Exploring ways in which online learning can meet the unique needs of all students in Michigan schools, a team of Michigan Virtual staff investigated how online learning programs are structured to accommodate flexible start and end dates for students taking online courses. Interviews with several virtual programs in Michigan and a look at virtual schools in other states provided a sense of how some schools enabled flexible enrollment options. Factors unique to Michigan that may facilitate or hinder the adoption of this enrollment practice were considered.
Most districts in the United States begin school in August, having local control over their start date. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Michigan is one of only three states that mandates a post-Labor Day start for students. In response to the 2005 law designed to boost state tourism during the months of August and September, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) began issuing waivers for permission to start earlier. The state allows an individual school district to apply for an annual waiver and allows an intermediate school district (ISD) to obtain a 3-year waiver that covers all of its local districts. In 2019, 196 districts had such permission to start early. That count includes 47 of the 56 ISDs, meaning there may be many more schools that begin in August. We don’t know definitively because MDE does not track the total number of schools within an ISD that are starting school before the Labor Day weekend.
One reason schools choose to start early is to align their academic calendar with dual enrollment programs that allow high school students to take college courses. Students can dual enroll at a local college through the Post Secondary Enrollment Options Act, which requires that high schools permit up to 10 dual enrollment courses during the 4 years of high school, and less if they start in later grades. Early/Middle College Programs are unique, individual partnerships formed by a school and a post secondary institution. They do not necessarily have to follow the same academic calendar as the rest of the students enrolled in the participating college or university. They often also occur at separate campus locations. According to MDE Fast Facts 2018-19, 142 Early Middle Colleges provided more than 13,000 enrollments to high schoolers.
Another reason cited is that of local control—a community should have the ability to decide what is best regarding their academic calendar. It is common for Michigan students to lose days of instruction due to inclement weather during winter. Some schools feel an early start affords greater flexibility for how missed days are added back to the school calendar in order to ensure students receive the state-mandated days of instruction. A push for adopting balanced calendars, where students would get a 6-week summer break from late June to early August is gaining increased support. Balanced calendars are considered a promising strategy to reduce the education loss that happens over the summer, which is disproportionately felt by students in poverty. Commonly referred to as the “summer slide,” research suggests that reducing the length of time students are away from learning improves their ability to begin a school year ready for new content and reduces the need for remediation.
The greater challenge for students in poverty, however, remains access. A recent study conducted by the Quello Center at Michigan State University and Merit Network found that “students who do not have access to the Internet from home or are dependent on a cell phone alone for access perform lower on a range of metrics, including digital skills, homework completion, and grade point average. They are also less likely to intend on completing a college or university degree. A deficit in digital skills compounds many of the inequalities in access and contributes to students performing lower on standardized test scores, such as the SAT, and being less interested in careers related to science, technology, engineering, and math.”
Flexibility for Students
Similar to the need for schools to have a greater degree of control over their calendars, individual students also have a need to customize their schedules. Interviews with several Michigan schools, whose virtual learning programs are growing, revealed a commitment to finding ways to keep students learning when they encounter life-changing events. A couple of the examples identified as reasons why flexibility is imperative were:
- A health-related or other unexpected life circumstance that causes a student to leave school midway through a term.
- Dual enrollment where a student is taking a college course through a local college and prefers to complete their college course first and then focus on their virtual course(s) later in a term.
A flexible enrollment window throughout a term assists a face-to-face teacher in transitioning a student to a virtual teacher so that a student continues learning from where they left off in their course work. Flexibility also gives students the option to adjust the hours per day as well as the number of weeks devoted to a virtual course.
This type of personalization places students in control of how and when they learn. The schools we spoke to said they experienced increased achievement and completion rates in virtual courses when arranging these types of alternatives. However, they also cautioned that they are careful when making these decisions as a student must possess strong time management skills and a desire to succeed. While there is emerging research on the broader concept of personalized learning and its benefits, a review of existing research specific to the impact of students completing a virtual course on a schedule they customize has yet to be conducted.
Additional flexibility for students and families is also enabled through Section 21f of the Michigan State School Aid, which allows students in grades 6 through 12, who are enrolled in a Michigan public local district or public school academy (not including full-time cyber schools), to take up to two online courses per academic term with consent from their parent or guardian. According to Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report – 2018-19, about 8% of all K-12 students in the state—over 120,000 students—took virtual courses in 2018-19. These students generated 639,130 virtual enrollments which came from 931 different course titles, as determined by unique SCED codes. It is reasonable to expect that growth in virtual learning will continue in Michigan as it has over the past 7 years this report has been published by the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI). For those interested, Snapshot 2020 A review of K-12 Online, Blended and Digital Learning published by the Digital Learning Collaborative, presents a broader picture of what’s occurring across the nation as online, blended, and digital learning expand options for K-12 students.
Michigan’s Online Course Catalog, which is populated with online course titles and syllabi submitted by local school districts, intermediate school districts, and Michigan Virtual, serves as a clearinghouse from which students, families, and schools may choose online courses. Course syllabi include information such as course descriptions, course outlines, pricing, and more. The site is intended to be a general source of information for families, students, and schools to provide them with the information needed to make enrollment decisions.
Case Study with a Statewide Virtual School
A case study with Michigan Virtual details their approach to address the growing number of virtual learners seeking flexibility in beginning and completing an online course based on their personal circumstances and abilities. Taking an incremental approach that accommodates approximately 80% of users’ needs, Michigan Virtual decided to offer courses with expanded start dates over 6 consecutive weeks and a fixed end date. The 6-week period mirrors the school start patterns across the state. Beginning in the 2020-21 school year, Michigan Virtual launched an Open Entry – Fixed End calendar for high school courses for 20-week (semester) and 13-week (trimester) terms. Schools were able to select the pattern that best meets their students’ needs and the school’s academic calendar.
Michigan Virtual worked with a broad swath of practitioners including curriculum administrators, mentors, and superintendents among a host of others to document the complexities involved in delivering a quality virtual course experience to students in a way that provides flexibility to begin and complete coursework at the student level and allows schools to meet Michigan’s reporting schedule established by the state’s common core calendar (after Labor Day) or an early start waiver (before Labor Day). A framework was developed detailing the complexities of implementing flexible start and end dates and identifying potential pathways toward solutions.
The Michigan Virtual project team was led by the Learning Services team which serves K-12 students. Additional project team members included representatives from Infrastructure, Learning Applications and Technology Integrations, Customer Care, Sales, Marketing, and Planning Services as well as MVLRI’s Instructional Product Development team.
Milestones (Developed in February 2020)
At the start, the team identified the major events for the project and estimated an achievable timeline. A review of Michigan Virtual’s course calendar led the team to decide to implement a solution in Fall, 2020.
The project team determined major events as communication (internal and external messaging), user feedback on the proposed solution, training for staff (instructors, customer care and sales teams) and feedback during fall 2020 to inform adjustments for future terms in the 2020-21 school year. Evaluating implementation in December 2020 and planning a Phase 2 incorporating more extensive user feedback were additional milestones identified. Recognizing that time constraints did not allow for more extensive planning, the project team made a decision to separate work into a second phase in the next year. Phase 2 will include investigating new instructor pay models and schedule configurations. This work is expected to occur in tandem with prioritizing LMS customizations and modifying existing business practices affected by any LMS modification decisions.
Other considerations by the project team included refraining from modifying the existing teacher pay structure, mitigating any adverse effect on course sales, and recognizing the impact on users related to launching a new learning management system (LMS) at the same time as the expanded course start dates.
The team looked at what courses were most conducive to providing multiple start dates. Next came the identification of courses that were not conducive for one reason or another such as Advanced Placement (AP) courses and Chinese language courses. AP courses were designed to be completed prior to a single, nationwide AP exam date, set by the College Board for each subject. Chinese courses had limitations in the availability of instructors as well as operated synchronous weekly lab sessions that did not lend themselves to a flexible calendar. Concurrently, Michigan Virtual continued its normal course development and update cycle for the school year.
During May and early June 2020, training in the new Brightspace LMS was developed and delivered to online instructors. Training also included the Michigan Virtual Customer Care and Sales teams.
Internal communication included regularly scheduled meetings among the project team. Project updates were shared during weekly “all staff” meetings when appropriate. Other meetings were scheduled as problems arose and solutions were investigated.
External communications were designed and delivered as milestones were reached. The fall 2020 implementation required a broader approach to messaging in preparation for the start of a new school year. That messaging brought together the launch of both the new LMS and the expanded course start dates.
Michigan Virtual’s Student Learning Portal (SLP) is used by its customers to manage students and staff, enroll students in online courses, and pay for the courses. The project team worked to design how the expansion to six enrollment start dates for a subset of course offerings would become functional in the SLP. The technical solution was to give schools a choice to choose either their start date or their end date. The start date was preferred, and application customizations occurred to support the solution. Team members tested the functionality until it was released for fall 2020.
During initial project planning, consideration was given to delaying the deployment of parent/child relationship courses for fall 2020 to a future term because of higher internal priorities. However, the team agreed to revisit the scope of this change, wanting to have as much functionality in place as soon as possible. Other actions related to the fall 2020 implementation included changes resulting from the summer 2020 LMS pilot and preparation of the course catalog and instructor assignments for fall 2020.
Fall 2020 Implementation
Beginning in August, 2020, Michigan Virtual launched the flexible start course calendar for the majority of course offerings. After the enrollment window for fall courses expires, the project team will begin to define Phase 2 of this project.
The growing number of content providers and instructional models in the virtual, blended, and digital learning space are likely to meet the demand for student-centered solutions that allow schools to customize options for their virtual learners. More and more Michigan school districts are creating their own programs dedicated to virtual learning as another avenue to attract and retain students. Districts are also collaborating with one another and with ISDs in order to maintain quality online learning experiences and expand solutions for students. Flexibility and student-centered learning will continue to drive options and innovations in virtual learning.
Finally, temporary solutions for students to learn remotely for a defined period of time were not a factor in the scope of this project. Michigan Virtual’s effort to implement flexible start dates is intended to serve schools committed to permanent online learning choices for students. However, it should be noted that the emergency shift to remote learning during the spring 2020 semester due to the global pandemic will likely affect this project. As the 2020-21 school year begins in Michigan, schools are still determining how and when they will return to buildings, including what delivery methods of teaching will occur—from fully returning to school, to fully online, or some combination of both.