a huge advancement. It’s like school in dog years—for each year, it was like 7 years in traditional schools. It’s just new and different all the time. Bringing on new opportunities and using the technologies, reaching kids, it just seems like a new job every day,” she says.
For example, Florida Virtual School has always been a supplemental program. And now it is in its 15th year. Legislation that was passed last year required the school to have a full-time program. “This is the first time that we’ve ever had a full-time program that we are solely responsible for,” says Young. “We’ve partnered with others; we are partnering on this, but we provided to full-time programs; we haven’t had our own full-time program—that’s something new.”
Additionally, if you just look at the changes in technology, according to Young, you’ll see huge advancements there as well. “The system that we’re currently building with Blackboard is an adaptive release, so it will have some built-in intelligence; it will change and redirect based on student response. That’s fairly new in the online industry. It will change the way our students move through the content and the way our teachers are able to teach.”
As for the rate of online learning growth from her viewpoint, Young says, “We’re in a state of explosive growth driven by the economy as well as heightened student needs. In the last 2 to 3 years, the economy has been challenged, and virtual education has been seen a lot more as a must-have than a nice-to-have—and it’s being seen much more as a solution than as an alternative.”
According to Young, public awareness as well as political leadership awareness throughout the country have “really started to focus on the question of how we can do education differently, not only because we have some economic challenges, but—if you look at the PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] results—because we continue to be horrified at where we’ve fallen on the global scale.”
Three years ago there was a really keen interest in virtual and online learning to save dollars. “Right now, they’re looking at the global results,” says Young. “It’s not only an opportunity to look at the economic advantages that virtual education might provide but also truly what other education opportunities we can provide for kids whom the traditional setting is just not working well for.”
While one of the largest, Florida Virtual School certainly isn’t the only school on the virtual block. Nonetheless, “There’s plenty of business for everyone right now,” insists Young. “Connections Academy, who is our partner for our full-time program, used to be our competitor. We do compete with them in some states, we obviously partner with them in Florida, and we also partner with them out of state. They’re a partner that is sometimes a competitor.” What about K –12? When asked who is also in that full-time space and is typically seen as a competitor of Florida Virtual School, Young replied, “At this point in time we compete with them versus partner with them.”
There are bound to be a lot of new names in the industry this year with regards to content. “It is going to be really interesting to see how that plays out,” Young says. “One of the things that I’m very concerned about is that we are taking some of our most challenged kids—our credit recovery kids—and putting them in what I call a computer-based training program to make up their credit, which typically does not have a great deal of teacher interaction.”
In Florida at this time, 70% of students who graduate have to take remedial courses before they go into their postsecondary studies. “That’s a huge number. We have to watch that and see if it increases or decreases,” Young says. “The availability of many of these programs that have the analytics behind them could take a child who needs the most out of a relationship with a teacher and isolate them with a computer.”
What Young has been very successful in maintaining with Florida Virtual School is a very “high tech, high touch” learning environment. “There’s a tremendous amount of interaction between the student, the teacher, and the parent. We focus first and foremost on those relationships before the learning,” she says. “Somebody asked me the other day what keeps me up at night. I think we need to be very careful going into this new age that we don’t lose the human factor with our kids.”
Contact Victor at victor@VictorRivero.com.