Taking It to Another Level

But Michigan Virtual University takes technology to another level.  This not-for-profit corporation was established to support the state’s economic development efforts by providing convenient and cost-effective education and training to Michigan citizens.

Jamey Fitzpatrick, president and CEO, explains the organization’s evolution. “We were set up by the state in 1998 to help institutions of higher education in Michigan get into online learning by training college faculty to design, develop and teach in an online environment. We provided support in technical hosting as well as in the development of a learning management system for the virtual classroom. In our early days, we were doing work in higher education, and we also did training for key Michigan industries like healthcare, tourism and manufacturing.

“In 2000, the governor and the legislature passed legislation that called on us to create a virtual school that would serve youth by offering online courses. Since 2004, we have concentrated on K-12 students. We provide options that might not otherwise be available. For instance, in 2000, 45 percent of Michigan schools didn’t offer any AP courses. In that same year, we rolled out 17 advanced placement classes. In a way, we provided an ‘equity blanket’; every school now has access to AP courses. We’re also able to offer seven world language courses and other classes that schools can’t always provide.”

Other circumstances in which students benefit from access to online courses include home schooling situations, students who live abroad because of a parent’s career, those who might have medical problems that do not allow them to attend school or even those who participate in athletics to an extent that makes attendance at a regular school impossible. Fitzpatrick says several of their current and past students are Olympic level athletes whose training and travel schedules make online learning ideal. Some students might have scheduling conflicts which make taking a course online convenient for them, or they might be making up a class which they failed earlier in their schooling in order to recover those credits.

Fitzpatrick says, “We can also work with students who have learning disabilities that make learning in a traditional classroom not the best option for them. I once received a letter from the mother of a student with ADHD who was having problems in the classroom. It was a rigorous course, and he did most of it at home. His attention span didn’t change, but he was able to get up and move around when he needed to. He ended up getting an A in the course. In her letter, the mother said, ‘I always knew my son could do this work; he was trapped in a system where he couldn’t demonstrate his ability. Thank you for giving him a chance to prove to me and to himself that he could succeed.’”

Students in MIVU courses may either take classes at home on their own computers, or they may participate at the media center or computer lab at their home school.

According to Fitzpatrick, “The classes we offer are in an environment where there are fellow classmates and certified teachers. But typically, there isn’t ‘real time’ communication between students and teachers. However, students are often required to post messages concerning the topic and also comment on what the teacher of other students has posted. These message boards facilitate communication. However, in language classes, students sign up for a lab in which all the students in the class as well as the teacher are working together to practice speaking the language.”

In 2006, Michigan became the first state to require all students to take an online class at some point during their education. Since then, several other states have adopted that same requirement.

Fitzpatrick says, “Since we made a decision in 2004 to focus on K-12 education, we do three things. First we operate one of the largest virtual schools in the United States. We have had close to 100,000 enrollments since our initial population of 100 in 1999. Secondly, we provide online professional development for school employees. Through the Michigan LearnPort, we host a broad catalog of courses and collaborative tools for school personnel. And lastly, we offer a series of online career development tools for middle and high school students and their parents and teachers. We have a tool called myDreamExplorer which gives students the opportunity to explore different career pathways, take personal interest surveys and build a personalized education development plan.”

MIVU serves students in public, charter and private schools as well as home schools. (Home schoolers account for only about 5 percent of total enrollment.) Most of their funding comes from school systems paying for their students to take these online courses. In a few situations, parents pay the cost of the classes. MIVU is fully accredited and meets state and federal requirements. All of their instructors are certified teachers; according to Fitzpatrick, some are teaching in school districts while others are former or retired teachers. They all receive special training through the Michigan Virtual University. MIVU also has an instructional design team who work to make learning experiences consistent, relevant and enjoyable and who bring new technology and new resources to the table.

MIVU has 45 on-site employees as well as some 150 instructors hired as contractors to teach. Effectiveness is measured by student evaluation, teacher reflection and evaluations from instructional managers who monitor courses and offer constructive feedback.

While teachers and students may not interact face-to-face or in “real time,” taking an online course is not an impersonal experience. There is a phenomenon occurring in online interactions called “intimate anonymity,” a phrase describing personal relationships that develop online. Often, close relationships among students, classmates and teachers are forged. For students who might have difficulty expressing themselves in the classroom, the virtual world may be more conducive to participation. Teachers are trained to either work with or appropriately refer students who express personal problems.

According to Fitzpatrick, “The use of online learning is exploding on all levels. In 2010, one out of five college students took an online course, and that number continues to grow. Last year, we served 15,000 students; our number this year is already up to 17,000.”

It’s all about options. MIVU gives students what they need and might not otherwise be able to access. They provide quality education and instruction in a unique and innovative environment and offer exceptional educational experiences.

Author: Jane Whittington
Photography: Terri Shaver

Michigan Virtual University

Jamey Fitzpatrick, President and CEO

3101 Technology Blvd., Suite G





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