News and analysis from The Center for Michigan •
©2015 Bridge Michigan. All Rights Reserved. • Join us online at

Original article URL:

Talent & education

School virtual; learning real

When high school senior Makenzi Leinhert had a schedule conflict last year, she didn’t have to make the choice between core classes or electives. Instead, her counselor suggested she take an online algebra course to fulfill a requirement and open up her schedule for other face-to-face courses.

“When I took Algebra 2 online, my mom was nervous because I am not a great math student, but I actually got one of the best grades I’ve gotten in a math class,” the Maple Valley High School student said. “There were so many learning techniques. I was also teaching myself somewhat, so it made me feel more confident.”

Leinhert is one of thousands of Michigan K-12 students taking advantage of online learning through systems such as the Michigan Virtual School. Online learning is a major hit at Maple Valley, located about 35 miles southwest of Lansing. Students take courses such as American Sign Language, digital photography, and advanced levels of Spanish with the guidance of an on-site mentor, who acts as a liaison between student and virtual teacher.

Though MVS has been in place for more than a decade, the number of students taking online classes has grown dramatically since Michigan adopted an online-learning high school graduation requirement in 2006. Michigan Virtual School has been at the forefront of the state’s progress, growing from about 40,000 course enrollments in the 2006-07 school year to more than 100,000 this year. Michigan Virtual University uses a combination of annual appropriations from the Legislature, course fees charged to schools and private grants to fund Michigan Virtual School and Michigan LearnPort, an online professional development system for educators.

The availability of virtual courses creates new opportunities for students and teachers, explained John Watson, a consultant for Colorado-based Evergreen Education Group.

“In Michigan, you think about opportunities students have in inner-city Detroit and in a small town in the Upper Peninsula, and they’re not the same as a student in Grosse Pointe, for instance,” Watson said. “Educational opportunities are still sometimes determined by where they live. This helps balance that.”

Michigan Virtual School’s 2011 Online Teacher of the Year Julia Swartz sees advantages for teachers, too. Teaching virtually has made her and her colleagues better at their jobs, Swartz said. Relationship-building is more deliberate for them now.

“If a kid has failed in his local school and everybody thinks he’s a troublemaker, I don’t know he’s a troublemaker unless he tells me,” Swartz said. “Unless I tell them that I’m 65 years old, they don’t know that. I have the same opportunity they have, that the playing field is level for me.”

Swartz is also a part-time administrator with Maple Valley Schools and loves the idea that she can provide access to courses that the school wouldn’t otherwise be able to provide due to cost restrictions. In the past school year, she purchased 107 seats with Michigan Virtual School, for 45 different courses — 29 of which were classes she could not afford to offer in a traditional classroom.

“When I buy astronomy, I get a Michigan-certified, highly qualified teacher… I don’t have the money or the personnel to offer that but Michigan Virtual has dozens of classes I can buy,” Swartz said. “Three-fourths of my students got As or Bs (in virtual courses), so the passing rates are phenomenally high.”

In a December 2011 report to the Legislature, Michigan Virtual University reported an 85.9 percent completion rate for MVS courses offered in the fall 2010, spring 2011 and summer 2011 semesters. This includes 12,807 Michigan student enrollments in semester-length, instructor-led MVS courses, but not those in summer enrichment programs, un-graded pilot programs or non-instructor-led courses.

Virtual schools in Michigan use multiple online learning systems to deliver an educational experience for students that combines video, message boards and asynchronous work. Students enjoy the variety, but may face problems with access to the Internet and hardware. Swartz said they inform Maple Valley students about places to access computers and Web hot spots outside of school, including libraries and restaurants. They also get an hour a day at school for such work, but even then, the programs don’t always load as quickly as students and teachers would like.

“We don’t have the money to buy new computers, switches, servers,” Swartz said. “We’ve got high speed coming right to our door and then it hits our old equipment.”

Students, teachers, administrators and advocates of online learning are looking to lawmakers to propel change. Michigan Virtual University has outlined six priorities for the Legislature, including creation of a center for online learning research and innovation and the elimination of caps on the number of cyberschools allowed in the state.

Last week, the House Education Committee approved Senate Bill 619, which would allow for expanding the cyberschool ranks. However, the committee amended the measure to include a cap of 15 schools in 2013 and 30 after that — as opposed to the original version’s removal of any caps, reported the Gongwer News Service. The full House is expected to take up the bill this week.

“Years ago, Michigan was the second state to implement an online requirement for graduation,” said Linda Frederickson, director of marketing, sales and communications for Michigan Virtual University. “State policy needs to keep Michigan in the front of leading new opportunities for students.”

Natasha Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Lansing, who has covered education in North Carolina and interned at several Associated Press bureaus.

1 comment from a Bridge reader.Add mine!

  1. Neil

    I think that the legislature should approve the unlimited expansion of online schooling to all K-12 students. The pilot program shows that cyber schooling works well for some students. In some cases it is a matter of learning for students how to do online learning and then how to get A and B grades online. Online learning really opens up the options for students beyond what they get in the classroom: offer classes online that are not offered at the local school; allow home schoolers to take one or all classes online; take classes online that one could not sign up for at the local school; take advanced or college classes. In the legislature it is politics coming before the students.

    Perhaps some provision could be made for senior citizens to take these online courses for free but get full credit.

    Myself, a senior, I am currently taking an online course to learn how to build web sites which will result in building my own web site. I am paying for this class. I paid for a year to learn and build at my own pace. The class consists of web page text and graphics, PDF files, and downloadable videos.

Leave your comment...

Your email address will not be published.

Currently on Bridge

Will we be better off if Proposal 1 passes? Former treasurer says yes

An Earth Day pitch: When you hang up the phone for good, toss it the right way

Michigan’s roads affect everyone, so a 'yes' vote on Proposal 1 makes sense

‘Diplomacy Begins Here’ conference aims to illuminate international relations

What NOT to post on Facebook: Jokes about prison rape, when you’re in charge of preventing prison rape

A program to give young offenders a second chance is sending many to prison

Similar accounts in suit over alleged teen prison rapes pose challenge to state's defense

‘New fish’ ‒ One teen inmate’s account of alleged sexual assault

Early learning summit in June could impact Michigan’s children

Money Smart Week: Be penny wise, and pound savvier

Plan B or no Plan B, here’s what happens if road proposal fails

The political tale behind the selling of Proposal 1

A Bridge primer: Untangling the pothole promise of Proposal 1

Who supports, and opposes, Proposal 1

Let's rebuild Michigan through its greatest asset: its water

Could a public boarding school model work in Detroit?

Coalition supporting Detroit schools a step in the city’s road back

Chasing fads? Today’s schools are struggling too much for that

For one Michigan legislative staffer, an hour or two in the spotlight

A cull is a kill, and it’s an overreaction to deer ‘problem’

Lack of college guidance keeps poor and rural students from applying

Those who can, do – and get their hands ‘dirty’ in the process

For one Detroit mom, a complicated path to employment

Detroit by the numbers – the truth about poverty

Michigan should require dental screening for all children entering kindergarten

Where in the world is the Center for Michigan?

After two years, hard to call ACA anything but a success

Bridge’s Academic State Champs emphasizes all the wrong measurements

A graying population poses challenges for Up North counties

Up North, isolation impedes health care for seniors

Enbridge oil pipes and the Straits of Mackinac: Too risky to ignore

Not bigger government, but better services when Community Health and Human Services merge

Two Michigans gaze across a widening gap

In northern counties, workers and business find each other lacking

Hidden poverty stalks a Pure Michigan setting

Postcard: How a git-’er-done spirit helps one rural school district

Postcard: When elk is for dinner

Postcard: Luxe life at Bay Harbor reflects changing economy

Postcard: A roof and a bed

Invest in non-partisan journalism.

Donate to The Center for Michigan. Find out why.