Finding the Right FIT for Your Virtual Learning Program


Choosing to enroll in a virtual learning program option can be equated to joining a gym or starting a workout routine. The online learning experience for the past year didn’t have an opt-in contract. Some learners embraced the new way of scheduling learning on-demand like the early adopter in the gym or fitness class. Others spent time spinning and that wasn’t on a fitness bike.

How do you as a leader set up a successful virtual learning program or expansion that is a FIT for the students and families who interest in enrollment for 21-22? How do the steps you take now through the start of school affect your ability to gain the right students while maintaining your FTE and resulting budget?

F… First, warm up for virtual learning!

Like anyone will tell you, warming up properly is the key to staying with the routine. That is no different when it comes to learning remotely.

Do your program materials and information create an accurate picture of what online learning entails at each of the grade bands your program serves? Even with local district teachers employed, there is considerable support required from the home environment, especially at the K-5 level. Students in grades 6-12 may need less direct help, but some secondary students actually need more help. Some platforms allow parents to receive weekly progress reports.

Student experiences are powerful in their voice. Gather a few at each grade band.

For the variety of learning styles you will be reaching out to, do you have both auditory and visual presentations on websites and social media? Having more than one modality of information is part of your fitness warmup.

Do you have an in-depth checklist or inventory for counselors and intake staff to use when a student or family is considering online learning? Do you have a dedicated training session for those staff so that they feel comfortable addressing questions and presenting a realistic view of what will be expected for the student as well as parents/guardians?

It is not about the number of enrollments. It is about the right FIT for learning and sustaining learning success or credits towards graduation. This is a key philosophical plank for your program or expansion. Your whole staff needs to lift together on this central theme.

Idea: Use a blank calendar and have the student/parents pencil out how they plan to schedule their time. This can also be done electronically. Have them bring this or share the calendar. Then, discuss what is working, or could be working better, in the early weeks of their remote learning onboarding.

I… Identify what students need to succeed in your virtual learning program

Online learning is not a one size fits all option. Because Suzy or Sid work well independently and have a quiet, dedicated space at home carved out, they are potentially well suited to your digital learning program. Sarah, on the other hand, is helping with child care for her younger siblings and has little independent time. Sam is working several hours to help with family finances and his ability to have a chunk of learning time is limited. Steven wants to graduate early and is willing to accelerate courses and put in the effort, which includes summer school original credit courses.

This is about being able to personalize learning options for students, but it will not be a fit for all. If you are currently in the school year, have a student shadow another student that has been successful in the virtual learning program. 

  • What does a learning day look like for the student?
  • How does learning fit into the family schedule?
  • Are they going to need technology? Wi-fi?
  • Who will be the key support person(s) at home?
  • Have they considered work arounds when technology/wi-fi/internet is down?

T… Time use is a critical FIT component for virtual learning

With eight years of working with secondary students who are learning online, their typical working hours for school were between 8 pm and 2 am. Many online students take advantage of continuous enrollment and stagger courses across the semesters. Prepare your staff to capture the student’s thinking in these areas. Translate it to whoever will be their primary online learning advisor.

Discuss with potential students the following:

  • What time of day do they do their best thinking and work?
  • How do they want to organize their courses/schedule?
  • What goals do they have?
  • Where do they believe they will need the most help in terms of content?
  • How do they advocate for themselves when needed?
  • What makes them curious and engages them?
  • Will they need language support?

For the Win!

Like a gym membership or workout routine, using the FIT approach upfront with potential students and families is not a guarantee for success. It will, however, go a long way toward matching students and the labor-intensive process of onboarding them. FTE is only gained if it is kept. The parallel is: the gym membership only works if we utilize it. Virtual Learning Fitness can succeed by utilizing the strategies outlined above.

Breaking a sweat? Sustained enrollment will be the result.

By Darlene Wilgus | August 9, 2021, 09:48 AM PT


Meet the Writer

Darlene has 35+ years of experience in education spanning teaching and leading private and public schools K-12. She has also served as an adjunct professor in both education and university administrative programs for George Fox, Seattle Pacific, and Heritage. Her passions lie in student-centered practices, program development, and best practices approaches for teachers to employ. Her undergrad work was at Northwest Nazarene University, MED in School Administration from Central Washington University, and her Superintendent’s license was earned through the Executive Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University.

During her tenure in alternative learning the past 14 years, she became an NBCT, led a 10 member cohort with 80% certification in year one, and facilitated two district-level program cohorts. Her focus for the past seven years became a lightning rod for today’s educational paradigm: developing and implementing a successful district online learning program.