The year 2020 was like no other for virtual schools. Because of the pandemic, a lot of virtual schools have doubled or even tripled in both students and staff, of whom many might have otherwise chosen their local brick and mortar school. And now, as we’re halfway into 2021 and schools are opening back up, several families are still turning to virtual schools for their flexibility, safety, and a myriad of other reasons.
For those families that are new to online learning, they likely will have concerns or doubts on how a virtual school can successfully engage and motivate their numerous students at a distance. But there are a few clear-cut signs that parents can watch out for that will indicate if an online school takes student engagement very seriously.
Here’s how to know if a virtual school will make your child’s engagement, and thus their success, a top priority.
Building a school culture of engagement starts even prior to school starting, and it begins with frequent communication. Before day one of classes, families should already have a direct line of communication with a teacher, advisor, or other staff member for any questions leading up to the first day of school. Teachers should set clear expectations for the year ahead, and some may go so far as to share their syllabus for the semester, create how-to videos, share pulse surveys, and hold regular office hours.
Most importantly, engaging teachers will maintain that constant communication throughout the year, checking in with students and reminding them that their teacher is only an email, text, or phone call away.
The most obvious sign of student engagement, of course, is active participation in class, and getting students to participate through a computer screen can be a challenge. Families should inquire about the methods teachers use to try to stimulate participation, keeping an eye out for various dynamic options for students to communicate. When teachers offer multiple response mechanisms—such as using a microphone, chat box, polling tools, whiteboard tools, and breakout room collaboration—they ensure that students will always have an option they are comfortable with for engaging in class.
Some teachers may even go a step further and provide students multiple options for the same assignment. Engaging teachers will often avoid a one-size-fits-all approach and instead try to identify and understand each student’s individual learning style.
Lastly, a successful virtual school will cultivate engagement both inside and outside of the classroom, by providing students a variety of ways to form connections with their peers and with the learning content. Does the school have extracurricular activities and social events that build or expand skills, such as clubs, field trips, science fairs, or spelling bees? Do they bring in guest speakers to provide perspectives on certain career fields or themes being taught in class? When learning is personal and fun, taps into students’ interests, and expands beyond a book or computer screen, students are much more likely to stay engaged.
Online school can be so much more than a talking head on a screen. The virtual schools that are most successful at engaging students—and setting them up for success as a result—are the ones that build a culture of transparency and community with both parents and students, in the (virtual) classroom and out.
Jamie Winslow is a Middle School Algebra 1 & Geometry Teacher at Virginia Virtual Academy. She lives in Aldie, VA.