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These are exciting times for educators. With the benefit of technology, we have greater opportunities than ever to reduce and remove barriers to learning, to meet students' increasing needs and to help them realize their academic potential. As part of its continuing commitment to students, families and the community, the Liverpool Central School District has developed The Virtual School @ Liverpool™ through which students may take required, Advanced Placement, elective and tutorial courses in a web-based, "anytime, anyplace" learning environment.

Beginning in September, 2000, Liverpool school district will offer courses for the New York State Regents' diploma, electives and online tutorials for students in need of support. Elementary grades will be included because of the potential for students who, for example, need assistance preparing for the NYS fourth grade tests. In addition, we offer a virtual library.

Liverpool Central School District envisions teachers instructing students from all over New York State and beyond, via the Internet. A hallmark of Liverpool's courses will be prompt, meaningful interaction between teachers and students. Technologically, key components will be the use of features such as streaming video and audio, whiteboarding, threaded discussions, chat rooms and web-linking to make online learning interesting and engaging for the students. Other components for the research and design of The Virtual School @ Liverpool™ include marketing, funding, teacher recruitment and training, and student recruitment. In addition to traditional "bricks and mortar school" students, other potential beneficiaries of online courses include medically homebound students, home-schooled students, alternative education students, students abroad and others.

For more information, see the website for the award-winning, internationally- recognized Liverpool Central School District and, for information specifically about The Virtual School @ Liverpool™.

The ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology is keenly interested in innovative educational programs that implement emerging technology. Fall semester 2000, Liverpool Schools (Liverpool, New York) launched its first virtual learning environment, named Virtual School@Liverpool™. We interviewed the founder and developer of the Virtual School, Laura Lavine, to understand how the program was developed and implemented; some issues involved; and how students, teachers, and the community will benefit.

--Sue Wurster, Editor

Questions and Answers

What led to the decision to offer this distance learning program? Was there an unmet need? What was the reason for starting this virtual education opportunity for elementary and secondary school students?

    Superintendent John Cataldo, who is an exemplary innovator in all areas of public education, has a strong interest in technology as evidenced by our $9m referendum that put five computers and a teacher work station in every K-8 classroom in 1994. Subsequent referenda put technology at the remaining grade levels as well as a fuel cell [alternative power source] (we believe Liverpool High School is the first in the U. S. to have its own fuel cell), an $18m renovation at the HS that includes a robotics wing, multimedia room, technology area, etc. In addition, we are among the first schools in New York State (NYS) to offer a laptop computer program, we are an Apple Distinguished school district, we serve as a Cisco training center, we have a brand new athletic facility with state-of-the-art technology, and we were visited by a delegation from Singapore to see our technology, and so on.

    John strives to "level the playing field" for students and strives to close the "digital divide." He saw the potential for a virtual school to provide equal access to a wider range of high-quality courses for some students than they would have had otherwise. His focus on preparing students for higher education and the competition of the global marketplace also factor into his focus on teaching them how to use technology.

    Also, John sees public schools as more qualified than anyone—including private or charter or other similar schools—to provide what students need for the future. He puts a high value on continuing staff development and he has positioned us well financially. He encourages administrators, staff, and students to take risks, to try new things and to be leaders.

    He saw the virtual school concept as one more way for Liverpool to take the lead in reducing barriers to student learning and to gain more recognition as an outstanding public school.

What do students need to do to qualify for the virtual school program? What type of student population would you like to recruit?

    There are more than 700 school districts in New York State. More than 400 of them are "rural districts" which means they might have only a few hundred students. These districts cannot afford to offer the wide range of Advanced Placement courses, electives, or other courses that a district like Liverpool can offer. We feel that those students have as much right to a good selection of courses as students in larger districts have. They shouldn't be precluded, by virtue of the geographical boundaries of their respective school districts, from taking courses that interest them or from courses that would better prepare them for higher education or for a career.

    So, to answer the questions, most students would qualify. Specifically, the groups we have in mind include, but are not limited to: students in small, rural schools; medically homebound students; students whose families homeschool them; alternative education students; migrant students; non-traditional students such as athletes who travel year-round; students who move from Liverpool but would like to earn their diploma from here. The list goes on.

What were some of the challenges you had to overcome to offer such a program?

    I was advised not to have teachers create their online content AND learn the software. I ignored the advice and I'm glad I did. Although it was a struggle for some to learn the software (it's never as easy as the demo makes it look—we had HTML conversion problems, not everyone has the Mac world in mind, etc.), we concluded that learning the software made the teachers recognize the power of the technology and the potential that existed for enhancing their first attempts at creating online classes.

    Online course development is a long, expensive process. Many of the virtual schools in the U. S. use commercial software. Although choosing to create our own courses has caused the development process to take longer than I would have liked, we're proud of the fact that our courses are locally developed by Liverpool's experienced, NYS certified teachers and we assure school districts that our courses meet NYS Learning Standards.

    Our Board of Education has the same risk-taking mentality that our superintendent does, and Liverpool is well-positioned financially, so we could do this. The Kentucky Virtual High School, a statewide initiative launched by Governor Patton, got $1million the first two years to get up and running. We've gotten underway with, believe me, far less than that, due to the generosity of Telergy and Sensis Corporation. Both corporations have contributed more than $100,000 to this project in the past ten months.

What are some of the limitations or unique benefits of the program?

    Limitations: Online classes have a notoriously high dropout rate—and that's at the college level. It's easy to fall into the trap of creating text-based courses—BORING!!! That's a killer and will lose kids. We're working on incorporating streaming media and, possibly required synchronous components into our online classes in an effort to maintain the students' attention and participation, especially since our courses are for elementary and secondary students.

    Another limitation is the lack of standardization in technology. For example, it's difficult to create a video clip that our low-end as well as high-end users will find easy to use and appealing.

    Another challenge is the attendance requirement in New York State. Proving online attendance is somewhat "doable" in terms of counting hits but it's not a fair assessment of a student's participation or a reflection of what he's learning. We're asking Albany to consider allowing us to make some changes in this area.

What sort of research did you do before implementing this program? Was there a team or a focus group that evaluated the needs and made recommendations?

    I did the research—starting with my sister (Joanne Silverstein), thank goodness! I considered a focus group and an advisory group but, to be honest, it's such a new area, that those didn't seem like good uses of my time. I did very well by just making a ton of phone calls, searching the Internet and e-mailing people. I now have a wonderful group of helpful colleagues across the country and we share ideas. Also, I had Liverpool become a full participant in the Concord, Massachusetts Virtual High School, which is entering its fourth year. They are a giant among virtual schools and it's amazing to see that even theyhave major problems now and then. Fortunately, we all recognize how new this area is and we're patient while we work out the bugs. I have two teachers teaching courses for Massachusetts Virtual High School and students taking courses from them.

    As for evaluating needs and making recommendations, in hindsight, I have to say that although I didn't think I knew what I was doing, my experience as an educator and administrator helped me to make what turned out to be wise decisions. This is about teaching and learning so we have to be careful not to let the technology take center stage. It's there to facilitate the teaching and learning, not to overpower them or take their place. Every audio clip, every graphic MUST support the learning objective of the lesson, unit, or activity. If it doesn't, it doesn't belong there.

What types of assessments are used to measure student progress and success in the program?

    In the online world, every test is an open book test. Considering that, our assessments need to be application-based, constructivist, authentic representations of what the students learn. We held a training session on "online plagiarism," what to look for and how to avoid it. It was a crucial seminar for our teachers. Students will write, take photographs and videos, produce audio recordings, participate in threaded discussions and online chats—many things that a good f2f (face to face) teacher has her students do. We just need to do them over a distance.

    One of my teachers has another idea for a way of evaluating students:

    "Since I am teaching a section of Computer Science "face-to-face" also, I hope to be able to do some statistical testing to see how the kids compare and perhaps link up some of the Virtual kids with our LHS kids."

What is the cost to students, parents, and the school district?

    Ours is a tuition-based program. Districts who "send" us students will pay $600 per semester-long course. If you don't understand the state aid process, that sounds steep. But districts in NYS that participate in a "distance learning CoSer" will get their aid ratio back on that. So, a poorer district with a high aid ratio might get as much as 80% or 90% of that back. Our challenge lies in making this affordable to homeschooling families. Florida is way ahead of us on this and we're talking to Albany to see if they can help.

What do teachers, students, parents, administrators think about the program?

    I can't begin to tell you how excited my virtual teachers are about this. This is pure teaching and learning. There are no bomb scares, no snow days, there's no cafeteria duty. They get to teach and share their passion with students everywhere, not just in Liverpool. Here are two quotes that came just today:

    This teacher finished his course development: "I am very excited and anxious to get started. My job satisfaction is at an all-time (high) because of this."

    This teacher is finishing her course development: "It is going well and I KNOW it will be great when I get finished with it."

    Parents are always looking to expand their children's opportunities. They call me and say, "I can't believe Liverpool is doing this. How can my child get involved?"

    Administrators, especially in the small, rural schools, continue to try to expand course offerings for their students. An administrator from a nearby city told me last night, "I am personally moved by what you're doing and can't wait to get you here to give a presentation."

    Young people are comfortable trying new things and many contact me to ask about taking online classes. They're eager to take courses such as anatomy and physiology and a music critic course. Frankly, we're not keeping up with the requests.

How will you know if the pilot program is successful? How will you measure that success?

    The persistence rate will be a key factor in determining our success. The high dropout rate that other virtual schools have experienced is always on my mind and we will strive to improve it. We talk about it constantly. Feedback from the teachers will also weigh heavily.

Here's a hypothetical scenario—Pretend I'm the parent of a 16-year old boy who is a serious student with excellent grades, but who doesn't feel he fits into the traditional school environment any longer. His options are (A) attend Onondaga Community College (local community college) to finish his high school credits in a (GED) program, or (B) attend Virtual School@Liverpool. What advise could you give me as his parent? What are the advantages of attending Virtual School@Liverpool for this student?

    Some students won't participate in a f2f class and it has nothing to do with their ability. They think they're—you choose: ugly, inarticulate, not popular, too smart. They sit in the back row and they don't engage. In an online class, there's no back row. Virtual schools level the playing field. The kids who don't think or speak as fast as others can take the time they need to craft a response to a question or participate in a small group cooperative project. Writing skills are likely to improve because they're writing for a wider audience.

    Also, there's greater opportunity for more meaningful interaction with the teacher because there's no time pressure to move to the next class or catch the bus or get to the next student in line. In addition, using technology as a tool for learning is an added bonus that is certain to brighten their future in higher education or at work.

    Night-owls like I am would love the opportunity to study online because most schools don't hold class at midnight when we like to be up working!

    Also, have you ever tried getting up the hill to OCC in the middle of a blizzard??

Is there a profile of the typical student who is successful in this program?

    There are certain characteristics that define a good online student. A high level of native intelligence isn't necessarily one of them. More important are tenacity, self-discipline, motivation, you get the idea. The student whose parent has to constantly remind him to do his homework or study for a test might not be a good candidate. There are many other factors but we are just beginning as a profession to study them. However, this is the topic of my dissertation (if I ever write it!) so I hope to know quite a bit more after I survey students and teachers.

Can you give any specific examples about how the teachers will use the technology features like streaming video and audio, white boarding, threaded discussions, chat rooms and web-linking?

    Click here for an example. This is part of the C++ online programming course that Donna Roberts, a teacher at Liverpool High School, has developed for The Virtual School @ Liverpooland click on the photo to view a video that she created.

    Well, I got long-winded but I hope you see how enthusiastic I am about our initiative. Thank you again for the opportunity to share our excitement with others. We hope they'll feel the way we do!

Biographical information

Laura B. Lavine is a New York State certified school district administrator with 14 years of administrative experience. She has been a principal with the Liverpool Central School District since 1994. Before that she served as principal director of special education, and she developed and administered a special education pre-school program. Laura earned a bachelor's degree and master of science degree in speech-language pathology and audiology from Ithaca College and is currently a doctoral candidate in the School of Education program at Syracuse University.

For more information about the Virtual School @ Liverpool™, contact: Laura Lavine

_________________
Joanne Silverstein is head of research and development for the Information Institute of Syracuse, part of the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University.

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