Higher Education and Technology

The reality of virtual learning in Michigan

More students than ever are taking online courses at the high school and college levels.

April 1, 2016
Text Size:

Michigan has been a pioneer in the field of virtual or online learning for the last two decades.

The state has offered online educational and training opportunities on a digital platform for at least 20 years. Institutions such as the Michigan Virtual Automotive College began providing professional development and training online in 1996; the state-supported Michigan Virtual School introduced online Advanced Placement courses for high school students during the 1999-2000 academic year; and Davenport University began its initial foray into online education during the same year, which has now become an online “global campus.”

Jamey Fitzpatrick, president and CEO at Michigan Virtual University, indicated Michigan is somewhat unique in terms of online learning.

“We are a course choice state, we are a state that requires an online learning experience to graduate from high school, and we are a state that has supported online professional development,” said Fitzpatrick. “There aren’t too many other states that have been as aggressive in trying to leverage the value proposition with regards to online learning.”

Established in 1998, Michigan Virtual University is a private, nonprofit corporation that began with a goal to provide online education and training to those in the workforce and to help colleges and universities develop online learning programs.

“We did a fair amount of work helping to support instructors and faculty members at colleges and universities and teaching them how to design, develop and teach in an online environment,” said Fitzpatrick.

By 2000, MVU began serving the state’s K-12 sector with online instructional services through Michigan Virtual School after Public Act 230 was passed. Fitzpatrick said by 2003 and 2004, the organization went through a transition to narrow its focus to the K-12 sector and, in 2005, MVS received accreditation by the North Central Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement, and the Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation.

MVU also provides low-cost and no-cost online professional development courses for the K-12 sector through its Michigan LearnPort, and established the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute to build on data and research for online learning and identify best practices.

“In addition to the virtual school, the institute and LearnPort, we also have a program called My Blend, which is this whole notion of blended learning, where the educational experience for the student is not completely online or completely face-to-face, but a mix of both,” said Fitzpatrick. “We are finding there is a strong appetite for schools to get into this space.”

Fitzpatrick said since 2000, the notion of how professional development is delivered online, from the K-12 teacher perspective, has changed substantially.

“I think there is a growing recognition that online learning delivering professional development can be more just-in-time and can actually accommodate what we know about adult learning theory in a way that is more natural — that is, more job-embedded,” said Fitzpatrick.

Joe Freidhoff, vice president of research, policy and professional learning at MVU and MVRLI, said in today’s society the re-skilling and updating of knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions is a continual process.

“It is pretty typical a lot of that is being delivered online in some capacity,” said Freidhoff. “Students who are attending universities, even in the cases where they don’t take an online course, are typically in face-to-face courses that have substantial online components to them — for instance, learning management systems where they access readings or turn in assignments.”

Freidhoff said as society continues to trend in a way that requires proficiency in relearning through online modalities, students need to be both face-to-face learners and online learners to be prepared for college and the workforce.

“They also have to have the proficiency and skills to be able to learn in the online modality, where they have good self-regulation principles and different strategies to be effective when there isn’t necessarily a person who is overseeing them at that particular time,” said Freidhoff.

During the 2013-2014 academic year, more than 319,000 Michigan K-12 students enrolled in virtual courses, which was an increase from 134,577 students enrolled during the 2012-2013 year, according the MVLRI’s Michigan K-12 Virtual learning Effectiveness Report. Full-time cyber schools had a 27 percent increase, MVS had a 5 percent increase, and virtual enrollment reported by local non-cyber schools rose 68 percent year-over-year from 2012-2013 to 2013-2014, according to the report.

At the collegiate level, Davenport University has offered online programs since 1999 and now provides more than 50 courses for students.

Brian Miller, interim dean for Davenport Online, indicated major trends in online education show the shift in the type of student selecting the courses, from adult students to traditional-aged students, and a move for more synchronous instruction.

“I think the breadth of students who find online to be a good way to take courses has certainly expanded over the last few years,” said Miller. “Traditional online courses are very much self-paced and done at your own time. … That is still the lion’s share of our education, but there is a definite growth across the board in more synchronous stuff where you get on a video conference and all talk to each other.”

Miller also said there is a recent trend of increasing the presence of the instructor in online learning, since courses historically have had a reputation for being impersonal and heavy on busywork.

“What we are seeing at Davenport is much more of a shift of instructors providing videos, more multimedia and more use of modern web tools. It is more of an interactive experience for the students,” said Miller. “More instructors and universities are willing to use those to assign a group project that could occur outside the confines of an online learning system, which is much better for students in terms of replicating the type of experience they could have in the workplace.”

Miller said both the perception of online education and the quality has improved, and the theory of online education has matured so it is “possible for a university now that follows best practices to deliver spectacular courses online and provide all sorts of opportunities for students” unavailable in an in-seat experience.

Another factor influencing online education is a consortium of education institutions working to standardize best practices, known as Quality Matters, according to Miller. QM works to improve the quality of online education and student learning through a number of initiatives, such as developing research-supported, best-practice-based quality standards and evaluation tools.

“We design our courses to adhere to those Quality Matters standards. We work really hard to make sure that our courses have a human feel to them,” said Miller. “We also make sure we are measuring the outcomes and using data to demonstrate what is happening.”

While online learning has benefits to students in terms of convenience, exposure to students from different cultures, the type of courses available such as Mandarin Chinese at the high school level, and the overall learning pace, it also has its challenges.

“All of those advantages come with particular challenges, which is that most of these students don’t have experience, don’t have the skill sets necessarily to be successful without some kind of coaching and monitoring,” said Freidhoff in reference to K-12 students. “We have a perception of young kids being very technology savvy, and they usually are, but they use the technology they are savvy with in a very particular way.”

Miller also said part of the challenge of developing online courses is it forces the university to be introspective and examine every facet of the course to ensure the activities and assignments “contribute to the end goal of the given course.”

Davenport also receives peer review feedback from instructors at various academic institutions critiquing the online learning programs.

“It is not traditionally in the DNA in an academic institution to have someone else critique their course that doesn’t work at the same institution,” said Miller. “It is tremendously powerful to receive feedback that says, ‘I wouldn’t do it this way.’ That can be a challenge, too.”

Recent Articles by Rachel Weick

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus