Operator name Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
Operator type District
Headquarters Nashville, Tennessee
Grades served PreK-12
% FRL 72%
% Black or Hispanic 63%
Revenue per pupil $8,180
Blended grades 7-12
Content Pearson, Aventa Learning
SIS Pearson’s Chancery SMS
Independent LMS Blackboard
Independent gradebook Gradespeed
Independent assessment tool Discovery Education Assessment
Link between LMS and SIS Blackboard
Other tools None
Program model: Online Lab, Self-Blend
The virtual school delivers fully online courses to an entire class of students in a brick-and-mortar school, or to a one-off student who is self-blended off campus.
History and context
When he became director of schools for the Metropolitan Nashville Public School District in 2009, Dr. Jesse Register appointed Kecia Ray as executive director of instructional technology and charged her with designing a “world-class online program” for the district. Register allocated $1.5 million in Race-to-the-Top funds to outfit more Nashville classrooms with high-speed-connected computers and to design the online-learning program.
The purpose of the online program was three-fold: (1) to allow students to enroll full-time in a district virtual school; (2) to provide online courses and online teachers for schools to use in place of face-to-face teachers; and (3) to expand course offerings for individual students who wanted to self-blend.
Ray began by forming a team of advisers, including Cathy Cavanaugh from the University of Florida; Chris Dede from the Harvard Graduate School of Education; John Ross, a consultant to the U.S. Department of Technology; and Kathy Hayden from California State University, San Marcos. The team began convening each month in virtual meetings to design Metropolitan Nashville’s approach.
The vision for the district’s online program was to create a catalog of online courses, which students could take in a computer lab or classroom on campus with a virtual teacher, or from home for credit recovery or credit advancement.
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An available adult would supervise the online learning completed on campus, but not provide subject-matter expertise. For example, a school could use the district’s program to offer Chinese to a classroom of students for whom no face-to-face Chinese teacher was available. Likewise, if several students in a statistics class wanted to take AP statistics but the teacher only was able to teach basic statistics, that group could take the AP course in one half of the classroom while the rest of the class learned in a traditional format. Students could also take courses remotely, either full-time or on a supplemental basis. Ray and Register believed an online option would afford their schools and students tremendous flexibility.
The district’s program would serve students in grades 7 to 12. “Kids need to be old enough to be successful,” Ray said. “They need a certain internal mechanism rolling. I like to think of it as an ability to beat a video game.”
The first phase of the project was to select a third party to deliver online content. The district did not plan to modify or customize content, at least in the initial stages of implementation. Ray selected two district personnel to serve as content specialists. They issued a request for proposals, received bids from several providers, and ultimately decided to contract with both Aventa Learning and Pearson. They also decided to use Blackboard for the learning management system because the district already had a contract with Blackboard Connect, a mass notification system that sent alerts to parents and students. District leaders wanted the two systems to be integrated.
The second phase of the project was to create instructional supports to help each student succeed. This included setting up a 24/7 tutoring program via videoconferencing, an online virtual library using the district’s own physical libraries, and counseling via chat, telephone, and videoconferencing. They trained school counselors to help gauge when students should be in online courses. The district began to set up a training department in instructional design because it hoped to use its own teachers eventually as the online teachers rather than outsourcing this job to the content providers.
Ray planned to use Discovery Education Assessment to deliver short-cycle assessments for math and English, because she liked the vendor’s ability to translate assessment results into individual plans for improvement.
The district launched its full online program beginning with the 2010–11 school year, and results are still not available. The program accommodated roughly 500 enrollments in its first year.
Ray believes the district’s program eventually will provide significant cost savings. With online learning, 25 students can be learning 25 different subjects in the same room with only one on-the-ground adult. She believes savings will come from reduced personnel and textbook costs and improved square footage efficiencies.
On the horizon
Ray would like future legislation to redesign the funding formula to better facilitate digital learning. Specifically, she would like to see funding follow a student in whatever learning environment the student is in. The program that provides the course gets paid. Funding should mirror the college formula, where schools think in terms of hourly costs per student instead of daily costs, she said.
Ray would like to rethink the payment of teachers, too, and have greater flexibility to differentiate contracts for online and on-site teachers. She believes that online teachers need specialized credentials to evidence their training in delivering online instruction.
Her technology wish list includes more immersive technologies to allow students to touch and move virtual objects and experience them spatially. She believes this would especially enhance math and science learning. She also wants more mobile technologies. “The Internet is a tethering device,” she said. “Students need to be able to access the Internet in a more fluid way, so they can sit in a park, for example.” She believes the iPad will change the way people teach, and that in the future, many teachers and students will depend on handheld mobile devices with a large enough viewing area. She also sees an eventual migration to protected cloud computing.