Administrator Guide to Online Learning

Administrator Guide to Online Learning

Table of Contents

About this Guide

This guide has been prepared by Michigan Virtual™, through its Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute®, with review and support from MASA, MASSP, MEMSPA, and MAISA to acquaint administrators – including superintendents, principals, curriculum directors, and other district and building-level decision-makers – with online learning. The guide includes general information about K-12 online learning, successful attributes of online learners and online programs, and Michigan-specific requirements of all districts, as well as financial considerations, instructional leadership effective practices, and topical compliance concerns. At the end of the guide is a list of free practical resources, many of which are cited throughout the guide, for more in-depth study of important aspects of online teaching and learning. While Michigan has full-time online programs or cyber schools (schools that deliver 100% of their instruction online), at this point in time the majority of online learning is delivered by traditional public schools that supplement their face-to-face offerings with online enrollments, allowing students to take a small number of online courses as part of their class schedule. This guide focuses primarily on the issues and circumstances related to supplemental online learning, though much of the information applies equally to full-time online programs and schools as well as blended instruction.


A resource of this scope is valuable because it is built on the work, research, experience, and thinking of many people. Michigan Virtual would like to thank the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, Michigan Association of Secondary School PrincipalsMichigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association, and Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators for their support; the many reviewers for their feedback; John Watson of Evergreen Education Group for his insight; Evergreen Education Group for permission to use their national summary tables and figures; and Rebecca Parks, MVLRI fellow, for her invaluable assistance in the writing of this guide.

Supporting Organizations


Michigan Virtual would like to thank MASA, MASSP, MEMSPA, and MAISA for their assistance with reviewing this guide and promoting it to their members.

Read the Letter of Support


Research has shown that online learning is academically effective and can provide meaningful alternatives for students who need greater flexibility with their education due to individual learning preferences, health conditions, employment responsibilities, lack of success with traditional school environments, or to pursue advanced coursework. Michigan policy leaders have nurtured an environment to foster more options and expanded choice for students and online learning. Many of these policies were created to allow students to accelerate and personalize their learning.

The outcomes for Michigan K-12 students with online courses have been mixed. Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report is an annual report that has benchmarked key measures of K-12 online learning in Michigan since 2010-11. Readers are encouraged to review the report. Table 1 makes clear the explosive growth seen due to the pandemic subsided substantially, but the numbers remained well above pre-pandemic levels. Many trends witnessed in past years continue to exist.

The goal of this guide is to help school administrators implement highly successful online programs such as these. Used in conjunction with other online learning guides for parents, students and mentors and informed by the latest research, school and district administrators can leverage the information and effective practices herein to effectively design online programs, appropriately staff them, and adequately support students to succeed online.

Many online learning experiences provide students with the same learning opportunity as face-to-face instruction, but with a different delivery method. In online instruction, students are given the chance to work one-on-one with their instructor such that both can focus on the individualized needs of that student. Students are able to work at their own pace, allowing them to have ownership in their learning. This is not always possible in a face-to-face classroom. — Online Teacher

Introduction to Online Learning

An online or virtual course is defined in Section 21f of the State School Aid Act (MCL 388.1621f, 2017) as:

… a course of study that is capable of generating a credit or a grade and that is provided in an interactive learning environment where the majority of the curriculum is delivered using the Internet and in which pupils may be separated from their instructor or teacher of record by time, location, or both.

As outlined in the Michigan Virtual  Student Guide to Online Learning, online learning is being used with K-12 students to:

  • Expand the range of courses available to students beyond what a single school can offer;
  • Allow flexibility to students facing scheduling conflicts;
  • Afford opportunities for elite athletes and performers, migrant youth, pregnant, at-risk, or incarcerated students, and students who are homebound due to illness or injury, to continue their studies outside the traditional classroom;
  • Provide credit recovery programs for students that have failed courses and/or dropped out of school, allowing them to get back on track to graduate;
  • Help students who are currently performing below grade-level to begin catching-up through blended learning;
  • Personalize instruction for the needs of individual students;
  • Provide on-demand online tutoring; and
  • Increase the teaching of technology skills by embedding technology literacy in academic content.

Online learning for K-12 schools emerged into mainstream education over 20 years ago. It began with full-time online and supplemental programs through state virtual schools and private vendor companies, but was closely followed by individual districts, schools, and collaborative consortia providing supplemental online classes to meet the diverse needs of the students they serve. According to the Digital Learning Collaborative in its Annual Report, Snapshot 2020 A review of K-12 online, blended, and digital learning, 32 states allowed online schools to operate and drew 375,000 FTE students (less than 1% of all K-12 students in the United States) in the 2018-19 school year. Even in states that have had online schools for two decades or more, few states have more than 2% of their students enrolled in full-time online schools, and no state has more than 4%.

Supplemental online courses are full courses that provide credit towards grade advancement or graduation, that are not part of a full-time online program. They include content (text, graphics, videos, etc.) and assessments. The course includes an online teacher, often employed by the course provider, who is in regular contact with students via online communications tools and telephone. Much instruction is asynchronous, sometimes augmented by real-time lessons. The course is housed within a technology platform, which is usually a learning management system.

State virtual schools make up one category of online course provider, and collectively served 1,015,760 supplemental course enrollments. No other national data sources are available to determine how many online courses are completed nationwide. A reasonable guess is that the number is several million. Other providers of online courses include companies, non-profit organizations, intermediate units, and school districts.

In 2020, a dramatic shift to remote learning occurred as the nation navigated the impact of a global pandemic on education. It will likely be years before we really understand what changes from pandemic learning are temporary and what shifts in online learning permanently influence how we learn and teach in the future. With so many people affected by working and educating remotely, this may prove to be the opportune time to meld what serves the whole learner well with what is newly possible with emerging technologies.     

Similar to the most recent report on Michigan’s virtual learning effectiveness, the Digital Learning Collaborative’s Annual Report Snapshot 2022 is valuable reading as it seeks to illuminate not only the digital learning response during the pandemic, including aspects of emergency remote learning, but also to look at prior data, and to anticipate a post-pandemic education future.

Online Learning in Michigan

Thanks to the Effectiveness Report on online learning in Michigan, we know that:

  • 666 Michigan public school districts reported at least one virtual enrollment;
  • Over half of the 1,914 schools with virtual enrollments had 100 or more virtual enrollments;
  • Over 208,000 Michigan K-12 students took at least one virtual course which represented 14% of Michigan public schools;
  • Schools are disproportionately enrolling students in poverty into online courses. On average, schools tend also to be enrolling students who are struggling academically in their face-to-face courses or for a subject in which a student has failed rather than for advanced coursework or for a subject in which the student is proficient.
  • The overall pass rate for virtual courses (69%) was down five percentage points from the prior year but remained much higher than pre-pandemic levels. The pass rate is low because of cases where students are being provided with large numbers of virtual courses without passing any of them. Restricting the number of virtual courses a student can take to one or two at a time until the student demonstrates successful completion might dramatically improve the statewide pass rate.  
  • Some districts are clearly more effective in using virtual learning than others. Twenty-three percent of schools had virtual pass rates of 90% to 100%.

Research also suggests that Michigan adults are not very informed about Michigan’s online learning laws. A survey with 600 Michigan adults conducted by Public Sector Consultants in February of 2019 found that only 23% of those surveyed were aware of Michigan’s online learning graduation requirement and 33% were aware that middle school and high school students were allowed to take up to two online courses per academic term. Despite the lack of awareness, these same adults tended to hold a favorable view of online learning including 77% indicating that it was very important (38%) or somewhat important (39%) for students in middle school and high school to have the option of enrolling in an online class at their local district.

Implementation Issues & Effective Practices for Stakeholders

The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) and Michigan legislation establishes the primary foundational requirements for compliance and implementation of online programs. These have been summarized in other sections of this guide and are spelled out in the Guide to Virtual Course Implementation and in various documents available at the end of this report. The following sections include both stipulations from the legislation and numerous effective practices to assist schools or districts with their planning and implementation.


  • Communicate clearly and consistently about online learning options to staff, parents/guardians, and students.
  • Post your policies and information related to online learning on your website, including any materials about how and when students are expected to make a request for an online course. Also include enrollment deadlines and orientation opportunities for parents and students. Building administrators should be able to explain the school’s processes which should align with legislation and requirements.
  • Review your student handbooks annually and update them to reflect current policies and expectations (see Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (2017) for recommendations).
  • Provide links on your website to Michigan’s Online Course Catalog and other resource documents, such as role-specific guides to online learning.

Online Providers

  • Identify what online provider or providers are used in the district and understand how they were selected.
  • Explore quality assurances from providers about their alignment to Michigan standards and to nationally-recognized course quality standards.
  • Outline steps the district will take to ensure that online students are able to be counted in membership and therefore are eligible to receive state payment.
  • Weigh the benefits and cost of developing your own courses versus purchasing them from a third-party provider.
  • Verify that the online courses you select have a teacher or arrange for a teacher of record to provide support alongside the mentor, especially if it is a credit recovery course.
  • Understand how background checks on the online teachers are occurring and how the teachers are added to the district’s Registry of Educational Personnel.
  • Determine whether the district wants to offer full-time online programs (district virtual school) to their own students or others, including details about, for example,
    • Contract requirements with third party providers
    • Student recruitment and information sharing campaigns
    • Enrollment and student monitoring procedures
    • Assurance of student count requirements
    • Teacher effectiveness and overall student performance
    • Program evaluation to ensure it is serving its intended purpose
    • Attending to national standards
    • Accessibility guidelines

Student Selection

  • Review your policy to be sure it aligns with the legislative requirements such as student eligibility or reasons for taking an online course.
  • Verify that your student handbook includes the denial reasons that are stipulated in the law and no others. For example, your online learning policies and student handbook should not include denial reasons that are outside the law, such as limiting online enrollment to credit recovery students only.
  • Be especially careful enrolling credit recovery students in online courses. They will probably require extra support from the mentor, the parents/guardians, and the online instructor if the credit recovery vendor provides one; most often they do not.

Student Supports

  • Offer a variety of training and support to parents/guardians, counselors, and mentors to prepare them to best support online learners.
  • Provide space onsite to support online learners, preferably a designated lab with a full-time mentor assigned.
  • Identify clearly for staff, students, and parents/guardians what technologies or staffing are available in the online learning spaces to help students be successful in their online courses and provide contact information.

Grades and Transcripts

  • Verify that the grading scales used in online courses align with those used in face-to-face courses.
  • Verify that the online course appears on student schedules and transcripts as a face-to-face class would.
  • Determine the impact online courses may have on student class rankings.

Student Performance

  • Compare the pass rate for district students in online courses to the pass rate for those same students in their face-to-face courses.
  • Compare your district or school’s pass rate in online courses to statewide pass rates for online courses published annually through Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2020-21.


  • Develop online learning policies based on successful models and strategies.
  • Review them annually for adherence to recent changes in state requirements.
  • Communicate your policies and annual changes to all stakeholders via your website and using other forms of communication you employ with students and parents/guardians.
  • Know how your school or district’s students are meeting the state’s online learning requirement (See MCL 380-1278a(1)(b)).
  • Review and consider national standards as you develop online program policies.


  • Engage an external consultant, organization, or accrediting body to conduct an external review of your online program. Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute offers a free program review to Michigan schools.

The Administrator Role

Administrators are often recognized as the first line of leadership in any school, online or brick and mortar. The administrator holds many roles within the school and navigates each one to create a learning community that focuses on providing a quality education and vision of success for their students. They are responsible for managing funds and cultivating leadership within the school community while effectively managing teachers, mentors, paraprofessionals, parents/guardians, and students and bringing them all together to develop a strong and effective learning environment. They are charged with many objectives that need to work seamlessly together, but often they find themselves thrust into the position with many unanswered questions. In the online learning environment, these questions or unknowns can be even more challenging as this learning environment is not well known to many administrators – especially those new to their role – and spans a smaller but growing demographic.

As each situation is unique, so are the questions and concerns that administrators have when establishing or maintaining a successful online program. Creating a specific checklist is close to impossible, but the general themes that administrators need to focus their attention on can be somewhat summarized in a few points. John Watson, Founder of Evergreen Education Group (personal communication, March 22, 2018), identified five broad encompassing areas that administrators of local online programs should be aware of in their leadership role:

  • Online learning is complicated. With so many components to consider – course, program, school, students, teachers, parents, school hours, calendar – the administrator will need to consider how the program or course will work in concert with all the other factors.
  • Many people have views regarding online learning that are unsupported, or only partially supported, by evidence.
  • Developing a successful program will take longer than expected; therefore, it is very important to set reasonable expectations from the start.
  • The online content and platform are not going to make or break the program, as long as the decisions are made thoughtfully, strategically, and with the end user – the student – in mind.
  • Successful programs are often created by a strong leader; they are rarely created by committees.

Online learning doesn’t look like a regular class. Everyone is doing something different. – Mentor

Common Misunderstandings about Online Learning

Even with the expansive research and reports surrounding the digital learning landscape, some common misconceptions or misunderstandings about online learning remain. Some of these misconceptions may create gaps that prohibit growth, while others may be the source of confusion among administrative leadership and trickle down to other stakeholders in the school.

Misunderstanding #1: Classroom teachers can easily be successful in teaching online classes.

Although public school teachers understand the pedagogy involved in educating students in their instructional area, research has shown that teachers are not prepared to teach online classes and require professional development focusing specifically on online learning pedagogy to meet the unique needs of their learners and understand the dynamics of the virtual delivery of courses (Barbour & Unger Harrison, 2016). Professional development specifically for online teaching is imperative for successful students and teachers (Davis & Rose, 2007).

Misunderstanding #2:  The biggest constraint when implementing online courses is surrounding the technology components.

John Watson from Evergreen Education Group states that although technology can indeed be a barrier, there are other constraints that create far more challenges than the high-tech aspects. Such challenges are often cultural, behavioral, and organizational. Administrators should be aware that buy-in from stakeholders is critical to a successful online learning program.

Misunderstanding #3:  Online learning is very similar to what students experience in their brick-and-mortar schools except that the instruction is completed online.

Although the standards and competencies required for students to learn are often the same in both the brick-and-mortar forum and the online forum, the differences expand far beyond delivery. Administrators must recognize and account for the 24/7 accessibility of the online coursework and all the factors that come with a school that is “never closed.” Negotiating access in the community; adapting procedures to support grading and open student enrollment; reporting for students, parents, teachers, and mentors; discipline; technological support; and course evaluation must all be looked at through varied lenses (Davis & Rose, 2007).

Misunderstanding #4: Online learning is easy for students to adapt to and be successful.

Although students may be proficient in using technology in their everyday world, using technology for learning requires active instruction and support from the teacher and the mentor. This active instruction requires time to teach the habits and effective practices for a successful online learner. Using technology to acquire information, organize thoughts, create and share documents and/or assignments, and learn the educational concepts being taught does not come naturally but requires more direct, step-by-step instruction before students can pick up these habits. This requires implicit instruction from the adults, often 1:1 mentoring, and a great deal of trial and error between the teacher and the student. Expectations need to be spelled out clearly, and often teachers need to reach out to students numerous times to help them navigate the course and learning methods. This takes a considerable amount of time from the teacher, the mentor, and the student, and often is a task that is required in addition to the subject content being taught. Administrators need to recognize the need for this type of intensive coaching on both the mentors’ and the teachers’ behalf, especially at the beginning of a new course for new online learners. They also need to allow for this mentoring time during the academic instruction, recognizing that the preparation and instruction time may even double for the online instructor.

Additionally, online courses can vary in the level of difficulty, complexity, and expectations just as they would in a traditional face-to-face class (Wicks, 2010). Collaboration between students may exist or the students may have to work independently, also determined by the online class expectations and format.

Misunderstanding #5: Online learning is less expensive than traditional face-to-face instruction.

The technological infrastructure required for a quality online program can easily resemble the financial budget required for a brick-and-mortar school (Wicks 2010). Depending on the hardware and software chosen for the program, the teacher-student ratios in the online class, the mentors, and the additional faculty and staff needed to manage the “behind the scenes” interworkings of the online program, the digital learning school can be equivalent to the cost of the traditional learning model.

How Online Learning Is Similar and Different from Face-to-Face

Because online learning is still new to many school staff and students, it is common for there to be misunderstandings about online courses — specifically how they are similar to and different from face-to-face learning (for more about the similarities and differences between online and face-to-face learning, see the Michigan Virtual Teacher Guide to Online Learning). A primary example relevant to the students’ direct experience and directly affecting success rates is that people often believe that online courses are easier. Certainly some online courses are less challenging than what a student experiences face-to-face, but several years of data collected from end-of-course surveys indicate that most often, students report online courses to be at least as challenging — if not more so — than what they experience in their face-to-face courses. This tends to be because the student has to learn the same content knowledge as the face-to-face course but has to do so in an unfamiliar learning environment; students have to develop skills for navigating the online course, self-regulation strategies for staying on pace to complete the course, and new ways of asking for help when they have a question, all without being in the same physical location as their online teacher. However, the learning platform being used may be unique to the online school or program, while the technology and learning applications are often found in today’s brick and mortar schools.

Why Students Choose Online Learning

Students want to learn online for a variety of reasons. The Foundation for Blended and Online Learning (2017) published a report on why students choose blended and online schools. The report authors used surveys, focus groups, and interviews with students, along with other data to create the report. The report identified three broad reasons students pursue online and blended learning: 1) academics, 2) social-emotional health and safety, and 3) interests and life circumstances. Students may be interested in enrolling in online courses because their schools cannot or do not offer the class face-to-face, for example, Advanced Placement (AP). AP courses are a common request because schools often do not have qualified teachers in the subject areas or enough students to provide the courses face-to-face. Sometimes, students turn to online courses to overcome a scheduling conflict, and some use online courses for elective credit and personal enrichment — including taking courses over the summer. Many schools and students also use online courses for credit recovery. In this case, caution is advised. For several years, Michigan student data described in Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2020-21 indicates that many students tend not to be successful when placed in online courses for credit recovery purposes unless they receive consistent, specialized support.

Sometimes parents and students alike are surprised at how difficult the work may be and how much time a student will have to spend trying to learn it. – Mentor

The level of thoughtful focus necessary for a quality online learning experience is something most K-12 students have never been asked to do. Even in a blended course, they only scratch the surface of how disciplined they must be to be successful.  – Mentor

Profile of a Successful Student

Students who have a successful, satisfying experience learning online tend to share several critical characteristics:

Good Time Management: The student creates and maintains a consistent study schedule throughout the semester and is able to do so without significant prodding from a teacher.

Effective Communication: The student knows when and how to ask for help and is able to clearly describe any problems she/he is having with the learning materials using email, texting and/or the telephone. This includes seeking help from the online instructor, a mentor, or even other students in the online course.

Independent Study Habits: The student studies and completes assignments without direct supervision and maintains the self-discipline to stick to a schedule.

Self-Motivation: The student has a strong desire to learn skills, acquire knowledge, and fulfill assignments in online courses because of an educational goal and can maintain focus on that goal.

Academic Readiness: The student has the basic reading, writing, math, and computer literacy skills to succeed in the class.

Technologically Prepared: The student knows how to open, create, and/or save a document using word processing applications (e.g., Microsoft, Google, or other cloud-based tools); use various technology tools (e.g., dictionary, thesaurus, grammar checker, calculator); and identify, download, and convert various file formats (e.g., doc, xls, pdf, jpg).

One to Two Online Courses or a History of Success: Students enrolled in traditional schools tend to perform better in their online courses when they only take one or two online courses at a time. Unless a student has already proven they can be successful taking one or two online courses, it is not advisable to enroll them in more.

Data examined in Michigan’s Effectiveness Reports over the last several years have made it clear that success in face-to-face courses is correlated with success in online courses. Further, students who struggle with face-to-face courses also tend to struggle in online courses. Laying the groundwork for student success in online courses requires preparing the students and their parents/guardians for this new experience and maintaining a robust network of wraparound support for students, parents/guardians, mentors, and other staff.

Supports Required for Successful Students

Most K-12 students benefit from a structured learning environment that is well supported — whether in face-to-face classrooms or virtual learning environments. Successful online students tend to be surrounded by a team of adults who are focused on the students’ success. For each of these groups — parents/guardians, counselors, mentors, online teachers, and peers — the support role is even more important when students are taking the course to recover credit. It often takes more time and more effort to help these students stay involved and on pace and complete their courses successfully.

It’s really hard to get the parents to understand that this kid has an actual class that in the near future is going on your report card. Grades count. Grades matter. – Mentor

I have a form [the students] have to take home and talk about with their parents. Their parents have to sign the form saying that it’s okay that they take a certain class. – Mentor


Parents/Guardians are integral partners in student support; however, their responsibilities may be a little different when their students are enrolled in online courses. The level of parental engagement that students need is, in part, determined by the level of mentoring support provided at the students’ local brick-and-mortar school. Many students who are not provided the time and space to learn at school will have to learn at home. Then the organizing and managing responsibilities shift to the parent (Hasler Waters, Menchaca, & Borup, 2014).

For this reason, school counselors and/or onsite mentors should be working to educate parents/guardians before a student registers for an online course. It is common for parents/guardians to be unaware that their students are enrolled in any online courses (Borup, Chambers, & Stimson, 2017). One means of introducing online learning to parents is the Parent Guide to Online Learning. The guide details what online learning is and introduces some of the benefits online learning offers. It also includes information about the characteristics of successful online learners and how to help students prepare for learning online.

In Helping Online Students Be Successful: Parental Engagement, Borup, Chambers, and Stimson (2017), reported that teachers and mentors expressed beliefs that students were most likely to succeed in online courses when parents/guardians:

  • Advise students on their course enrollments;
  • Participate in an orientation with their students;
  • Understand the challenges that students face in online learning and the ways that they can help their students overcome those challenges;
  • Receive a contract or agreement outlining responsibilities and expectations for student, parent, online teacher, teacher of record, and mentor  (See Mentor Guide to Online Learning and the student and parent Online Learning Agreement for samples);
  • Receive school policy information, including reasons for denial and how the course figures into the student’s academic record;
  • Monitor student performance and progress;
  • Motivate students to more fully engage in learning activities;
  • Organize and manage student learning at home; and
  • Assist students as they work on assignments.

They also found that parental engagement in online programs may increase when staff:

  • Involve parents/guardians in online course enrollment decisions;
  • Educate parents/guardians about learning online and how they can support their students;
  • Maintain regular contact with parents/guardians by inviting them to be involved in specific ways;
  • Communicate in the mode parents prefer, whether it is phone, email, letter, face-to-face in person or using an app, or via a designated Facebook page.
  • Assist parents/guardians in keeping up on their students’ academic performance by regularly providing student progress reports and offering an online parent portal so they can easily track student engagement and performance.

Mentors and teachers agree that most students require consistent support from parents/guardians; however, if the online students attend a daily lab with an active mentor, parents’ responsibilities are similar to those for students in face-to-face courses.


School processes differ in how the student gains access to online courses. Some schools have registrars, others use mentors to enroll students, and in many places, counselors fill that role. Whether discussion about online options takes place when the counselor and student are engaged in academic planning or as a student is being enrolled in courses for the next semester, reviewing vital school information such as attendance, grades, and test records is another important step in determining whether online learning is a good fit for each individual student — regardless of the reason for taking a course online. Those advising students should also consider a readiness check, such as the easily administered Online Learner Readiness Rubric or the Strategies for Online Success.

Counselors, mentors, and students and their parents/guardians – whoever is involved in assisting the student with course selection – should review the full syllabus of a course, not just the title and course description, in order to understand recommended prerequisite coursework; device or technical requirements and limitations; required textbooks, lab kits, software downloads; and other additional costs or materials not provided online.

Attention to a student’s motivation for enrolling in an online course can go a long way toward eventual success. Students are most successful when there is a genuine desire to succeed; i.e., if I pass this course, I will reach my goal of graduation, acceptance to a particular college, a desired occupation, etc. Conversely, students are more likely to be less successful in an online course when there is little motivation; i.e., my counselor made me take this course; I don’t need this credit to graduate; it doesn’t matter if I pass or fail, so who cares? Those advising students and creating information and orientation materials – counselor, teacher, mentor, curriculum advisor, or administrator – should be aware of recent research by Kwon (2017) published in her report Examining Credit Recovery Experience at a State Virtual School that showed students taking virtual classes for credit recovery or based on their learning preference did not perform as well as students who took classes for other reasons such as scheduling conflicts or personal interest.

Mentors provide the human relationship that is sometimes missing in online learning. – Mentor


Many people have the misconception that online learners don’t have the benefit of the traditional human relationships established in the face-to-face classroom. On the contrary, the school-based mentor provides that important personal, usually face-to-face connection for students learning virtually: effective mentors work with the students every day, support them, and build trusting relationships.

In some districts, mentors are part of the school’s multi-tiered system of support and do more than support online learning. They engage with other school staff at all levels, contributing to a vision of the whole student and his/her personalized learning. Many mentors are part-time paraprofessionals, although mentors often fill other roles in the school, such as a teacher, counselor, media center specialist, and even an administrator.

If administrators and staff already recognize low parental engagement at their school, one effective intervention they can implement is to provide their online students with a set time and place to learn in the presence of an active mentor. In fact, research has found that students who learned in a facilitated lab were almost twice as likely to pass their online courses as students who were not required to attend a lab (Roblyer, Davis, Mills, Marshall, & Pape, 2008). The most successful online programs tend to have someone who is devoted to mentoring online students full time. Regardless of what other roles they fulfill, mentors are indispensable adults who know the student and provide perspective, support, and encouragement.

Online Teacher

While some models of online learning tend not to provide an online teacher, including many credit recovery models, an online teacher can be instrumental in student success – just as they are in face-to-face settings. The online teacher provides direct coaching toward achieving course goals through personalized feedback on assignments and progress. Many teachers and students report that online learning offers the opportunity to develop closer relationships than a face-to-face environment. While that may seem counter-intuitive, consider that online students are asked to respond to all teacher questions — not just the few times they get called upon in a face-to-face class – and that in many cases, the student response is only seen by the teacher, unlike a public classroom setting where their peers are listening and perhaps judging their responses. It is not surprising that outside the demands and challenges of a face-to-face classroom, both teachers and students alike can develop close relationships.

On the other hand, some students in programs with high success rates expressed contrary opinions. For instance, research by Borup, Chambers, and Stimson (2018a) found that some online students resisted developing relationships with their online teachers. One of the students in their focus group found the thought of building a relationship with an online teacher to be weird. Others didn’t see a need for such a relationship, instead advocating that it was more important to develop a strong relationship with their mentor teacher. It may be that whether the relationship is with the mentor or the online teacher is less important and what is most important is that a strong relationship with one of them exists.


While other students are not a primary source of support to online learners, as mentors, parents/guardians, and other adults are, peers are still valuable assets in the learning process. Borup, Chambers, and Stimson (2018a & 2018b) documented how other online learners provided support:

  • Source of information when making a decision about a particular online course or about learning online in general,
  • Sources of encouragement when the peer has taken online courses before,
  • Study resource when the peer has taken the same online course before or is taking it concurrently,
  • Reassurance about learning in a new format, including guidance in how to navigate the online course and work with the mentor and online teacher, and
  • General support and collegiality when online learners work on their courses in a lab setting or otherwise designated space.

How to Establish and Maintain a Successful Online Program

Watson and Gemin (2009) discussed key ideas to consider when establishing an online program in the Promising Practices series published by the Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL). The first step is to determine the type of online program that would meet stakeholder needs and the goals associated with this program. Asking basic questions to identify a problem, determining the need, and outlining the purpose is essential to starting an online program.

Some key questions that administrators of online programs should keep at the forefront of their daily activities may be:

  • What educational problem are we trying to solve? What goal are we trying to reach?
  • What is our geographic reach?
  • How long will it take to reach this goal, and what are the steps along the way?
  • How does every stakeholder feel about this effort?

Then, as the administrator begins to establish the online program, he/she might want to reflect on and review the following questions:

  • Have we reached our goals?
  • Where are we on the trajectory towards our goals?
  • How does every stakeholder feel about this effort?
  • How are we managing efforts towards continuous improvement?

These high-level questions help to build a solid foundation for an online program; however, these questions and the sub-questions that will emerge, should be reviewed often and honestly to maintain a successful online program for a long period of time (See the District Strategy Framework in the resources for more information). In addition, remember the following elements in an online learning program that lead to greater success for students:

  • Methods for how best to manage the everyday operations of the online program – including the teachers, mentors, paraprofessionals, parents, and students – are essential components to identify and contemplate.
  • Ways to develop a strong and effective learning environment, manage funds, and cultivate leadership within the school community are also frequent considerations for discussion and reflection.
  • Additional attributes to consider include the curriculum that will be used, the demographics of students, and the teachers and mentors selected for this program and their understanding of the online learning methodology and purpose.

The National Standards for Quality Online Learning, initially created by the Aurora Institute (formerly  iNACOL), have been updated by Quality Matters and the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance. These three sets of standards provide a framework for schools, districts, state agencies, statewide online programs and other interested educational organizations to improve online and blended learning programs. The standards are intended to provide guidance while providing maximum flexibility for the users.

Beyond online and blended learning, are other terms such as digital learning and remote learning. Each, while distinct, share commonalities which makes them useful in expanding the scope of things to consider while building on what is already in place. The Digital Learning Collaborative offers A Guide for Starting and Growing a Digital Learning Program and another focused on continuous improvement. The Learning Continuity: Planning Considerations for School Leaders offers school leaders actionable advice on how they can leverage digital instructional content and remote teaching practices to provide learning opportunities for all students in the event of unanticipated and extended school closures.

Factors & Features Tied to Success

Successful online learning programs require planning and support in the areas outlined below, most of which also pertain to the face-to-face environment. The nature of online learning is ever-changing; it demands special attention, adjustment to some existing elements and processes, and continued creative problem-solving as well as knowledge of practical research-based effective practices. The resources at the end of the guide provide an extensive introduction to and foundation for many of these practices.

Program Development

  • Invest in time for staff to engage in strategic planning for online learning.
  • Use practical resources to help structure a thorough strategic plan, such as the Planning Guide for Online and Blended Learning (Michigan Virtual University, 2012) and other publications found at the end of the guide.
  • Invest in time to visit/investigate other programs, and include teachers and other staff in the visits/investigation.
  • Participate in and/or create professional learning networks (PLNs) and professional learning communities (PLCs).
  • Verify the quality of the individual courses using national standards such as those listed in the resources (ISTE, and Quality Matters); attend to how the online course is created, supported, and maintained; and check how often it is revised.


  • Provide the opportunity for mentor professional development, beginning with initial orientation to the position and the online program and lasting throughout the individual’s online career, as for teachers and other student support personnel.
  • Provide professional, technical, and learning resources for mentors to support online students.
  • Maintain a manageable work-load for mentors.
  • Establish a mentor position dedicated specifically for supporting online learners, not as an addition to other duties.

If the students don’t have the opportunity to work in the school, then I think more expectations are put on the parents to play more of a role in monitoring the progress of the student: making sure they’re understanding the material, contacting me if the student is struggling and needs after-hours help with some of the work, setting up time [for additional support]. – Online teacher


  • Provide access to and support for technology required for online courses as stipulated by your course provider.
  • Provide space, preferably a dedicated lab, where online students can receive support from their mentor(s) and support each other.
  • Maintain devices provided to students enrolled in your school or district.
  • Provide tech support for students and mentors who are aware of common issues with the online courses your students are taking.
  • Be prepared to accommodate student need for 24/7 access and the lack of internet access for some students outside of the brick-and-mortar school.


  • Offer time and opportunity to assess students’ preparedness for online learning.
  • Provide devices and technological support.
  • Provide and maintain student support resources – academic, technological, and human (mentors, counselors, special services).
  • Provide orientation for parents and students to set expectations, introduce the LMS and technology needed to be successful, discuss the policies for grading and student conduct, and review the related portions of your student handbook.
  • Develop a system for documenting how students’ IEPs and 504s are met in the online environment.


  • Compute the cost of the staff and technology required to develop your own courses.
  • Consider the difference in expense between developing your own courses or purchasing them from a third party provider.
  • Plan for the review and include the cost of ensuring quality reviews (internal or external) of the courses your school or district develop using an established and, preferably, a nationally recognized process. (See the resources for suggestions.)
  • Verify that third party content under consideration has been reviewed, or include time and resources for doing the review process in-house.
  • Identify the student supports included by providers when considering third party options.
  • Include teachers for oversight and support for the mentors and students if you choose any courses that do not come with one.


  • Offer professional development topics specifically related to online teaching and learning if teachers are expected to teach or oversee online courses, for example:
    • Student motivation,
    • Interaction and involvement between students in the course and the teacher,
    • How to differentiate and personalize instruction in the online learning environment,
    • Meeting the learning support needs of special education students in the online learning environment,
    • Effective communication (email, discussion posts, tone of writing, etc.)
    • Comprehensive formative assessment techniques for the online learning environment, and
    • Academic integrity
  • Establish a calendar and specific processes for evaluating and coaching online teachers.
  • Understand and encourage collaborative work with your students’ mentors.

Parental Involvement

  • Include parents/guardians in some phase of strategic planning for your online learning program and in its review and improvements as well.
  • Introduce parents early to your online learning options, policies, and contact people.
  • Determine how parents will monitor or access their students’ course content in the LMS, if they will be provided a parent role with login credentials to monitor their students’ progress and assist in their work, and if there will be planned or automated progress reporting to parents from the student data within the LMS.
  • Provide an orientation that includes both parents/guardians and students so they hear the same message together. Record these interactions so they can be shared with those who could not attend and archived as support materials.
  • Communicate regularly about your online program and any policy changes.
  • Use parents’ preferred mode of communication and offer choices: letters, email, text, phone, Facebook, Google Hangout, Skype, Zoom.
  • Offer face-to-face opportunities for parents/guardians and online learners to talk with mentors and program administrators.
  • Provide resources – print, online, and in person – for parents’ ongoing engagement in their students’ online experience.
  • Make sure parents have access to the LMS and understand how to access their students’ progress in the course.

Instructional Leadership

A successful online program requires strong leadership. Most school administrators may not have much experience establishing and maintaining online learning programs, but many have a good start on the endeavor and can and do provide ideas, encouragement, and support to their colleagues who are at earlier stages of development. In addition, practical research about online learning environments and student success has been and is being done, so we know a lot more about effective practices than we did even three years ago. See the resources and references at the end of the guide for relevant research-based publications.

While opportunities to show understanding about and vision for developing successful online programs and services occur at the professional level, the impact of instructional leadership occurs at home, at the district and school building level, where the superintendent and principals set the tone and expectations for students, staff, parents, vendors, and community. Administrators at all levels are important advocates for online learning policies and options that expand opportunities for students and prepare them to be successful digital citizens in post-secondary studies and their work lives.

Effective Practices for Using Online Learning

Build on the Strengths and Experience of Those Who Are a Little Further Along

If you’re just getting started, establish and promote a PLC focused on issues specific for administrators in the same position. If you have been building a program, establish and promote a PLC focused on the issues you’re tackling and invite colleagues in a similar spot, as well as those further along. While you’re at it, encourage the establishing of PLCs at the building or district level for other staff who will be intimately involved, such as teachers, counselors, and mentors.

The same can be said for PLNs. Both are very accessible means of learning more about what you already know and what you need to learn and provide the opportunity to collaborate and build relationships with colleagues.

Participate in Ongoing Professional Development

Because technology, pedagogy, and effective practices are changing very rapidly, ongoing professional development is critical. It is important for administrators at all levels to participate in professional development in order to meet the challenges of embracing online learning options effectively and to provide the optimum learning environment for the students, teachers, staff, parents/guardians, and the community that you serve. Other staff involved in online learning will also require professional development to stay on target with effective practices. Michigan’s educational organizations such as MEMSPA, MASSP, and MASA are a source of opportunities for further training, education, and collaboration as well as support in moving into this new territory.

Offer Effective Practices and Guidance

When leadership exhibits knowledge of and support for effective practice in online learning – including blended learning, supplemental instruction, and full-time online cyber schools – others feel more comfortable exploring new strategies and techniques. It is incumbent upon administrators and other district and school level decision-makers to set the tone for school staff’s exploration of educational technology and commitment to new teaching and learning strategies specific to online environments. Everyone operates more successfully when they are prepared and understand the challenges and strategies that characterize the approaches.

Blended Learning

For many districts and schools, blended learning can be the gateway to understanding how online teaching strategies can enhance and improve student learning. Some districts or schools are making the transition to online options by beginning with blended learning. Many teachers have begun employing blended learning strategies and techniques in their face-to-face classrooms. Some schools and districts have embraced blended learning and have been encouraging and often providing professional development for their teachers to expand and embrace this practice. For more about the blended teaching experience, see the resources at the end of this guide.

Supplemental Instruction

Most schools choose to support the interest in online learning by purchasing courses from third party providers that supplement the face-to-face courses students take. Once staff have some experience with courses, they often begin developing their own local solutions. Good course development requires knowledge of design principles and associated learning technologies as well as a review and evaluation process to see that the courses meet quality standards such as those set by Quality Matters and the National Standards for Quality Online Learning. See the National Standards for Quality Online Courses for more information.

Full Online Cyber

Some leadership choose the option of creating a program that serves students within a district and offers curriculum that is completely online. Traditionally, full online cyber schools have been charter cybers, but more growth is occurring in local schools creating their own full time cyber programs.

Collaborate with Other Schools/Districts

The level of understanding of and enthusiasm for online learning varies. Collaborating with another school or district that is a little further along in their program development may make the transition a little more comfortable. PLCs, PLNs, organizational special interest groups (SIGs), can all provide a venue for discussing vision, strategies, and implementation and for troubleshooting as well. SETDA’s Transformational Digital Learning: A Guide to Implementation may prove a valuable resource in collaborating with others.

Plan Ahead

Planning is an area where a PLC, PLN, or SIG could play a significant role by providing a venue for administrators to share their experience and describe what they have learned and what they would do differently. Those who have not yet developed a clear vision for their online program might benefit from reviewing the strategic plan for an established, successful program as a model. Include internal and external stakeholders in the strategic planning for your online options or program. While students and parents, as well as school staff, are often unaware of the nature, benefits, and challenges of online learning, ongoing transparency and regular communication are required for healthy, trusting relationships. Strategic planning for such a large endeavor also cannot be undervalued. Review the sample District Strategy Framework in the resources at the end of this report for questions to help you focus on important elements.

Prepare for Assessment & Reporting

Course assessment differs as broadly in the online environment as it does in the face-to-face classroom. However course assessments may require that students are proctored. This is less of a problem when you have a dedicated lab and mentor available. In order to be prepared, it is important that all concerned know what to expect from the provider.

Schools or districts in the early stages of program development may not be aware that the 21f legislation established that online courses be seen as equivalent to face-to-face when it comes to transcript information. The law requires that online course grades and performance be reported on transcripts just as face-to-face courses would.

Establish Multiple Parent/Guardian Communication Strategies

Parents/guardians are integral to student support and success in online learning as in the face-to-face classroom, perhaps more so because the student is expected to work independently – both inside and outside of regular school hours. Because of the many competing responsibilities parents juggle and the problems associated with homelessness, lack of internet service, and sometimes literacy skills, maintaining communication can be a challenge. Mentors report using the regular channels of email, letters sent home with students, letters sent through the mail, phone calls, and school functions to share information. Some mentors have had more success getting responses by using a Facebook page designated for administrative communication with online learners and their parents or guardians.

Establish Faculty Alignment & Communication

As always, clear and consistent communication has a significant impact on the acceptance of changes in the teaching and learning workplace. Staff at all levels should have a shared understanding of your district or school’s online learning options to aid in broad acceptance, encourage support at all levels for students, and represent the opportunities for online learning with other stakeholders in a positive and productive light. Faculty are especially important because they have the potential to develop or enhance their capacity for online teaching, and they often play an advisory role when students are looking for courses. See the Supports for Successful Students section of this guide for additional effective practices.

Professional Development and Support for Mentors

Professional development for teachers and mentors in the online learning environment must be a high priority for the success of online learners. Educators and mentors in online environments have unique learning needs that require additional pedagogy awareness and practice to meet the needs of their students and establish their own understanding of the online format and instructional delivery. Research indicates that professional development for teachers and mentors must be ongoing, specific, and relevant to the K-12 online learning and mentoring format, personalized for the individual, and modeled in its instruction. School and district administrators lay the groundwork for a successful virtual learning environment for staff and students by incorporating professional development opportunities in their annual planning and by being aware of and sharing a variety of free resources. SETDA’s Transformative Digital Learning: A Guide to Implementation may prove a valuable resource in understanding the context of and recommendations for technology policies and practices related to creating a successful online learning environment. Michigan Virtual offers support, resources, and professional development opportunities for mentors regardless of the provider the school or district uses. Current mentor resources and opportunities are available on the Michigan Virtual Mentor page to anyone interested in connecting with those who are a primary source of support to online learners.

Michigan’s Online Learning Requirement

With the adoption of the Michigan Merit Curriculum (MMC) in 2006, Michigan students are required to have an online learning experience in order to graduate from high school. This requirement was aimed at preparing K-12 students for the digital world they will encounter in higher education, their future workplaces, and in their personal lives (Michigan Department of Education, 2006). Schools were provided with flexibility in how they could fulfill the online learning requirement — in part due to the vast difference in technology access and readiness of schools in 2006. Today, the requirement can be satisfied by students either through taking an online course or by having an integrated online experience in each of their MMC required courses (Michigan Department of Education, 2017). While Michigan was the first state in the country with such a requirement, several other states have since followed. The Digital Learning Collaborative’s publication, Course Choice A review of policy and practice (2019),  provides a broader national perspective.

Section 21f of the State School Aid Act

Since 2013, the State School Aid Act (MCL 388.1621f, 2017) has required Michigan public schools to honor parent or student request for enrollment in up to two online courses per academic term or more if parents, students, and school leadership agree that more than two are in the best interest of the child. Eligible courses for enrollment include those published in the student’s school district’s catalog of board-approved courses or from those in Michigan’s Online Course Catalog, a statewide catalog of virtual courses.

The purpose of the statewide catalog of course offerings is to assist schools, parents, and students in making informed decisions when selecting among the variety of online providers. Each course contains information such as:

  • Syllabus,
  • Description,
  • Prerequisites,
  • Course outcomes,
  • Course structure,
  • Required assessments,
  • Resources,
  • Course review,
  • Academic support available, and
  • Past student performance.

While the Act specifies some reasons a school district may choose to deny the parent or student request, the number of denial reasons are few and narrow in scope. Denial reasons include:

  • The pupil is enrolled in any of grades K to 5.
  • The pupil has previously gained the credits that would be provided from the completion of the virtual course.
  • The virtual course is not capable of generating academic credit.
  • The virtual course is inconsistent with the remaining graduation credits or career interests of the pupil.
  • The pupil has not completed the prerequisite coursework for the requested virtual course or has not demonstrated proficiency in the prerequisite course content.
  • The pupil has failed a previous virtual course in the same subject during the two most recent academic years.
  • The virtual course is of insufficient quality or rigor. A primary district that denies a pupil’s enrollment request for this reason shall enroll the pupil in a virtual course in the same or a similar subject that the primary district determines is of acceptable rigor and quality.
  • The cost of the virtual course exceeds 6.67% of the minimum foundation allowance for the current fiscal year, unless the pupil or the pupil’s parent or legal guardian agrees to pay the cost that exceeds this amount.
  • The request for a virtual course enrollment did not occur within the same timeline established by the primary school district for enrollment and schedule changes for regular courses.
  • The request for a virtual course enrollment was not made in the academic term, semester, trimester, or summer preceding the enrollment. This subdivision does not apply to a request made by a pupil who is newly enrolled in the primary district.

The Act expressly prohibits districts from denying enrollment requests for reasons other than those mentioned above, and those listed are optional: the district may choose not to block an enrollment request even if one of the denial reasons may exist (for instance, a request from a student in grades K-5).

District Responsibilities under 21f

Regardless of whether a district decides to provide their own online courses, the Act requires all Michigan school districts to:

  • Allow students from the district — with the exception of those mentioned above — to take up to two online courses or more during an academic term;
  • Include a link on the district’s website to the statewide catalog of online courses;
  • Document parental consent before enrolling a student in an online course;
  • Pay the cost of the online course. Only if a course fee is in excess of 6.67% of the state’s minimum foundation allowance may a parent be asked to pay — and only for the excess amount. The range of cost for a semester-length course can be viewed in Michigan Virtual’s Consumer Awareness report;
  • Assign each student a mentor;
  • Include the course(s) on the student schedule using the online course title as it appears in the district catalog or the statewide catalog;
  • Provide online students with the same rights and access to technology as the district provides to all other students; and
  • Grant academic credit for successful course completions including toward graduation and subject area requirements.

Districts may deliver online courses as part of the Act. Online courses offered may be restricted only to district students, or can include district students and students statewide. For online courses restricted to in-district students, the district must:

  • Ensure that each virtual course has been published in the district’s catalog of board-approved courses or published in the statewide catalog of virtual courses maintained by Michigan Virtual;
  • Assign to each student a teacher of record; and
  • Offer the virtual course on an open entry and exit method, or aligned to a semester, trimester, or accelerated academic term format.

If the virtual course is also offered to students outside of district, the following additional requirements must be met:

  • Provide Michigan Virtual with a course syllabus in a form and manner prescribed by Michigan Virtual for inclusion in a statewide catalog of virtual courses;
  • Assign each student a teacher of record and provide schools with students from outside the district with the personnel identification code assigned by the Center for Performance and Information (CEPI) for the teacher of record;
  • Ensure a course quality review is conducted for each course syllabus in adherence to the process outlined in the Guide for Online Course Review Process and submit the results of each review through the statewide catalog of online courses — including for courses offered in partnership with a third-party online course provider;
  • Identify a single price for each course title; and
  • Provide Michigan Virtual, not later than October 1 of each fiscal year, with the number of enrollments for each virtual course the district delivered and the number of those enrollments in which students earned 60% or more of the total course points.

Michigan Virtual maintains a robust set of Section 21f resources including an infographic that provides a visual overview of the legislation, and many other practical resources for implementing a high quality online program.

Pupil Accounting Considerations

Districts should be aware of the state rules for counting students in membership and the required documentation for verifying participation in virtual courses. These rules appear in Section 5-O-D of the Michigan Pupil Accounting Manual published by MDE. This section also provides definitions and requirements for staff tasked with providing instruction and supporting learners in online environments. Each virtual enrollment must be assigned a “teacher of record” who is responsible for providing instruction, determining instructional methods for each pupil, diagnosing learning needs, assessing pupil learning, prescribing intervention strategies and modifying lessons, reporting outcomes, and evaluating the effects of instruction and support strategies. The teacher of record may also coordinate the distribution and assignment of the responsibilities defined above with other teachers participating in the instructional process for the course. A teacher of record is required to:

  • Hold a valid Michigan teaching certificate or a teaching permit recognized by the Department for the grade level being instructed through the virtual course. Note: The teacher must also hold a teaching certificate or teaching permit that is endorsed in the subject area of the course and the teacher must be highly qualified if applicable.
  • Have a personnel identification code provided by the Center for Educational Performance and Information.
  • Be employed by the district, as applicable under Section 1231 of the Revised School Code (MCL 380.1231).

Each virtual enrollment must also be assigned a mentor of record, who is a professional employee of the district, who monitors the pupil’s progress, ensures the pupil has access to needed technology, is available for assistance, and ensures access to the teacher of record. A mentor may also be the teacher of record if the mentor meets the definition of a teacher of record and the district is the provider for the course.

Financial Considerations

Some expenses for online learning, such as the services provided to all students, are covered in a school or district budget as they would be for students enrolled in the school’s face-to-face program; for example, access to the media center and its resources, enrollment services, and IEP support are all extended to online learners. Some expenditures are specific to online learning, such as mentors, online learning labs, and courses from third party providers.

Under Section 21f, school districts are required to use their foundation allowance or per pupil funds to “pay for expenses associated with the online course or courses” and to cover the “cost of the online course.” The cost of an online course is tied to the direct expenses associated with paying for it through enrollment/tuition fees and includes required course materials such as learning kits, calculators, or textbooks that are in addition to the enrollment/tuition fees.

A district is required to pay up to 6.67 percent of the state’s minimum foundation allowance or per pupil funds calculated in the State School Aid Act for the current fiscal year toward the cost of an online course. A district is not required to pay an amount that exceeds 6.67% of the state’s minimum foundation allowance or per pupil funds toward the cost of an online course. For example, using the state’s minimum foundation allowance of $8,700 for the 2021-22 school year, a district is not required to pay more than $580.29 for a virtual course. The pupil or the pupil’s parent or legal guardian may choose to pay the cost difference for the virtual course if it exceeds the district’s maximum cost obligation.

Some school districts may operate under a traditional six-hour schedule and others may employ a modified block schedule. Regardless of the district’s schedule, it may not establish a payment ceiling for online courses that is different from the 6.67 percent payment rule outlined in Section 21f. For more information, see Michigan Virtual‘s Guide to Virtual Course Implementation.


Many Michigan districts are implementing high-quality online learning options for their students — too many are not. The effective practices and data shared in this guide provide administrators a comprehensive perspective from which to evaluate their online learning programs and take steps to improve student learning outcomes. Working alongside parents/guardians, students, school board members, and school personnel, administrators can increase the efficacy of their online programs.

We welcome your feedback and questions and invite you to email us at [email protected].

Research and Resources for Online Learning Programs

Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2020-21, produced annually, reflects continued growth in K-12 online enrollments in Michigan. The report provides school districts with the opportunity to benchmark their own virtual learning programs against their peers in the state. This opportunity should be an important step in a program’s continuous quality improvement activities. The report is organized into several sections. The first section looks at schools as the unit of analysis. The next section focuses on the virtual courses taken. The third section focuses on students. The fourth section captures performance on statewide assessments. There is also a brief section containing maps of virtual use. Each section is meant to capture the essential findings without being overly data intensive; however, data tables have been included in the appendices to provide those interested with more in-depth information.

For additional information and insights for developing and supporting your online and blended learning program, please visit the following web pages on the Michigan Virtual website:

  • Michigan’s Online Course Catalog contains syllabi information (such as state academic standards, prerequisites, instructor contact time expectations, available academic support, and outcomes and objectives) as well as enrollment and course dates for online courses made available by Michigan school districts and Michigan Virtual.
  • The Digital Backpack blog that shares findings and expertise related to K-12 online and blended learning from both a state and national perspective.
  • Michigan schools are obligated to address the learning needs of students of all abilities so everyone has equitable access to education. When students have the tools to learn according to their abilities, everyone wins. By learning more about accommodations, accessibility, and inclusive pedagogy, educators can apply effective practices in meeting the needs of all students in their classrooms.
  • Research Publications that provide a foundation to examine, engage, and explore educational practices in the industry.
  • Research Clearinghouse contains references to important research and publications in the field of K-12 online and blended learning.
  • Michigan’s Online Learning Law page is dedicated to information on Michigan’s Section 21f legislation. It includes resources and samples developed by and for schools.
  • A family of Guides to Online Learning details the world of online learning from the perspective of the people integral to creating a positive learning experience. Each guide outlines key definitions, research and resources, and practical strategies that paint a picture of what kind of preparations and support systems are necessary to ensure students succeed in their online courses.
  • A page dedicated to Mentors, developed in partnership with school leaders and mentors, links educators to a professional learning community where they can ask questions, problem solve, and share ideas and resources with other mentors around the state including sample forms.
  • The set of national standards for quality online programs, teaching, and courses have been a benchmark for online learning for more than a decade. All three sets of standards were updated and published in 2019 by Quality Matters and the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance.
  • The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) published  Standards to provide a framework for innovation in education and help educators and education leaders worldwide prepare learners to thrive in work and life.
Key Terms

Below are some commonly used words or phrases that may be helpful when engaging in discussions about online learning.

Blended Learning: The Christensen Institute defines blended learning as a formal education program in which a student learns 1) at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace; 2) at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; and 3) the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

Mentor: An onsite mentor monitors student progress and supports the students as they work through an online course, serving as the liaison between the student, online instructor, parents, and administration. Some mentors are paraprofessionals, others fill other roles in the school such as counselor or media center director. A mentor does not always have to be a teacher to support online learners successfully; however, in many cases, the mentor must have a Michigan teaching certificate and be employed by the school district.

Online Instructor and Online Facilitator: The state recognizes two roles for teachers in online courses: instructor and facilitator. Districts must determine what the course requires and what it is they want the teacher to do and identify them by one of the two distinctions. See MDE’s Online or Computer-based Instruction for explicit definitions and delineation of the differences between the two. It is also important to note that some online courses do not include an embedded instructor — instead schools assign a local teacher as the teacher of record. Online courses without an embedded instructor appear to work relatively better for students that have demonstrated independent learning skills or have significant interest in the content area of a particular course.

Learning Management System (LMS): The password-protected LMS houses the online course. Through the LMS, students access courses and related documents and activities; assignments are exchanged between student, online instructor, and often the mentor; and communication among students and instructor takes place.

Provider or Vendor: The provider is the source of the online course. The provider may be a school, a school district, a community college, Michigan Virtual,or another third-party entity, including colleges, universities and private companies.

Credit Recovery: Some students choose or are assigned to online courses when they need to repeat a class they have failed that is required for their program or graduation.

Credit Forward: Some students take online courses to advance in their studies because their school doesn’t offer the prerequisites, for example.

District Strategy Framework

Schools and districts have many decisions to make about the online options they will provide their students. As with any initiative, establishing and maintaining a successful online program requires planning, ongoing oversight, and participation from internal and external stakeholders. The questions below are meant to help administrators gather information that leads to a comprehensive strategy, shape a program that meets the needs of their community and maintain a thoughtful, strategic approach to offering online options to their students.

Questions to Ask to Establish an Online Program:

  • What educational problem are we trying to solve by offering an online opportunity to our students?
  • What goals do we want to achieve in our online program?
  • What steps will we take to achieve our goals?
  • How will we know when we achieve our goals?
  • What is our timeline, including time to assess our progress as well as reach our goals?
  • How and when will we redirect our efforts if we notice we are not moving forward with our goals?
  • Will we include parents and other community stakeholders in our planning?
  • How do our stakeholders feel about our overarching goals?
  • What can we do to achieve authentic buy-in from our stakeholders?
  • What personnel will we identify to begin this online program?
  • What specific training and support do our faculty and staff need to begin the online program?
  • Will we be able to dedicate space for our online learners and mentor(s)?
  • When will we accomplish an initiatives inventory of the building/district so we can allocate resources that have the most impact and allow for a sustainable online program?
  • Will we use locally developed courses or choose from Michigan’s Online Course Catalog or both?
  • What is our course adoption timeline?
  • Will learner-content, learner-teacher, and learner-learner interactivity be low or high?
  • Will students have a lot of facetime or no facetime with teachers?
  • Will learners be independent and self-paced or collaborative and class-paced or somewhere in between?
  • Will curriculum and instruction be flexible or structured?

Questions to Ask to Maintain a Successful Online Program:

  • How are we assessing success toward meeting our goals?
  • Are we moving forward in achieving our identified goals? How do we know?
  • Where are we on the trajectory toward meeting our goals according to our established timeline?
  • Have we had to redirect our efforts in achieving our goals? Why did this happen?  What made our redirect successful/unsuccessful?
  • How are we ensuring this is part of our annual school improvement efforts and reporting so we have appropriate monetary and professional development supports in place to have a successful program for students?
  • What are our areas of needed improvement? Are we following our identified redirect plan with fidelity?  If no, why not?
  • What specific training and support do our faculty and staff need to maintain the online program?
  • How are we seeking feedback from stakeholders?
  • Are we celebrating student successes as well as lessons learned by sharing student stories with parents/guardians and stakeholders?
  • How are we managing efforts toward continuous improvement?
  • How are we informing our stakeholders of the progress we are making toward meeting our goals? Is this enough or do we need to do more to relay information and seek feedback? Are they satisfied with the program? What would they change?
  • Are we keeping up with the effective practices for professional development and support for our faculty and staff? How do we know?
Advice from Mentors to Administrators

Approximately 93% of my students who have taken an online class said they enjoyed their experience and would take an online class again, and approximately 95% of my students felt extremely supported by their online instructor.  These learning opportunities are enriching student learning and growth. – Mentor

Occasionally the mentors identified superintendents as the driving force behind online programs and the development of mentor capacity. More often it was their building principals. The mentors spoke appreciatively of the willingness of their administrators to explore online opportunities and engage in developing solutions to ongoing changes, including making their support known throughout the school and sometimes defending online options.

The broad question, “What advice would you offer to administrators about online learning?” yielded four general suggestions:

  • Be involved.
  • Support the mentors.
  • Understand the opportunity.
  • Provide structure.

I’m very lucky. My principal couldn’t be more supportive. If students are behind, and I can’t think of any other way to help, I send them to the academic counselor who sits together with the student to figure it out. If that doesn’t work, the principal talks with the student. – Mentor

Be Involved

  • Understand 21f.
  • Know the mentoring program.
  • Keep in touch with what the students are doing.
  • Participate in orientation for students and parents.
  • Build broad support among staff.
  • Address internal obstacles.
  • Address the fears, for example staffing and technology gaps.
  • Find out what works and what doesn’t.
  • Bring all the student support systems together: counseling, registrar, special services, teachers, mentors.
  • Support the mentors and the students.
  • Visit the online learning space weekly to see firsthand what the mentor and students do and to show the students you’re interested.
  • Ask to see who’s doing well and who needs a wake-up call.

Mentors should be full time. You have to be available on the weekends and evenings. You don’t want students to feel like there isn’t someone to help them. – Mentor

Support the Mentors

  • Ask for programmatic input from the mentor(s).
  • Provide learning resources.
  • Support professional development.
  • Understand how time consuming it is to mentor successfully.

Johnny has a deaf uncle but can’t take sign language because we don’t offer it. All you have to see is that it’s opening the opportunity to extend to kids learning something they otherwise wouldn’t have access to at school. So many higher education programs are going to online or hybrid instruction. We need to expose students to curriculum and experiences they don’t have access to before they are paying thousands of dollars at college. – Mentor and Full-time Teacher

Understand the Opportunity

  • Know why online learning appeals to some students.
  • Know why a student belongs in an online course.
  • Acknowledge that students can learn online.
  • Acknowledge that not all students are online learners.
  • Establish that online courses are as valid as any other class taken during the day.
  • Know the limitations and advantages of courses.
  • See that online learning experiences are part of college and career readiness.
  • Understand the impact of giving students control over their learning environment and independence.
  • Be aware that online courses are rigorous and are just as difficult if not more challenging than traditional classes.

Deadlines and structure are not built into some courses. In order to ensure success, supports for timely completion must be provided by another means: the mentor. – Mentor

Provide a Structure

  • Establish expectations and responsibilities for mentors.
  • Share preliminary guidelines and structure for the program.
  • Identify dedicated space for online learners and mentor.
  • Make mentoring a full-time assignment when the number of online students warrant.
  • Know what you want from the program.
  • Have a plan for the future, but be prepared to develop and adapt as you go.
  • Establish ground rules for the program and include them in a student and parent contract.
  • Assure the IT team are prepared to provide the kind of support mentors and online students require.


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