Online learning offers benefits beyond curriculum

Students gain important life skills in addition to academic content

Prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic, many students throughout Michigan had little to no experience with online learning.

The coronavirus changed that for the vast majority of the state’s K-12 learners. While there was the genuine worry — and reality — regarding learning loss during uncertain times, many students discovered that virtual education was a setting where they could thrive — and excel — in school.

In October 2020, the Pew Research Group conducted a study gauging parent attitudes toward online learning during the pandemic. The majority (76%) of parents whose children were receiving at least some online instruction were either highly satisfied or satisfied with their child’s learning experiences.

From flexible schedules to specialized coursework access, Michigan Virtual helped students navigate a time like no other, offering a remote learning environment that safely met their educational and social-emotional needs. And in some cases, opened the eyes of many families to the multilayered benefits of online education.

‘I like being independent’

Jocelyn Chislea had her first foray into online learning during her 10th grade year. The Freeland student took high school classes through Michigan Virtual as well as through Delta College.

“I’m a night owl,” she shared. “I liked that I could work at my own pace. I could work at 2 a.m. when I wanted to.”

Jocelyn was enrolled in Michigan Virtual’s Algebra 2 class taught by Liz Hoopfer. She liked the format immediately.

“I like being independent,” she said, explaining she’s often bored in math classes held in person because she’s typically so far ahead of the curriculum. “I’d sit there folding origami birds all class, and I’d just have this mound on my desk because I’m so bored.”

But with Hoopfer’s class, Jocelyn was able to work at her own pace.

“I don’t have to sit and listen to a teacher lecture about something I already know,” Jocelyn said. “If I know it, I can go through it faster, and if I need to review it more, I can read more on it.”

Hoopfer said Jocelyn’s drive helped her succeed in the class.

“She’s so thorough,” Hoopfer said. “She would read the assignment and not only hit every single thing being asked on the first try, but she would go above and beyond that.”

For class discussions, students were required to post a comment and then reply to comments posted by a classmate or two.

“Jocelyn was one of about five students I’ve ever had who continually goes back and keeps that conversation going,” Hoopfer said. “She cared to keep that discussion going throughout the term. And she was not just thorough — she was accurate. What she was contributing was mathematically accurate.”

Jocelyn’s mom, Jennifer Chislea, said that prior to taking online classes, Jocelyn was nervous talking with adults. But needing to advocate for herself in a new environment gave her a confidence boost.

“I can tell she’s more relaxed with that now,” she said.

Hoopfer has worked as a full-time instructor for Michigan Virtual for six years and said the liberty online learning offers for students as well as teachers brought a measure of calm during the pandemic.

“That allowed students and families to have some much-needed flexibility,” she said. “A lot of my students weren’t logging into our optional Zoom sessions because they had become full-time babysitters for their siblings because Mom and Dad were working away — or at home — and couldn’t supervise the other kids. Some high schoolers were getting jobs because their parents got furloughed. The flexibility Michigan Virtual offers became one of the top benefits for families.”

She said it also gave students a sense of confidence.

“I tell students, ‘Trust yourself before you trust the computer,’ ” Hoopfer said. 

“Being online gives them that confidence to work at their own pace. They’re not taking a test before they’re ready. They can reach out to their teacher at any time without their peers knowing they need help.”

And when Jocelyn had questions for Hoopfer, it was easy to connect with her.

“She’s very positive about everything, so you’re not scared to ask,” Jocelyn said.

Math comes easily to Jocelyn. The chance to take Algebra 2 online along with pre-calculus through Delta College helped her think about virtual learning options for the remainder of her education.

“For college purposes, if there are online classes, I’ll probably want to take those more — especially the ones that are self-paced because I am very much a self-paced learner,” she said.

Time management skills unlocked

Isabelle Monroe has wanted to take French ever since she was in pre-kindergarten.

Her family moved from Oklahoma to the small northern Michigan community of Gaylord seven years ago. When Isabelle entered Johannesburg-Lewiston High School, French wasn’t offered. Her only language option was Spanish.

But Isabelle’s mom, Jessi Monroe, who teaches in-person at the high school as well as online for Michigan Virtual, learned Isabelle could take French online, and they jumped at the chance. Taking French through Michigan Virtual was Isabelle’s first experience with online learning.

“I have a 4.0 GPA, so if I want to keep that, I have to finish the class by the deadline,” she explained. That kept her motivated to stay on track.

Isabelle, who just completed 10th grade, said the self-paced nature of the course has helped her with her time management in school and in general.

“As a parent, I was nervous about that,” Monroe said of Isabelle. “But now that she has this year of online learning under her belt that Michigan Virtual provided her, and she figured out what it took to be successful and how you need to make a schedule, I saw that she could handle it.”

“It made the decision for her to start taking college classes in her junior year an easy one for us.”

As an 11th grader in the fall, Isabelle will take college classes online through the local community college as well as another section of French through Michigan Virtual. She said she’s excited about the next school year.

“I kind of know what to expect,” Isabelle said, “so it helped me not stress out.”

Increased comfort with tech

Jaci Hartman is the lead science instructor for Michigan Virtual, teaching physics, chemistry, and physical science courses. She’s been in that role full time for four years, so she was ready to welcome the wave of students new to virtual learning due to the pandemic.

“The consistency we’ve provided for students is nice,” Hartman said. “We had students who would get quarantined, or the school would have to go virtual suddenly after being in person for a while. That back-and-forth for students and staff is hard, and it’s no one’s fault. But we were the constant. Having that one anchor point was a comfort to a lot of students. They knew what to expect with Michigan Virtual.”

Suzy Kriser was one of those students. She navigated her senior year at East Lansing High School through a combination of online and in-person learning. She took finance and AP physics courses through Michigan Virtual.

“I felt very comfortable with my teacher,” Suzy said. “I liked the relationship we had, which helped a lot in the class.”

Hartman said Suzy asked great questions and regularly connected with her, making the class feel as though it was in person.

“Suzy was one of my most interactive students,” Hartman said. “She would regularly email me different questions. During the class, she’d send me a picture of what she was doing because she was so excited about what she was learning. It felt like an in-person relationship where a student pops in your room to say, ‘Guess what I just learned?!’ ”

Suzy said the biggest benefit she saw from online learning was an increased level of comfort with technology — something that will be crucial for her in the fall when she heads down the road to Michigan State University to study engineering.

“Before the pandemic, I was not super into computers,” she admitted. “I almost never checked my email regularly because it was too much of a hassle to figure it out. But because of the online format, I now check my emails regularly and connect with my teachers more easily.”

Hartman said those life skills that come along with online learning are a valuable benefit.

“Students who are successful in a virtual environment are willing to advocate for themselves,” Hartman said. “If they have a question, they have to be willing to ask and not wait for the teacher to see their face and know they need to ask something.

“If they’re willing to make connections, share a little about themselves and allow a community to develop for themselves, they find that support and connection they need.”

Building those skills and habits before heading off to postsecondary education and training gives students an important head start on self-management.

“That’s the flexibility online learning offers that in-person doesn’t,” Hartman said. “Imagine going into college after having two full years of independently managing and advocating for yourself before paying thousands of dollars to learn how to do that.

“With online learning in high school, they’re doing it with a safety net. By the time they get to college, they’ll be more confident and have less stress.”