The Future of Education: Virtual, Blended, and In-Person (VBI) Model

The national crisis spurred innovation in our schools out of necessity and most of our nation’s schools were able to put together some type of remote learning protocol to help students continue learning. Even now, schools are unsure of what restrictions we will face in the coming school year and beyond. The best course of action for schools is to seize the opportunity we have been given and create a school of the future that provides Virtual, Blended, and In-Person (VBI) program options for students. To create a successful VBI model of schooling, you will need a foundational understanding of the key differences in each type of educational program and a solid start in the eight VBI program planning areas.

In the face of the unknown, the best way to not only survive but to thrive is to embrace the opportunity and innovate your way to a solution. 

Let us embrace the opportunity that we have received through the challenges of “pandemic learning” and create the schools of the future. Let us take control of what has happened, recognize the potential that exists to innovate, and take action. We can choose to not identify as victims of this pandemic and, instead, emerge as victors who revolutionize the educational programs provided by our school districts. We are educational leaders and it is up to us to design post-pandemic schools that are resilient, flexible and that can never again be weakened.

We can design schools of the future by combining Virtual, Blended, and In-Person (VBI) offerings into our educational program. Forward-thinking districts are already planning how to immunize themselves against further disruption by creating flexible programs that incorporate the lessons learned from Virtual Learning 1.0 pandemic programs with the creation of new virtual and blended programs, along with updates to preexisting in-person traditional programs.

Virtual, Blended, and In-Person Programs

The three educational options that should be provided in the post-pandemic new normal include:

  1. Virtual Learning 2.0 program
  2. Blended Learning program that includes both remote learning and in-person learning
  3. Full-time In-person Learning program

The three-pronged approach of VBI will allow you to serve students based on their needs, pragmatically utilize your facilities, and provide flexible options that provide families and their students with more choice in how their children are educated.

The Virtual option provides location and pacing flexibility because the student can engage in instruction anywhere there is a wifi connection and is able to complete assignments without the limitations of 50 minute class periods. Virtual programs will best serve those who are more independent learners, those who are dependent learners but have strong support at home, those who have outside school interests such as artistic or professional sports training, or even those with anxiety or health issues who are not comfortable in packed-school buildings.

The Blended option provides some location flexibility but requires that students attend on-campus some of the time. Blended options will serve students who need some in-person instruction, those who depend upon the school for special interest activities such as sports, fine arts, or clubs, or even those who enjoy the flexibility of remote learning but also prefer social interaction with adults and peers at school.

The full-time In-Person option requires that students attend on-campus every day, for the entire school day. The In-Person option will help to serve students who enjoy being present at school each day, those whose parents are not at home during the day, those who depend upon the school for meals, or even those who need intensive hands-on instructional support from a teacher all day, every day.

Creating your post-pandemic VBI Model is not as difficult as you might think. It’s new, it’s unfamiliar, but it’s not incredibly difficult. It’s simply a matter of taking what we know about how our schools can facilitate learning and organizing those instructional methodologies into a cohesive Virtual, Blended, and In-person, or VBI, educational model.

Avoiding Virtual Learning Pitfalls

Virtual schools in the public K-12 arena have received a great deal of bad press since they first began in 2000. Research studies performed by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University and the National Educational Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado, among others, have found that virtual charter schools show disappointing academic results for most students. 1, 2, 3

However, recent research from 2019 reveals that districts who operate their own in-house virtual schools show much higher academic outcomes than virtual schools that are operated by for-profit Educational Management Organizations (EMOs).

In order for a Virtual or Blended program to appropriately serve students, a school must:

  • Commit to providing teacher to student ratios that are similar to traditional schools (and not the 2x or 3x higher ratios seen in many EMOs). 2
  • Prioritize student learning over profit. Although a Virtual or Blended program may result in cost-saving due to reduced facilities use per student, the programs still require adequate funding to ensure adequate staff and supplies to serve students. 2
  • Provide personalized learning paths for students based on their needs.

Instructional Delivery or How We Teach Students

In considering the interaction between the teacher and the student, there are three primary ways to provide instruction.

  1. Physical proximity instruction is provided by a teacher to a student when the two are in close physical proximity, meaning that they are in the same physical location. Typically, this occurs in a classroom on the school’s campus.
  2. Synchronous instruction is provided by a teacher to a student via a real-time, technology-supported interaction. This typically occurs in an online meeting room, such as Zoom or Google Hangouts, but can also occur via instant messaging or over a phone call. Synchronous means at the same time.
  3. Asynchronous instruction is provided by a teacher to a student utilizing some type of recorded medium where the teacher provides instruction at a different time than the student receives instruction. Typically, this type of instruction is provided via an online curriculum or instructional videos that are recorded by the teacher and provided for viewing to the student. This may also include audio files, such as podcasts. Asynchronous means not at the same time.

Each type of instruction has strengths and weaknesses, and each type has a place of importance in creating our VBI School of the Future.

The Virtual program uses a combination of synchronous and asynchronous instruction to engage the fully-online learner. The Blended program will use all three instructional delivery methods, with synchronous and asynchronous instruction used on the days that the learner is not on-campus and physical proximity and asynchronous instruction on the days that the learner physically attends the school campus. The In-Person program will primarily use physical proximity instruction to help learners master learning objectives, with support from asynchronous instruction as students utilize educational videos or online curriculum tools to engage with learning material.

Student Needs

For a VBI schooling model that serves all students well, you need to design your program based on how to provide for the most complex student needs in each setting.

First, consider your students who need the most support and how your school can provide that level of support in each setting. Then you can work backward to determine service provision to students who need less intensive support.

We cannot ignore the difficulties of serving students with complex needs in a remote or even a blended setting. The challenges mirror, unsurprisingly, the difficulties of in-person schooling. Consider some of the frequently reported reasons that kids join online schools:

  • serious illness of the student or of an immediate family member,
  • bullying or other trauma,
  • school violence,
  • academic boredom or lack of challenge,
  • academic struggles,
  • behavior struggles,
  • unmet special needs,
  • attendance issues and
  • every great once a while, a demanding schedule for an actor, elite athlete, or a promising song virtuoso.

This is a list full of a wide, wide range of needs. One with which you are very familiar if you’ve worked in education for more than a day. Chances are that you have programs on your campuses to address all of these.

In order to ensure that you are meeting the needs of students in each of the three programs of VBI, it makes the most sense to begin designing supports based on students’ needs, without respect to specific special programs.

For example, you can design supports for academics, behavior, social-emotional and physical needs for each VBI program, and then for each student in a special program, or even a general education student who needs intervention, you can choose which support will be the most helpful. You may determine that the support needed by a student can be provided in one of the three distinct VBI programs better than the others. By considering the needs of students, looking at all of the types of support that your district provides, and then realistically determining which support can be provided within each program, you will create a VBI program that best serves the needs of your students.

A school-wide support system that permeates all three programs in your VBI educational model will better serve your students as compared to a program-based, siloed support system. Consider and plan for the supports that students need for all three VBI programs in each of the following critical need areas:

  • Academics
  • Behavior
  • Social-Emotional
  • Physical Safety and Food

By creating a cohesive, schoolwide approach to serving students, you will create consistency between teachers because the supports are easier to understand and you will ensure that students are providing critical support that promotes learning and increases future opportunities for students.

As you design support for students and discuss the variances in each program of VBI with teachers, families, and students, you will quickly see that most complex needs typically require more school support. Students with significant behavioral needs or academic needs that require a dedicated support staff member or that require a specialized support program may be better served in the full-time In-person program. Additionally, students who do not have family present at home may need the structure of a full-day In-person program.

In a few cases, some students with complex needs may learn better in their home setting through virtual instruction, such as students who have severe anxiety but who can successfully engage with academic content asynchronously. In these situations, the school and parent must be fully aware of the physical limitations of Virtual or Blended programs. An In-person program that provides an intensive structure of physical support cannot be replicated in the home. However, some students may no longer require the intensive support they receive when on campus because the stimuli of other students are removed so the student does not experience the behavioral issues at home that are triggered at school.

In discussions with families, students, and staff, about the educational options available in the VBI model and the support available in each program, you might find the following graphics helpful.

The VBI Model:  Decisions-Making Framework shows how school support increases in response to the complexity of student needs and that increased levels of school support are more readily available the more often that a student is on-campus.

The VBI Model:  Levels of Support graphic illustrates how physical proximity support shifts from the school to home as the student’s setting becomes more remote. Because a full-time virtual program is not able to provide in-person physical proximity supports, then the family must be able to off-set the reduced school support by providing any necessary in-person physical proximity support themselves. The more time that a student spends on-campus, the higher level of physical proximity support can be provided by the school.

This does not reduce the expectation that teachers will maintain regular contact with Virtual students and will serve as the primary instructional provider. It does, however, acknowledge the reality that teachers and school support staff are not physically present with the student during remote instruction, so the possible intensity of support provided by the school is reduced as a result.

Although you may not be able to build every support needed, you can structure your remote schooling upon the solid foundation of serving our neediest students. The challenge in trying to add-on a program into a virtual or blended program you’ve already established is like trying to stick a square peg into a round hole.

Let’s say, for example, you want to add on a program to support students with learning differences onto your pre-existing campus or virtual learning program.

  • Does this mean students will need to complete their regular assignments and, also, additional assignments that are designed to address their learning differences?
  • Will they miss out on Tier 1 instruction (general curriculum) completely so that they can participate in their specialized instruction?
  • Does this mean all students who have learning differences will miss out on engaging in general education instruction with their peers?

Add-on programs to support students very quickly begin to infringe upon the rights of our students with higher needs, especially in a virtual setting where peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher interaction is greatly reduced.

But, when we design the entire instructional VBI program from the starting place of “How will we serve our highest-needs students?” and then layer on the general instructional program keeping those supports and needs in mind, we have a chance at creating a program in which gaps in services and learning between student populations are minimized instead of magnified.

If you need more convincing, consider how well add-on support programs have worked for us as an industry. Compare those of us who have added on stand-alone programs that run parallel to the regular program to try to serve students with higher needs with those of us who have campuses where services for students are integrated into the overall program and are just part of “what we do” for kids. There is a drastic difference between the two.

For a discussion of the 8 essential VBI program planning areas and ideas on some of the key issues to address, check out VBI Model Program Planning.

References

1 Miron, G., Shank, C. & Davidson, C. (2018). Full-Time Virtual and Blended Schools: Enrollment, Student Characteristics, and Performance. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 9, 2020 from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/virtual-schoolsannual-2018.

2 Molnar, A., Miron, G., Elgeberi, N., Barbour, M.K., Huerta, L., Shafer, S.R., Rice, J.K. (2019). Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 9, 2020 from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/virtual-schools-annual-2019.

3 Woodworth, J.L., Raymond, M.E., Chirbas, K., Gonzalez, M., Negassi, Y., Snow, W., Van Donge, C. (2015). Online Charter School Study. Stanford, CA:  Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Retrieved May 9, 2020 from https://credo.stanford.edu/sites/g/files/sbiybj6481/f/online_charter_study_final.pdf.

Sara J. Baker, Ed.D.

Dr. Sara Baker created VBI Education to provide schools with planning support and innovative ideas for serving students today and beyond. Free educational resources, such as videos, blogs, and planning guides are provided to help schools take action and set up their own VBI programs. Dr. Baker is available as a consultant for schools who need additional support with strategy in planning their VBI program.
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