Envisioning Student Success as Independent Study and Virtual Learning Programs Grow

The COVID-19 pandemic thrust millions of anxious parents and students into at-home learning for the first time. The result has been greater awareness and interest in alternative educational environments like independent study (IS), virtual learning, hybrid learning and homeschooling.

A variety of motivations fuel the growing significance of virtual learning programs. In some cases, concern over the safety of returning to the classroom amidst a lingering pandemic inspires the trend. Machele Kilgore, Co-Executive Director of the California Consortium for Independent Study (CCIS), explains that “at the elementary school level, many parents-turned-virtual-classroom monitors decided to explore independent study as an opportunity to better tailor their child’s learning. The rise in depression and anxiety among older age groups has also left some feeling emotionally unprepared to return to a full-time, in-person school setting.”

Additionally, remote learning offers personalized pacing and a flexible schedule for students balancing other responsibilities and interests, enabling them to hold a job or pursue a hobby without negatively impacting their grades. Many students have discovered that it helped them thrive and feel empowered.

If you’re a public school administrator scrambling to meet this rising demand for virtual learning — either by setting up a new program or expanding an existing one — then you know what a challenge it presents. Developing efficient program management plays an essential role in successfully providing all students access to the educational experiences that will help them learn best.

California: A Case Study in the Dynamics of Virtual Learning

Public schools in California first began offering independent study programs — one form of virtual/hybrid learning — more than four decades ago. However, since the start of the pandemic, the accompanying administration has become much more complex.

“Historically, a very small portion of parents and students opted into independent study because the presiding thought was that students need to be in the classroom learning among their peer groups and face-to-face with their teacher every day,” explains Oliver Wreford, CEO of School Pathways, an education software company founded by teachers that counts CCIS as a trusted partner. “Over the past couple of years, that mentality has changed.”

The shift toward higher enrollment in IS began as more Californian parents grew interested in virtual programs through their experiences with at-home schooling during the pandemic. The state’s new requirement that every school district offer independent study has accelerated the trend further.

“Now that the legislation says districts have to offer an independent study option, there’s more of an awareness that it’s available, where before it was more that parents who were looking for something different sought it out,” observes CCIS Co-Executive Director Lesley Clifton.

The statewide mandate and other new legislation governing the administration of IS programs in California have put school administrators under tremendous pressure — in no small part because two bills, AB130 and AB167, came into existence just as the 2021–22 year was getting started.

“In July, you’re told you have to offer an independent study program,” Clifton says. “For a school district with cursory knowledge of independent study, they had to throw an administrator at it and say, ‘Figure it out and get it launched by August’.”

In September 2021, Clifton and another CCIS board member, Daniel O’Brien, began hosting Saturday morning training sessions for teachers to help them learn how to best manage an independent study model. One session was aptly titled “House on Fire” to illustrate the panic felt by school teachers and administrators struggling to understand how to comply with the new IS legislation.

Clifton and Kilgore both admit that the most significant stressor among CCIS members is navigating the vast amounts of documentation the laws and regulations require. For instance, members need to ensure the signing of master learning agreements, collect student work samples and track the live and synchronous instruction every IS teacher must now offer. Further, the state requires centralization and collation of data in preparation for the annual audit that verifies student learning activity and determines the amount of funding each program will receive.

A Software Solution That Streamlines Administration and Virtual Program Management

Technology plays a crucial role in alleviating the administrative and compliance burdens of managing IS, virtual, hybrid and other alternative learning programs — in California and other states that have introduced similar options. With a system like School Pathways’ unique independent study software to streamline the collection and tracking of documents, school administrators and teachers can spend less time working through paperwork and spreadsheets and more time working with students. Flexible software also enables schools to scale their programs and adapt to ever-changing IS program requirements.

“I always appreciated that they get that independent study programs have to be light on their feet and make changes quickly,” says Clifton about School Pathways. “And I know that if the legislation changes, they’ve got people who are really connected… They’re making the necessary changes along with it.”

A Successful Model for Virtual Learning

For the past two years, schools and teachers have been doing incredible work in an overwhelming situation. To those who have been discouraged during this time, know that distance learning as experienced in 2020 was an emergency measure. The future of virtual learning doesn’t mean being on Zoom all day, a format that students and teachers alike struggle with.

There is a wealth of success stories from schools, and organizations like School Pathways, who have been in the virtual learning space long before the pandemic — supporting students from many walks of life, educating and fostering life skills like time management and self-direction for students to carry into the future.

As Kilgore declares, “Our story is success. Our story has been supporting students and changing the lives of everyone who comes.”

Check out these eight tips to learn more about successfully growing your independent study program.