What Do Successful K-12 Online Programs Have In Common?

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What do successful K-12 online programs have in common? Beyond obvious variables like student support and quality curriculum, there are many systemic supports that effective programs put in place to provide a foundation for student success. In this article, we break down the importance of leadership, multi-level support, and program evaluation.
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Online learning programs —whether they be supplemental, part-time, or full-time programs — require much more than teachers, students, and online curricula to function successfully. Like any school, they require program supports that work behind the scenes to keep the program functioning at a high level.

While all facets of K-12 online learning programs are important and function interdependently to ultimately serve students, we will be highlighting three that we feel are critically important today: leadership and organizational staff, multi-level support, and program evaluation.

To see more elements related to effective online learning programs, please review the National Standards for Quality Online Programs.

Leadership and Organizational Staff

Strong, invested leadership is critical in that it sets the direction of the K-12 online learning program. Leadership is responsible for steering the program towards its mission and taking steps to achieve that mission.

Strong and supportive leadership operates in many ways, but two of the primary ways are:

  1. Having vast knowledge and understanding of education and business to run the program in adherence to its budget and developed organizational policies and procedures.
  2. Having strong and supportive leaders who cultivate collaborative and constructive work environments for employees, and in turn, students, and place an emphasis on integrity and quality of work at every level.

Leaders alone cannot do everything discussed above, but they need adept support staff to help carry out the program mission. Often times, support staff are the ones doing the actual work of bringing a program’s mission to life and achieving its goals.

Training and regular evaluation are both critically important for organizational staff as well. Opportunities for staff to grow in their knowledge and set professional goals help the program grow, both overall and in quality.

Multiple Levels of Support

It may seem obvious to state that student support is necessary for successful K-12 online learning programs. What may be less obvious is that parent, guardian, mentor, and faculty support are also critically important.

Providing an orientation to students on online learning helps support students, as does providing academic services to support students’ diverse learning needs, including (but certainly not limited to) providing special education support as appropriate and required.

Additionally, successful programs rely heavily on parental and on-site mentor support, and as such, there is a need to establish procedures for communication with parents and mentors, including providing access to the LMS to both track and support student progress.

As with other organizational staff, faculty should be provided opportunities for professional development and regular evaluation. Additionally, faculty need regular feedback on student progress and performance in order to identify students in need of additional supports and to ensure all students have the opportunity to successfully complete the online course.

Both faculty and students also need access to timely technical support. Given that students often work asynchronously as they are able (as do teachers), timely support is critical to ensure students are always able to access their course materials and complete their coursework.

Program Evaluation

A third key element ( again, there are so many more that we simply do not have space to discuss) is program evaluation. The NSQOL Quality Online Program standards emphasize that “a quality online program recognizes the value of program evaluation.” There is immense value in a program knowing what they are doing well and areas where they could improve to better serve their stakeholders.

Program evaluations take many forms and span every part of an organization from evaluations of student and parent satisfaction to course review. Some of the major categories are student-focused evaluations, internal evaluations, and external program evaluations.

Student-Focused Evaluations

Student success in online courses is paramount to any successful K-12 online learning program. To determine if programs are truly meeting the needs of students, leadership should conduct ongoing internal evaluations of:

  • Student performance in courses,
  • State metrics, and
  • Student satisfaction with courses

The term ”ongoing” here is key! One-time evaluations only offer a snapshot and identify areas for improvement. To fully understand if a program is making progress towards a goal, ongoing evaluations are necessary.

Internal Evaluations

Evaluations of program faculty are also key as discussed earlier. Evaluations of faculty members ultimately helps them better serve students by identifying areas where they excel and areas for improvement. These faculty evaluations should also be frequent and ongoing and use clear and consistent measures and procedures.

Course reviews are another key form of internal evaluation. Programs should have a policy for reviewing courses either internally and/or externally (against a reputable standard) to ensure quality, alignment with state curriculum, and learning outcomes.

External Program Evaluations

Regular program evaluations by qualified external parties are very helpful for programs to assess whether they are meeting their mission and goals. These evaluations should be coupled with the development of program improvement plans. While many programs operate at a very high level, there is undoubtedly always room for improvement and ways that programs can better serve their stakeholders.

Systemic program supports often operate outside of the view of K-12 online learning program stakeholders. High-quality teachers and administrative staff are not always apparent; however, the effects of these and other program supports are critical to running successful programs and lay the foundation for student success.

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Success in Online Learning Blog Series

In our Success in Online Learning blog series, we discuss all things K-12 online learning in Michigan and across the nation. Our hope with this series is to provide a primer on K-12 online learning, cover established and emerging topics, and provide relevant research and resources. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the Authors

Kristen DeBruler
Dr. Kristen DeBruler received her doctorate in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University. She taught in the Master of Arts in Educational Technology program at Michigan State University for three years. Her work focuses on K-12 online learning policy in Michigan and nationwide as well as understanding online learning best practices.

Christopher Harrington
Dr. Christopher Harrington has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with iNACOL and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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