When the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School opened in 2008, nearly 700 enrollees embarked on a new kind of educational journey with the educators and founders of the school: personalized, online learning for middle and high school students that prepared them for successful futures.

As of today, more than 12,000 students are enrolled at the Virtual Learning Academy, or VLACS. Future plans include the expansion of the middle school and adult learning programs, and the development of elementary school courses.

I recently sat down with the founder and Chief Executive Officer of VLACS, Steve Kossakoski, to ask him about the founding of the school, and where he sees personalized learning going in the future.

What inspired the creation of VLACS ?

At the time, I worked for an innovative superintendent, Skip Hanson, who really saw beyond the politics of charter schools when states were first introducing legislation around them. We really thought that it seemed like a way to help more kids, so why not we pursue it?

From there, I designed and started Great Bay E-Learning Charter School started as a project-based school, and that’s still running. Then a year or so after that, maybe around 2007, Skip suggested we consider a virtual school. When we spoke about virtual learning before then, I wasn’t sure the technology was ready yet. But by this time, the technology was in a different place, so I was able to start on the design and write the proposal for the charter and get it started.

What were some of your influences on the design and framework for VLACS?

There were all kinds of influences, but I’ve always believed there’s a lot of untapped potential in technology. And, while a lot of virtual schools are really just the automation of traditional high school programs, I never thought that the traditional high school model was one we should be going forward with into the 21st century. In which case, if we were going to look at a virtual school, then why not move into a different learning model as well?

I wanted to find a way around the idea of attendance being at the center of everything. I wanted to look at how could we democratize learning experiences for kids. I wanted to see how we could we get them out into the world and let them be in charge of their learning, rather than the institution?

There were a lot of different factors that all played into it, but as we’ve come along at VLACS, we’ve moved to this concept of customized learning. I think the seed for it was always there. For example, at the time I read a lot of books by Ted Sizer on shopping mall high school and things like that. I was also a fan of Dewey, and I taught in the tech ed area, which emphasizes project-based learning. There was belief that there is more to life than just listening to lectures and just participating in classroom activities, and while those are all good and they have their place, there’s more to learning than that.

How does VLACS use different touch points to measure real-world relevancy and authenticity?

Building relationships is one of the things that’s at the center of what we do, and, again, that was quite unusual in the virtual space. At the time, it was thought that very little interaction was needed in the virtual space, and the kids could just be on their own all the time.

So, when we started pushing this idea of relationship building, the key for assessment and for making things exciting lay in the interaction between the instructor and their students, as well as between the instructor and parents. Again, that relationship piece is very, very important.

Traditional assessments are available in our courses and other pathways, but we do have one type of common assessment, which is discussion-based, and we use it at the end of every single competency. It’s not a final exam, but it allows the instructor to make sure that a student understands the competency and has mastered it through whatever learning experience they’ve been through.

At best, it becomes a real discussion between two people with a deep knowledge of the material. Or, it becomes a time to say, “Gee, this student really doesn’t understand this yet, and I need to provide additional support and resources to get them there.” We find it to be very valuable.

It’s very unusual for a school to say that every student has a 20- to 30-minute discussion about an academic concept with their instructor one-on-one, and then to be able to say that happens in a full-credit course, between 8 and 12 times. In addition to building that relationship, there’s also the ability to have deep discussions about the concepts they’re working on, which lends another level of authenticity to it.

We use these same assessments when students move out into other things, like projects, experiences, or internships, so that if a student has a really rich experience, there’s a lot of evidence that points to the student meeting the competency. But also, perhaps, for example in mathematics, they have a vague understanding of the competency because of the experience, but haven’t practiced it enough to really become fluent in it, that comes up during the discussion-based assessment. Here, the instructor might realize, “Okay, I need to provide an opportunity for this student to really become more fluent in this mathematical concept.”

Discussion-based assessments are just one way to combine both authentic real-world learning with more traditional concerns, like have you really learned something or did you just have a good experience?

Are students required to participate in internships, or is that a choice you leave up to them?

With 13,000 students, most of them part-time, it’s got to be a choice.

Full-time students aren’t required to do an internship, but they’re required to do job shadows. They need to do things that are career-based, in addition to academic. We certainly would love for all of them to take part in an internship, and hope as this goes on, that will become the norm.

Since experiences have opened, quite a few students, both full-time and part-time, have already come forward to express interest. At this point we haven’t really even promoted it because we’re just starting.

As you constructed and designed VLACS, and as it’s evolved, how important has community involvement been for the students?

Well, for example, all of our full-time students have to put in a certain number of community service hours. The other thing is, when you talk to some of our students, they’re not involved just in school. This happens in traditional schools, too, but I think the difference with our kids is usually you hear about students being involved in all kinds of school activities, so they’re kind of in that box, which is a good thing, but when you talk to our kids, they tend to be involved in activities in many places.

A student I recently spoke with was talking about working at a nearby food bank, that’s just one example. Plus, students may also be involved in traditional sports or alternative values. Additionally, high-level skiers, or hockey players, or gymnasts, or dancers might work with some outside organizations. I think our model gives them the freedom to really choose how to interact with the community, whether it’s their local community or the world at large.

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Steve Kossakoski’s tireless effort to offer learners a more meaningful educational experience is reflected in the expert way he guides innovation and personalization at VLACS. The power of neuroscience and the implications recent research and findings have on learners offer limitless ways to enhance learning environments like VLACS. Kossakoski incorporates community, durable learning, experiential learning and growth mindset to deliver a learning experience that is custom-designed to ensure student success both in the classroom and far beyond.