Indiana high schools are headed for change. Online schools are especially prepared for it.

Originally published in The Times of Northwest Indiana – December 9, 2019

You may not have seen it in the prime-time headlines or even read about it in the local paper, but last year, Indiana effected a quiet revolution in secondary education.

Amidst a mounting student debt crisis and increasing confusion about the purpose of education after high school, the state changed its high school graduation requirements in the hopes of getting kids thinking about careers sooner. No longer will a high-school diploma alone suffice; instead, starting in 2023, students will be required to show marketable skills and “post-secondary-ready competencies.”

This is a welcome change. Too often, students don’t have a clear sense of what they want to do after graduation. Many end up in college as the default option, without a strong sense of where that will lead. Figuring that out can be an expensive adventure that locks them into a lifetime of loans.

These new requirements give students an opportunity to figure out their future plans and start gaining employable skills before they’re handed their diploma. The state gives students three options to show work-related skills: a project-based learning (PBL) experience, a service-based learning experience or a work-based learning experience. For brick-and-mortar schools, many dealing with tight budgets, establishing these three experiences can be difficult.

Thanks to technological advancements, it doesn’t have to be. Schools need not be limited by the programming and opportunities available in their immediate backyard.

Rather than having students trek to a high school or industry partner several counties away to take advantage of their programs — or worse, forgoing a great opportunity because it’s too far away – online learning enables students to complete such requirements from the comfort of home. This blended learning approach is one that works for the brick-and-mortar schools scrambling to train teachers on PBL and secure public-private partnerships, and it’s certainly one that benefits students, too.

As far as project-based learning goes — where students take on a long-term, real-world project of particular interest to them — online classrooms teach students skills that will come in especially handy. For example, their project might involve professional collaboration with individuals from across the state, requiring that students conduct research, e-introduce themselves, draft correspondence, and do so on a set schedule to meet the project deadline.

These skills directly translate to today’s careers. As remote work grows more popular, employers value employees who know how to work with peers and colleagues who they don’t see face-to-face. They also value employees who are able to practice time management and hold themselves accountable in the physical absence of a superior.

Speaking of superiors, online learning also makes it easy for students to connect with industry leaders. Partners from across the state can take advantage of online classrooms’ video conferencing capabilities, through which they can answer students’ questions and give them a glimpse into what life is like in their workplace. If their headquarters is far away, they may point students to a smaller branch that’s closer. Alternatively, they might offer a one-day externship and work with schools to secure transportation for interested students. Another option is for them to accept student volunteers, which, depending on the employer, could be done outside a student’s school schedule to make visits more convenient.

Online platforms help give rise to an abundance of such opportunities, and therefore make it easier for students to fulfill their service- or work-based learning requirements. By the same token, online platforms make it easier for students reaffirm or reject their early interest in certain fields, plus make it easier for them to establish eventual employment. Public-private partnerships help students make professional connections, and also help employers identify, recruit and equip budding talent with the skills they need.

These changes to our high schoolers’ graduation requirements hold a lot of potential. They aim to help students have a better idea of what they want to do someday, and simultaneously help students acquire the skills they need to do it. So, as we approach 2023, we must remember this: Online schools are perfectly situated to help educators, employers, parents and students alike see that potential become a reality.

Elizabeth Sliger – Head of Indiana Digital Learning School

To learn more about Indiana Digital Learning School, visit https://indls.k12.com/.

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