In this challenging age of what Watertown Unified School District officials call “disruptive innovation” caused by the coronavirus, public school administrators are looking at every conceivable avenue to attract enrollment.
One of these disruptive innovations that appears to be an enrollment-generator is virtual learning — something that began years ago, but has flourished during the pandemic.
District officials said virtual learning is a way to teach more students and increase enrollment, and they are in hot pursuit of more and better ways to present it.
Although the district has been working to get students back to school and learning face-to-face, the virtual option just works better for some students and families.
A WUSD version of this remote learning is “eCampus Academy” that has students in places like Fort Atkinson, and is described by the district’s administrator of the project, Assistant WUSD Superintendent Dave Vitale, as being an “innovative, online, blended and real-world learning” experience. It’s also defined by the district as a 4K-12 statewide, virtual/blended charter school.
According to Vitale, who provided an update on the program to the WUSD Board Monday, students from throughout Wisconsin are invited to enroll in the program and that is why district educators who are involved in it are so inspired to make it great. They want it to be an attractive option to students and parents from outside the district, so it can generate enrollment, a good reputation and revenue.
“This program is influenced by the WUSD’s Future Ready Plan,” Vitale said, adding forethought on the part of district officials before the coronavirus became the problem that it is “ … was helpful in moving the program along and into the pandemic.”
Vitale discussed the history of eCampus Academy, noting that, in 2015-16, students completed 43 courses for full credit. By the close of 2016-17, they had finished 347 courses. In 2017-18, students completed 751 online courses.
The school year of 2018-19 saw students complete 842 online courses. In 2019-20 the district filed an application with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for virtual charter status for the 2020-21 school year. Fall of 2020 saw the official, full launch of the eCampus Academy.
In addition to Watertown, the academy has attendees from Dodgeland, Fort Atkinson, Hartland, Hustisford, Jefferson, Kaukauna, Lake Mills, Madison, Oconomowoc, Waterloo, Waukesha and Wisconsin Dells.
This school year, the WUSD’s Office of Digital Learning and Technology provided original credit solutions for 454 student learners in numerous areas. These included 25 English language arts enrollments, 121 in math, 122 in social studies, 117 in science, 29 in health and fitness, 36 in vocational education and four other elective enrollments.
Vitale on Monday discussed what he and others in the district are learning, quickly, about the eCampus Academy, as well as what they are anticipating for it as COVID-19 seems to be falling under, at least some, control.
Among other things, Vitale talked about the program’s relevancy and said feedback is an attribute of quality learning, both online and in-person.
Discussing relevance, he said the program has “real world connections” and added it gives students their own voices and choices in learning.
“Online/virtual learning may decline somewhat as typical routines resume (after COVID-19), but are likely to continue well above levels seen before the pandemic,” Vitale said.
Vitale said WUSD must do something that is unique for the duration of the pandemic and possibly soon, in post-pandemic times — and that is to fully embrace disruptive innovation.
“We also have to gather feedback on success and find areas that need improvement,” he said, adding this will be an ongoing initiative.
There will also be internal reviews of processes and performances, as well as a focus on long-term elements of the charter program and Future Ready Plan.
Vitale anticipates the number of students who participate in the eCampus Academy to grow to the point that it will exceed the district’s goals for five years from now.
He said the program, at this point, is fluid in its enrollment, as families find what works for them and what doesn’t.
He also noted that people are hearing about the program through social media and simply by, “talking over the back fence.” He said that, for some, online learning is, “a great option and more normal than four years ago.
“There is competition out there,” Vitale said, adding that the district must continue to “study the landscape” of virtual education and watch what others are doing.
“We have to build on our strengths, to keep people here and to help us grow,” he said. “There are things we need to learn and grow into. We want to make ourselves unique. We don’t expect less of this (online learning) in the future.”