Hopkins VirtualEDU Redefines Online Learning

Hopkins VirtualEDU Redefines Online Learning
VirtualEDU students sharing their thoughts with other student
A VirtualEDU student and a teacher

(Left and right: Blended learning students at VirtualEDU engaging with their teachers in the Hopkins East building.)

Minah Tezak is a junior in high school. She’s always been a good student, but she never really liked school. As a kid, she moved around a lot, which gave her exposure to several different schools, including online schools, but found she missed social interaction. “I thought, ‘What if I could attend school in person a few times a week and do the rest online?’” she said. “That is exactly what I have been looking for my entire life.” When she heard that Hopkins VirtualEDU was offering just that — a blended (online plus in-person) option — she enrolled right away and has been at VirtualEDU ever since. Located in Golden Valley in the Hopkins East Building, VirtualEDU is the only K-12 online public school in Minnesota to offer in-person instruction as well as a fully online pathway. The pandemic was the initial catalyst for VirtualEDU, but the learning model is far from pandemic learning.

A different structure

The idea of blending online and in-person instruction is not new, but it’s difficult for school districts to operationalize because it’s a transformative shift. Back in 2008, The Christensen Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to exploring how technology and innovation can transform traditional systems, suggested that online learning could provide personalization and address the teacher shortage, but stressed that getting the model right was essential to creating successful outcomes for students. in a virtual teacher that delivers one-size-fits-none, whole-group instruction,” said the Institute's co-founder Michael Horn in a November 2023 blog entry. Tiffany Nielsen-Winkelman, Ph. D., is one of the co-creators of VirtualEDU. Her experience teaching elementary students online during the pandemic helped her see that online teaching, when done thoughtfully, could foster more equitable learning opportunities. “We are breaking the myth that online learning is cold, lonely, and impersonal with our student-centered, dynamic learning environment,” she said. “We take a multiage, family-style approach to amplify learning progression.”

Relationships and connections

VirtualEDU’s learning model is attractive to families and students whose needs are not met by a traditional school setting for a variety of reasons. During the pandemic, some students learned that they thrived in an online setting. VirtualEDU is not for everyone, but for some, it is life-changing. “VirtualEDU’s uniqueness resonates positively with the community and allows for us to have strong family engagement and support,” said Demond Johnson, associate principal of VirtualEDU. October Lewandowski-Washington transferred to VirtualEDU in November after starting the school year at an in-person high school. She wanted an option that was smaller and offered flexibility. It was also important for her to have stronger and more personal connections with her teachers. “Class sizes are small—the teachers know us—and they don't let us fail,” she said. “There is always someone around who is trying to approach you, not in a strict way, it’s loving. It makes me want to do my work.” VirtualEDU students start and end their days in community with other students and their teacher, whether they are in person or online in a Google Meet. Students experience in-person meetups and activities, community gatherings, and virtual social time. Online students even eat lunch together. VirtualEDU offers specialty programming like music, art, physical education, and world language. Its 32-member staff includes special services teachers and a social worker.

Innovation and collaboration for teachers

Emily Alvarez teaches kindergarten through fifth grade using dynamic grouping. Teaching foundational skills like reading and math online to young children requires precision and strategy, but she also enjoys having the autonomy to build a new program. According to Alvarez, online programs need to adapt their content to be successful. “We want to do school differently—and it looks nothing like it would in the classroom,” she said. “You can’t ask how you would teach your content in a virtual environment. You don’t. You build something new that meets students' needs and works in a virtual setting.” Ben Dickens, a secondary learning facilitator, joined Hopkins Public Schools five years ago, working at the middle school level before coming to VirtualEDU. Online learning appealed to him because it allowed him to provide personalized learning for his students without the distraction of transitions, bells, and learning contained in specific times and spaces. In an online learning environment, he can literally meet students wherever they are. In some cases, they participate while in the car on the way to visit a doctor or while traveling with their family. Students can take the learning with them rather than being left behind. “That’s the best part of what we are doing here,” he said. “We are able to be creative. A lot of schools survived the pandemic and went back to the norm. We did not want to go back and lose the innovation that we discovered.” In VirtualEDU, students can self-pace. Instead of eight blocks of learning, they focus on three at a time and explore the interconnections between the subjects. Becky Puchtel, a special services teacher at VirtualEDU, enjoys how integrated her role is within the entire VirtualEDU community.  In her previous positions, she was isolated from her general education counterparts. However, in VirtualEDU, the collaborative environment ensures that all educators engage with students collectively. Here, Puchtel fosters meaningful connections with every student, extending beyond those she directly supports with her services. “What’s nice about online and blended learning is that I can work with students one-on-one and in a smaller group, but I can also go into other classrooms with their mainstream teachers,” she said. “I am  not thought of as the special services teacher with her own program and students.” Regina Johnson, who joined VirtualEDU after years of teaching math and talent development at what is now Hopkins West Middle School, has enjoyed interacting with students and colleagues in a more holistic way. While teaching math at VirtualEDU, Johnson integrates connections into other disciplines and content areas. This year, she challenged students to investigate the application of data in their science class. Johnson has enjoyed being seen as an all-around facilitator of learning, who is not limited to her content area by students and colleagues. “This is near and dear to my heart as a math teacher,” she said. “Having a team of teachers and learning side-by-side with kids.”