The Learning Accelerator Blog/Perception, Exclusion, and Quality: Virtual Course Access Challenges for State Leaders

policy virtual & hybrid learning

Perception, Exclusion, and Quality: Virtual Course Access Challenges for State Leaders

by Michael Ham and Nate Kellogg on February 22 2023

With support from the Walton Family Foundation, The Learning Accelerator (TLA) is exploring ways to support State Education Agencies (SEAs) in developing and strengthening virtual and hybrid learning models as part of a broader student-centered approach. Through this partnership, we have engaged SEA leaders from eight states — representing a diversity of geographies, political landscapes, and orientations toward virtual and hybrid learning — around edtech, innovation, school design, and school choice. Out of those conversations, TLA developed an evolving Insight for SEA leaders on Leveraging Hybrid and Virtual Learning to Increase Course Access.

Conversations began with the question: What do SEAs need to successfully design and support high-quality virtual and hybrid learning models? All agreed on the need for a space to learn and collaborate with their peers in other states who are working on virtual and hybrid learning around topics like indicators of quality, attendance and/or engagement tracking systems, and teacher professional development and licensure implications specific to virtual and hybrid learning models. This blog is the first in a series that outlines key themes from these ongoing conversations with SEA leaders.

As we emerge into an era characterized by unprecedented access to and experience with technology in the classroom, the K-12 sector has recognized an opportunity to reimagine our future. Virtual and hybrid learning are central in this re-envisioned, more student-centered future where students can access courses previously inaccessible to them. Instead of relying on course offerings from their local school district, statewide virtual course access programs allow students to pursue interests and gain credits in a far wider variety of subjects and pathways, creating greater opportunity for students — especially with Advanced Placement courses as well as hard-to-staff subjects such as foreign languages. Making good on the potential of high-quality, equity-promoting virtual course access programs, however, will require SEA leaders to intentionally navigate a number of challenges that have been created and exacerbated during the pandemic.

In late December 2022, TLA brought together leaders from Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Texas to explore the equity implications of virtual course access programs — programs designed to use technology to connect students to teachers and courses not offered by their local schools or districts.

Through the conversations, it became clear that SEA leaders see the potential for virtual course access programs to promote equity. By breaking down barriers to course access created by traditional in-person models, which limit student course options to those staffed and made available by local education agencies (LEAs), virtual course access programs can provide students with more empowered choices about what, when, and how they learn. However, these leaders identified several equity challenges that SEAs are navigating to develop and strengthen virtual course access programs to live up to this potential, including perception, exclusion, and quality.

Perception Challenge: Stakeholders Conflate Emergency Remote Learning with Quality Virtual Learning

SEA leaders pointed out that high-quality, long-term, and sustainable virtual course access programs are fundamentally different from the emergency remote learning programs launched hastily in response to the COVID pandemic. However, leaders also highlighted that this nuanced understanding of various technology-enabled learning experiences is not commonly held and that misconceptions rooted in negative experiences with specific types of remote or virtual programs significantly impact sentiments toward “virtual learning” broadly.

Emergency, short-term remote learning programs — like those adopted in response to the pandemic — were often thrown together overnight. Despite educators' best efforts to make the most of the unprecedented challenge they faced, the programs had well-documented negative impacts on stakeholders throughout the sector, which disproportionately impacted students in low-income communities and students of color who attended school remotely more frequently. For most students, families, and teachers, these emergency remote programs were their first experiences with teaching and learning that occurs primarily through technology outside of a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom, creating a strong association between virtual learning and emergency, remote programs.

Ultimately, SEA leaders noted that building support for virtual course access programs — particularly among those who were disproportionately impacted by pandemic-related emergency remote learning — will require sector leaders to do a better job communicating the distinctions between these programs and the intentionally-designed and research-based virtual learning used in high-quality course access programs. This challenge has also consistently been echoed by district-run virtual programs in TLA’s Strategy Lab: Virtual & Hybrid network.

Exclusion Challenge: Policies Limit Access to Virtual Programs

SEA leaders pointed to the perception challenge — conflating intentionally designed virtual course access programs with emergency remote learning programs — as a driving force behind the creation of policies that intentionally limit access, either by putting a cap on the total percentage of students in a district who are allowed to access or by creating profiles of ideal virtual students. These profiles are meant to identify students with characteristics that increase their likelihood for success in virtual learning environments (e.g., students with greater self-direction), often paired with restrictive enrollment policies that prevent students outside of these profiles from accessing virtual courses. For example, some states only allow students who have multiyear track records of high achievement to enroll in virtual courses.

SEA leaders recognized that these profiles are well-intentioned — meant to prevent harm to vulnerable students — but a more equitable approach to virtual course access program design would focus on ensuring every student has access to the support structures they need to succeed. However, these leaders also acknowledged that there is little information readily available about designing programs or ways that states have identified and operationalized the supports needed to sustain equitable access.

Instead of continuing down the untenable pathway of restricting access based on caps or ideal virtual learner profiles, SEA leaders are identifying the supports that foster the success of any student in virtual course access programs in order to intentionally include these supports into program designs.

Quality Challenge: Teacher Support & Instructional Materials Impact Virtual Course Quality

SEA leaders noted that even when virtual course access programs are well-perceived and easily accessible for students and families, a challenge persists in ensuring that the courses they make available to students are high quality. Related to this point of quality, SEA leaders highlighted differences in the pedagogies underlying in-person and virtual learning and made clear that the standard for virtual course quality must be set higher than the simple conversion of in-person activities into online formats. For the leaders we spoke with, unlocking transformational virtual teaching and learning requires further development of:

  • How teachers are prepared and licensed for virtual and hybrid settings;
  • How teachers are supported and developed for virtual and hybrid teaching; and,
  • Which instructional materials are tailored to a virtual and hybrid classroom.

In practice, some states provide direct support and differentiated professional development opportunities to teachers of virtual courses. However, many states are still grappling with how to design policies and programmatic support structures that ensure teachers of virtual courses have the tools needed to provide high-quality virtual instruction and equip school and LEA leaders to make quality determinations regarding virtual course curriculum.

Unlocking the full potential for virtual courses to promote equity will require multifaceted approaches to ensuring course quality, including both selecting high-quality virtual instructional materials and supporting teachers in developing the skills needed to implement them.

Tackling These Challenges

While the context between states can vary significantly, we believe bringing leaders from different contexts together to collaboratively identify and problem-solve common challenges —especially ones with virtual course access programs — unlocks considerable learning. The SEA leaders we spoke with see the potential for virtual course access programs to promote equity and recognize the need for coordinated efforts across the sector to unlock these programs’ full potential.

About the Author

Michael Ham is an Associate Partner at the Learning Accelerator, a former instructional leader, and alumnus of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology.

Nate Kellogg is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator. With a decade of experience in schools, Nate leverages his expertise with educational technology and innovation to support school- and systems-level change.