In recent letter to parents of current 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th graders, I discussed Marshall’s partnership with the Virtual High School for the 2011-2012 school year. Online learning is exploding in higher education, with the Babson Research Groupreporting that the number of college students taking at least one online course grew from 12% to 25% from 2003 to 2008.

As a college preparatory school, the Marshall faculty feel it is essential to help students learn the necessary skills to be successful beyond high school. In the 21st century, this means exposing them to online coursework.

Importantly, we have partnered with the pioneer organization in online learning, VHS, which originally began with a $7M challenge grant from the US Department of Education. They continue to be the gold standard in training teachers to offer collaborative, effective online courses. The CEO of VHS, Liz Pape, was recently interviewed as part of a story on the NBC Nightly News that highlighted the advantages of integrating some online coursework within a traditional HS education.

I have worked with Liz and VHS for almost 10 years now. Last school year I taught an online philosophy course from London, England. Here is what I wrote about the program and those experiences:

“International schools are know for their dynamic student bodies, and we activity seek way to take advantage to the diversity in our classroom. In my Philosophy I course this semester that diversity was quickly evident from the bios posted on each student’s homepage: one young woman is half Irish and half Portuguese, planning to go to medical school; another young lady who can code in 12 languages and loves physics and chemistry; a Japanese student who has lived in Korea and Texas; somebody who is reading Ayn Rand’s the Fountainhead in his spare time; a senior who left her school to live in South Carolina and ride horses; a Filipino now living in Jersey City; a Dungeons and Dragons buff who is writing her own novel; a nationally competitive swimmer in Virginia; and a young woman who wants to go to college at McGill and study to become a veterinarian.

In the face-to-face environment of our schools, connecting these students is a matter of planning thoughtful activities in our classroom. But what if these students are physically located in Alaska, Kentucky, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Texas, New Jersey, and Virginia?

The is the reality of the Virtual High School, an online consortium of 662 schools around the United States and the world, including 61 international schools. VHS began from a challenge grant from the United States Department of Education and is now a thriving not-for-profit organization specializing in training teachers to develop highly interactive and dynamic online courses. The pedagogical approaches of VHS have been evaluated by the Stanford Research Institute, and the school has recently been accredited by the Middle States Commission on Secondary Education.

Strong student-teacher and student-student relationships are at the heart of any quality school. Fostering these relationships online takes special care, attention, and training. Without that, you are more likely to have an online course that is nothing more than an independent study — a fresh branding of the old-style correspondence courses that are familiar to many international schools. During my training to teach my philosophy course, my VHS instructor modeled the interactive environment during a 10-week, research-based online course I took with a cohort of other teachers, all preparing their own courses to offer within the consortium. Our coursework included instruction on how to design online questions, model discussion boards, build online community, and collaborate effectively in a virtual environment.

Currently, my students are completing their first group projects, a study of the pre-Socratic philosophers. Later in the course, they will role-play a ‘dinner party,’ each taking the part of a famous philosopher. The guest of honor: God.

This year, there are more than 336 course sections in VHS. This dynamic offering is what first attracts many international schools. The ability to add philosophy, forensic science, Latin, engineering principles, and psychology to your course catalog is highly enticing. In addition to a wide array of semester-long elective courses, the school also offers a host of AP courses in art history, biology, calculus (AB and BC), computer science, economics, English literature, environmental science, European history, French, physics (B and C), psychology, Spanish, statistics, US history, and world history.”

Our partnership with VHS ensures that our students will be in a program that puts quality first. For 2009-2010, students who took AP courses in VHS continued to outperform national averages, with pass rates in some courses above 90%.

Beyond pure online courses, the Marshall faculty are hard at working looking for ways to integrate the best of online tools into their face-to-face classrooms. A small group of faculty are studying the concept of hybrid or “blended” courses this spring. Research shows that this form of technology integration can boost student learning beyond traditional face-to-face classes or pure online classes.

We look forward to sharing more about VHS and our technology initiatives with our students and parents this spring.