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Grab Your Goggles

Taking a Real Look at Virtual Education

By Jaq Greenspon

A few months ago, I was invited by a friend to try out his virtual reality (VR) rig. They’re all the rage and, truth be told, are pretty cool. For those of us above a certain age, it really is like living in the future. But then I started thinking about that, and what the future would hold for my own little one. I figured that the VR world would provide a literal new world for her. That when the time came for her to go to school, instead of rushing to catch a bus, she’d go into her room and slip on a set of goggles and a pair of haptic response gloves (to give the impression of actually touching something). “School” could be wherever she was, and her teachers and classmates could be anywhere in the world, all sharing a similar experience through modern technology and an Internet connection.

Then I learned about Connections Academy and realized the future may be getting very close indeed.

 

Connections Academy is a an online virtual school which takes the place of a traditional brick and mortar school, meaning that the student has no need to attend a physical classroom and, as long as they have an Internet connection, can make their classroom wherever they need it to be at the moment. The only catch: you have to be based in the area of the school. This makes sense since Connections Academy isn’t home schooling. The differences, though, may seem hard to spot at first.

Both programs rely on a strong component of parental interaction, but in the simplest terms, home schooling allows the parents to step in and take over pretty much full responsibility for their children’s education. Shari Grimes remembers the days when she was home schooling her eldest child. “I have home schooled my children for going on twenty-two, twenty-three years now. I used to do it actually just sitting at the table with the books and teaching my kids.”

Where Connections Academy differs is that the students are still part of whatever school district they happen to live in, which accounts for the need to at least have a local address. “There’s about 30 Connections Academy schools in about 26 states across the country,” explains Nevada Connections Academy principal Chris McBride. “Connections Academy itself is a subsidiary of Pearson. So Pearson online and blended learning is the Education Management Organization.” All of this means the structure of the school is absolutely in line with the students’ expected learning outcomes.

Students range from kindergarten all the way up through 12th grade, and currently, according to McBride, there are about 3300 students spread across the state. So with around 100,000 students nationwide, this makes Connections Academy the equivalent of a top 30 school district. The only difference, as one goes through the program, is the amount of online curricula each level receives. “Depending on the grade level span depends how much is online and how much is not,” explains McBride. “So for instance, in elementary school, maybe 20-30% is online and the rest of it is with the students working with the caretaker at home with our provided curriculum. So as the students get older, responsibility can be released from the caretaker at home and placed on the students. It’s critical to have a good solid foundation with the caretaker particularly in the younger grades.”

Since that caretaker, or “learning coach,” is most often a parent, this is where the home schooling comparison begins and ends. Unlike home schooling, Connections Academy provides all the necessary curricula, as well as books and certified teachers to work alongside the caretakers. That curricula, described by McBride as “incredibly rigorous,” focuses on college prep to ensure a smooth transition from high school to university. “If our students complete all of our curriculum, they are getting a more rigorous education than they would typically receive at a brick and mortar high school,” says McBride.

That “if,” though, is problematic. And McBride, who is new to the job, might possibly have been brought in to help deal with the poor, but improving, graduation rate Nevada Connections Academy has shown. In 2017, they showed a graduation rate of 44%, up 10% from a 34% low in 2013, but still shy of the 60% threshold the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority demands of their accredited participatory institutions. Compared with the CCSD, which showed an overall graduation rate of 83% in 2017 (itself a new high-water mark), the NCA rates seem weak at best.

The Academy counters by pointing out that a high number of students turn to the charter system when traditional schools have failed them, meaning they come in with a credit deficit in place, making graduation that much more difficult. Furthermore, the school claims that their graduation record for students who complete all four years of high school within their program is on par with the CCSD’s 80%. The obvious advantage provided here is that the student can work at whatever pace they feel comfortable with, within the framework of a public education. In other words, as McBride points out: “If they need to speed up, and have the ability to speed up, and say finish high school in two years, they have the ability to do that without missing any of the curriculum.”

All of this curriculum is worked hand in hand with the certified teaching staff, many of whom offer live lessons online alongside the taped instructional videos and self-guided book work. Additionally, thanks to modern technology, that virtual classroom isn’t too far off. Currently, teachers have the ability to hold real time classes and put students into groups for discussions and group work, which can all be monitored virtually as if it was happening in an actual classroom, which, along with organized field trips and some non-required external activities, helps to alleviate the complaint of a lack of socialization in virtual schools. “So we’re still able to provide some of that student to student interaction and allow for real time questions and feedback,” says McBride. Furthermore, the teachers reach out at least once every two weeks to have conversations with the students and prepare something the school calls a “Document Based Assessment.” The purpose is to determine, through conversation, what the students understand and what they don’t, allowing for the teacher to evaluate individual progress. With that determination in place, the teacher is free to adjust and guide the student, providing any additional support or supplemental work when needed.

“It is a very hard program,” notes Grimes. “People don’t realize the work that is put into Connections Academy because the kids don’t go to a class and physically see a teacher on a daily basis and do little class work assignments…At the end of the school year, we’ll box up our box of Connections Academy books and send them back. Then every July we get their new books in.” Grimes also notes that the students follow “the same CCSD calendar as far as how many school days, how many hours they have to be doing school, how many credits they need to graduate. We start on the same day, we have the same holidays and we end pretty much on the same day.” The difference comes with the flexibility those same students have to do other things outside of the traditional school model which are important to their lives and livelihoods.

“We have several target markets,” says McBride. “One is for the athlete or the child working in show business that has a hectic schedule that doesn’t lend to a normal school schedule.” In fact, according to McBride, several of the U.S. athletes at the last Winter Olympics were current or past Connections Academy students. This is also one of the reasons Shari Grimes appreciates the Academy as opposed to straight homeschooling, which she had previously done. Her first child didn’t go through Connections Academy but did well enough at home that he was able to start college at the age of 15 ½. “We did him through a different home school program just cause we didn’t know about Connections Academy back then,” recalls Grimes. “We just kinda graduated him early and he went on to college.” Since then, however, the rest of her seven children have spent at least a little time attending Connections Academy. The benefit was immediate for her son Carter, who is an Olympic level swimmer.

The Academy allows her children to get an actual high school diploma and makes sure all the requirements are fulfilled in case they want to compete at the collegiate level as a D1 athlete. This is not a place to take anything for granted or make any kind of mistakes. “We wanted to make sure that everything for D1 athletes was being taken care of,” she says. “We looked around to go to a different program when he first started high school level.” But then they saw the possible dangers: a teammate of Carter’s had participated in a different program, and when the time came for him to move on to college and compete as a D1 athlete, they discovered he wasn’t eligible. “He ended up having to repeat two years of classes in order for him to become D1 eligible and we just did not want to run into anything like that.” Connections Academy makes sure all of that is covered, so for athletes, it becomes one less thing to worry about.

Besides athletes, actors or other performers come immediately to mind, but there are other situations as well, some not nearly so romantic. There may be students who have extreme anxiety about being around other people, or those who have medical conditions making it difficult for them to work in a traditional school environment. At a recent graduation ceremony, held at the Ham Hall at UNLV, Carter Grimes was the class valedictorian. He gave a speech, walked across the stage in his cap and gown, and probably had “take with the left, shake with the right” going through his head like any other graduating senior. But for Shari Grimes, the ceremony brought up some different thoughts. Sure, she was proud of her son, but, she recalls, “I wish I could have heard all the different stories of the kids that were graduating because it’s not just that you have a kid that’s an athlete and can benefit from staying home to concentrate on their sport… We had some kids that were graduating because they were fighting cancer or their parents had passed away or had abandoned them and they were having to work to keep them and their siblings… to live.”

And the great thing is, like any other public school, it’s all free of charge. If needs be, Connections Academy will even provide a computer and subsidize the required Internet service, just to make sure those who need the school can have access to it.

Right now, the Grimes family still has two children at the Academy (Sawyer, 10th grade, and Katie, 6th grade), both competitive swimmers. And Carter, the valedictorian, is still swimming and attending the University of Missouri on a full ride scholarship – for both swimming and academics.

Seems to me as we move forward with these kinds of online educational programs, virtual reality isn’t such a far-fetched idea. And as Principal McBride points out “I’m sure there are virtual reality field trips that exist already. Pearson is committed to staying the leader in virtual distance education.” Maybe it’s time to grab your goggles and go to school.

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