Online Academy Provides Learning Option for Local High School Students

Posted: December 9, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Amy Biderman

A new partnership between George Mason’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) and three local public school systems is allowing high school students to meet their educational goals through web-based courses. The so-called Online Academy is a project of the Virtual High School Collaborative, a partnership between Mason and the public schools in Frederick, Loudoun, and Stafford Counties.

Priscilla Norton, CEHD professor, helped design the online curriculum and serves as the project director. “The collaborative looked at the good, the bad, and the ugly–the need for the web-based option, available online options and their drop-out rates, who the targeted students should be, and the expectations of the SOLs [Standards of Learning]—to create this unique learning environment,” she says.

The academy is based on the “community of practice learning system” (COPLS), developed by Norton and awaiting patent approval. “This alternative provides a pedagogical framework for learning apart from definitions of teacher, student, classroom, tests, and grades as defined in a conventional learning system,” she says. “With COPLS, learning is not the goal as in a traditional educational environment. The focus is instead on solution-shared problems and participation in shared activities.”

Twenty-five high school teachers, supported by their school divisions and George Mason, work within the framework of advanced graduate study to create web-based instructional materials. The teachers study as a group, reading relevant literature and exploring best practices for online learning. In addition, graduate students in the university’s Instructional Design and Development Program work on the design and functionality of the academy’s web site. Members from each participating school division and George Mason serve on a Policy Board, which considers issues and policies related to the creation, continuation, and management of the academy.

The online environment has three goals: provide quality learning that capitalizes on recent insights in learning, incorporate a clear link to the Virginia SOLs, and assure students that they have a connection to highly qualified teachers. It also addresses many different needs. Students with health problems who cannot attend classes, academically successful students who want to pursue a college-bound curriculum without losing the option to participate in extracurricular activities such as choir or band, and students living in rural areas where a particular course is not offered will all benefit from the academy.

“Learning in virtual environments is a different process,” Norton says. “It requires a number of habits and skills that are different from those in face-to-face classrooms, with new roles and responsibilities for both learners and teachers.”

The course design reflects the content areas of Virginia’s SOLs, the school divisions’ curriculum guidelines, and relevant text-based materials. Current online offerings are English 11, World History 1, World History 2, Algebra 1, and Geometry. Courses to be added by fall 2005 are Algebra 2, English 10, English 12, U.S. History, Chemistry, Biology, and Physics, as well as a fine arts elective. Learners receive a list of reading assignments in their course book, as well as links to lesson pages and additional readings or resources on the Internet.

The program is in a pilot phase through August 2005, then will be “open for business,” Norton says.

For additional information on the Online Academy, contact Norton at 703-993-2015 or

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