Moving Beyond “Accountability” in Monitoring a Virtual Learning Environment


Moving Beyond “Accountability” in Monitoring a Virtual Learning Environment

This is a guest post by Laura Stabler, Director of Academic Performance and Accountability at CMU’s Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools. 

Do you ever feel like Alice from the literary classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?  Every day a new turn and twist – living in the land of the uncertain where each of your actions produces aunwanted reaction.  If only our current reality were merely a dream like it was for Alice.  One thing we can admire in Alice and attempt to emulate was her innovative tenacity amid shifting circumstances.  

As charter school authorizers, we are in a unique position to strengthen our partnership with the schools in our portfolio and allow them to have input into the processes for monitoring instruction in a virtual environment.  Even Alice was wise enough to admit that sometimes she “…believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  

Before we whip out the accountability “stick,” and begin mining for data we can use to evaluate a school, it might be wise to reflect on the merits of collaboration. Jennifer Garvey, in her book Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity, reminds us that “our experience with rightness kills curiosity.” Let’s be curious and skip “being right” about the way to monitor schools and rather focus to “get it right” for the common good of the students and families that we serve.    

Currently, most authorizers already have some best practices for site visits.  Why not take those best practices and see how they might be adapted to a virtual/blended model?  The Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools monitors virtual/blended models in much the same way as we monitor brick and mortar sites but with a few variations.  

Virtual/Blended Learning Environment Site Visit Protocol Overview and Educational Program Review Standards

“Getting it Right” in monitoring the virtual/blended environment could be accomplished in three simple steps:  

1. Seek First to Understand 

  • Request a complete overview i.e., guided tour of the Academy’s online platform utilized for curriculum, instruction and assessment before conducting the site visit.   
  • Give the school leadership team ample time to explain the virtual/blended model with all its variance and idiosyncrasies.  

2. Study the Essentials  

  • Curriculum 
    • Explore the course consistency – look for logical sequence, adequate resources and tools, similar formatting/layout within the online platform 
    • Ensure each course/lesson is aligned to state standards 
  • Instructional Delivery 
    • Observe virtual lessons (log-in access required) in real time  or via recordings  
    • Explore student engagement in the virtual model (e.g., chat boxes, polls, cameras, audio feeds) 
    • Make note of the mode and frequency of feedback offered to students 
  • Conduct virtual teacher focus groups and ask a variety of questions about the virtual platform and instructional delivery
  • Resource: Virtual Classroom Observation Form 
  • Student Progress 
    • Request evidence of monitoring for completion of the required work as well as systems for tracking ongoing progress 
    • Request evidence of how the school monitors/measures mastery of content 
    • Conduct student focus groups and ask a variety of questions
    • Resource: Focus Group Discussion Questions EPR 

3. Summarize Findings in a Report 

Always follow up a site visit with a summary report to the school Board and the school leadership team within 30 days of the site visit. This summary report provides a platform for continued dialog within the school as well as with you as an authorizer.  It is also recommended to schedule a follow-up meeting with the school leadership team to hear about areas identified for celebration as well as for improvement.   

Developing an equitable process for monitoring a virtual learning environment may appear like a daunting task fraught with many unknowns. However, when we look back on this time in history, we will want to say that we did everything we could to support our schools in providing the highest quality learning environment for students.   When Alice expressed her desire for things to be different, the Red Queen said,  “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”  Run fast – twice as fast on behalf of your students!