Spotlight

It's 'Virditional:' A Hybrid Model in Manheim Township

by Thomas E. Oblender

One of our fundamental assumptions when our school district created its virtual high school in 1999 was that 21st century students should be technologically proficient enough to succeed in online courses. This was in keeping with the Manheim Township's strategic plan, which stipulated we would create "environments that nurture passion for lifelong learning and stewardship in our global society."

We were wrong — as we discovered quite dramatically when approximately 30 percent of the students dropped their virtual courses.

Through student surveys and interviews, teachers analyzed the dropout rate, the reasons for incomplete lessons and the general difficulties encountered by students enrolled in the online courses that our district offered. We tried to understand why academically talented and motivated students lacked the self-discipline to complete online courses within the time constraints of the course.

In a pre-course survey, all of the students indicated they possessed the maturity and discipline to succeed in the courses, and most GPAs were above 3.2. At the end of the semester, these same students conceded they lacked the self-discipline to commit the necessary time and energy to succeed in their online courses.

The greatest difficulty these students encountered was simply a lack of will to commit the time to finish their course work. Instead of working on their courses daily or spending five to seven hours each week on them, many students did not address their online course work for weeks at a time.

Teachers knew this for two reasons: they tracked log-on time for each student, and the students freely admitted they did not devote the required time to their assignments. These same students succeeded in traditional courses, where they reported to the same room, during the same period, with the same teacher every day. Accustomed to a traditional structure, they had not learned how to be self-sufficient online learners. The course content and technology applications did not pose significant challenges for the students.

A Hybrid Answer
Our solution was to offer a blended approach, which we have coined the "virditional" course. A virditional course is a combination of virtual and traditional course content and instructional strategies. Teachers select the modules and lessons that are most appropriate for either online, traditional or blended course structures. Modules are synonymous with curricular units, and the lessons are similar to daily lessons taught by all teachers.

The virditional model requires a minimum of 65 percent of the content be delivered online. Students report to their virditional computer lab as one of their scheduled classes and work in a classroom with their assigned teacher, but the teacher's role becomes that of a facilitator, assisting students as they pursue learning at their own pace.

Virditional courses address the major weakness of online courses — the lack of structured time for student work. The instructor provides direct instruction, facilitation and monitoring of the online course and helps the student stay on task and answers questions. Because each course is to a large extent self-paced, the teacher monitors the progress of each student and provides encouragement to those who begin to lag behind. Students seem to like the daily structure and can proceed at their own pace.

Student achievement does not improve as a direct result of taking virditional courses. Rather, the structure and support of virditional courses teach students to become not only better online learners but also better learners in general. Much of this improvement is the result of the self-directed nature and flexibility inherent in virditional courses. Some students complete courses early and spend the remaining time in study halls.

Key Characteristics
The virditional format possesses several unique characteristics and opportunities to capitalize on the best of online and traditional formats.

A virditional course provides teachers and students face-to-face interaction for explanations, small-group discussions, peer conferencing, presentations and individual assist-ance. It provides a daily structure and blueprint for success for students during the transition to online instruction courses. It offers facilities for language, technology, culinary, pre-school and science labs and permits flexibility in curriculum programming to support individual needs.

The blended approach also reduces down time for teachers and students during the class period. As a student completes one assignment or activity, he or she can begin the next one without waiting for the entire class, and the student also can continue work at home.

The virditional courses offer greater opportunities for individualization, flexibility, enrichment and remediation. The teacher facilitates student progress, depending upon each student's needs and provides students with the traditional structure of daily classroom meetings and additional assistance with visual, auditory and tactile modes of learning.

Course Organization
Manheim Township High School offers nine virditional courses, taught by 10 state-certified teachers. The courses had existed as virtual courses but have been modified for the virditional course offerings. Courses include American literature, British literature, African-American history, the Vietnam War and its societal implications, European history, global perspectives, civics and economics, family and consumer science, and health and wellness education. During the 2005-06 school year, 460 students enrolled in virditional courses.

Our high school instructional day is seven periods, and most traditional teachers teach five of the seven periods, along with one duty period. Full-time Manheim Township virditional teachers run a maximum of four classes per day with no more than 24 students in each section. The teachers are not assigned a duty period, except for before or after school. Online teachers are expected to spend 31/2 to 4 minutes per day communicating with each student via e-mail and threaded discussions.

Students enroll in the virditional courses the same way they enroll in traditional courses. They schedule the course in a given period, report to a designated classroom and work with their high school teacher. Each student is provided access to a computer and the Internet for that period. Course descriptions, as well as an explanation of the virditional course concept, are given to students and their parents. Counselors explain the offerings, and teachers clarify the similarities and differences in the courses. Most courses are offered in both traditional and virditional formats.

A Useful Vehicle
Virditional courses will not appeal to every student, and we do not advocate them as replacements for traditional courses. Virditional courses, however, can provide a vehicle for students and teachers who want to begin to move into a web-based learning environment, and they can be used as a medium to teach students how to take courses online. They allow teachers to provide a structure for students who have not yet figured out how to succeed in an online environment.

If you are interested in learning more about Manheim Township's virditional course model or its online courses or previewing our courses, visit us at www.virditional.net.

Tom Oblender is assistant superintendent for administration in the Manheim Township School District, P.O. Box 5134, Lancaster, PA 17606. E-mail: tom_oblender@mtwp.k12.pa.us