If You Build It, They Will Come
It was late 1997. A group of six teachers and four support personnel had spent five months learning about teaching online from any source we could find.
We were building courses in Lotus Learning Space, and preparing to register kids for this new thing called Florida High School. There had been tears, there had been elation, and there had been a lot of supposition about what teaching online meant.
We nervously sat around a small round conference table waiting for the phone to ring after we opened registration for the first time ever. We kept saying to each other, “If we build it, they will come,” but would students really want to try this? The “Web School” pilot in Orange County in the 1996-97 school year drew some students, so we had hope.
Finally, after an excruciating wait, the phone rang. We had our first student!
We carefully registered that student to begin a January course in our Student Information Database (SID).
We had no student-side registration, no school checks and balances…just a phone call from mom and dad. Well, it was enough, and we took in students for six courses – Algebra 1, Chemistry, SAT Prep, English 1, AP Computer Science, and American Government.
Of course, we had not yet finished development in those courses; it was way more work than anyone expected to provide a quality online product. We were staying one step ahead of the students.
Adding to these duties, the 10 of us also had to do the work that we have hundreds of people doing now. We taught students, we provided guidance counseling, we developed courses, we met with schools, and we talked to media. We traveled to Tallahassee to convince government that this was an idea worth continuing. It was an overwhelming year. We had become the odd team to watch at the Orange County Public Schools office where we rented a small office space, and we began to be known as the “elevator group” because our entire team fit into one of the elevators at the office.
We learned so much that first year…
1. We learned that we needed to guide teachers in how to create curriculum in a replicable way, so we firmed up the roles of Instructional Designer and Curriculum Specialist to help create a development checklist and a storyboard process.
2. We learned how much curriculum was able to be completed by students in nine months. We started estimating how long lessons should take a typical student. My first course, chemistry, is a bit of a laughing-stock now. I had built about two years’ worth of content. Oh, it was amazing content, but completely un-doable in a nine-month period.
3. We learned that liaising with the schools was critical to help them be comfortable with students taking this new-fangled online course opportunity, so we started policies on school counselor sign-off of our online courses.
4. We learned that regularly talking to students and parents was a key differentiator in the success of the student. As a result, we instituted a “monthly call” requirement and kept hand-written logs of student contact.
5. We learned that our Student Information Database would need to be much deeper on demographics and a student’s ability to register, so we started ideating new processes for registration and student tracking.
Oh, there was so much more learning knowledge that was gained that year, but our critical steps to developing a leading online school in the nation had begun.
We were fortunate to secure another year of funding from Florida, and we hired around 20 more staff for year two. We held our first official staff conference that summer, and we developed an introductory skit where our President/CEO jumped “out of the box” to welcome our new staff while the rest of us sang a song and played instruments. Yes, it was quite special, and so were those staff members, several of which are still with us today.
When we get our entire staff together, and I look out at the sea of people – teachers and support staff – I get chills. I cannot believe we have gone from 77 completers that first year to more than 400,000 half-credit completions this past year. The impact we have had on the students in Florida has been so incredible over the years. We have successfully served more than 3.6 million semester courses to students to help their education stay on track.
Over the years, our wisdom about online learning has grown…
We know so much more about supporting students, parents, and districts than we could have imagined during those early years.
- Our team of two curriculum members has grown large enough to accommodate creation and maintenance of a catalog of more than 150 courses that are pedagogy-controlled, media rich, and rigorous.
- Our technology team has grown from one person to a large group of highly skilled employees, building and maintaining specialized applications and providing help desk service to hundreds of thousands of students.
- We have reached out to schools and districts forming strong bonds and new ways of working with us like the district virtual school program and digital learning labs.
- We never stopped talking with parents and students, and we instituted a Discussion-based Assessment policy to ensure teachers get opportunities inside the course content to talk with students about their learning.
- We have a robust way for students to register and track their learning online through A&R, our admissions and registration system, and VSA, Virtual School Administrator, a highly-customized system that allows teachers to track and predict student success.
- We learned that our Learning Management System needs were so specialized for what we do that we are taking our current LMS, now owned by FLVS, and creating a learning suite with a roadmap to an exciting future online environment.
- I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our Global Sales. In the early 2000s, other states started to want to do what we were doing. With the help of the Florida legislature and governor, we were permitted to start selling courses outside the state to support building more courses and developing new products. This now serves all 50 states in some capacity, and we are growing opportunities every day.
This year we celebrate our 20-year anniversary…
…and I celebrate 20 years at FLVS. Wow!
That is an amazing thing to say. As a long-time staff member said to me the other day, “I am a lifer with FLVS.” That is so true for me. My loyalty to this organization is so high, that I cannot imagine leaving. I intend to retire from here in a few years, but my devotion to what we have built will never end. It is an amazing legacy to leave behind us, and watching FLVS grow and mature has been a shining point of my life.
Post by Jennifer Whiting, Former Chief Technology Innovation Officer, Curriculum Manager, and Educator