Jon Voss of ISD287, a cooperative educational service agency
More Minnesota schools retooling
their classroomsto better meld with online
A Civic Caucus
Focus on Human Capital
Interview June 26, 2015
John Adams, Steve
Anderson, Dave Broden (vice chair), Paul Gilje (executive director),
Ted Kolderie, Dan Loritz (chair), Paul Ostrow, Dana Schroeder
(associate director), Clarence Shallbetter, Jon Voss. By phone:
Randy Johnson, Sallie Kemper (associate director).
A number of Minnesota
schools are innovating by blending online learning with retooled
types of classroom learning, says Jon Voss, director of teaching and
learning for Intermediate School District 287, a cooperative
educational service agency serving school districts in the western
suburbs of Minneapolis. One of its programs is Northern Star Online,
which offers online courses full-time or part-time for students from
its member districts and from around the state.
Voss reports that more schools are now
using online learning to run "blended" and "flipped" classrooms.
Blending incorporates online learning in a variety of different ways
with classroom learning. In a flipped classroom, students watch
lectures or lessons at home on a digital device. The following day,
they attempt to put the concepts into practice in the classroom, as
their teacher guides and assists them.
According to Voss, digital learning offers
teachers the flexibility to think creatively to find a combination
of online learning and classroom learning that works. Most students,
he says, still want some kind of social experience in learning. He
notes that a lot of schools incorporating online learning are
innovating by retooling their classrooms to be more like labs, where
students can work on their own or in groups.
But Voss asserts that online learning
options by themselves won't have a great impact on closing the
achievement gap or on closing resource gaps among schools.Two things
that would help, he says, are expanding broadband access to every
home and every school and obtaining digital devices for every
Full-time enrollment in online classes
seems to have reached a plateau, Voss says, but part-time enrollment
and other types of digital learning are growing. About one to two
percent of Minnesota students are enrolled full-time in online
classes. Most students enrolled in Northern Star Online take one or
two online courses per year.
Jon Voss is director of
teaching and learning for Intermediate School District 287 (ISD 287)
and principal of its Northern Star Online program. Voss first became
involved with distance education in 1992, when he taught Russian
over interactive television for eight high schools in the western
Twin Cities metro area through ISD 287. In 2003, he helped establish
Northern Star Online, a program of ISD 287 that has become one of
the largest providers of online supplemental courses in Minnesota.
Since 2010, he has been chair of the Minnesota State Online Advisory
Council and he is a founding member of the Minnesota Learning
Commons. He has directed the Minnesota Partnership for Collaborative
Curriculum since its establishment in 2013.
Voss earned his B.S., M.A. and Ph.D. in
Slavic and East European Languages from the University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He also has an educational administration license
from the University of Minnesota.
The Civic Caucus has released
two recent statements on human capital: one
in September 2014 laying
out the human-capital challenges facing the state today and in
coming years and a
follow-up paper in January
offering recommendations for maintaining
a high-quality workforce in Minnesota. The Civic Caucus interviewed
Jon Voss to learn more about the role of K-12 online learning in
helping Minnesota prepare students for higher education and the
Information about Intermediate School
District 287 (ISD 287). Formed in 1967, ISD 287 is a
cooperative educational service agency in the western suburbs of
Minneapolis. It serves 12 member school districts: Brooklyn Center,
Eden Prairie, Edina, Hopkins, Minnetonka, Orono, Osseo, Richfield,
Robbinsdale, St. Louis Park, Wayzata and Westonka. It also serves
students from nonmember school districts. Its online classes include
students from throughout the state.
District 287 offers 120 programs and
services designed to help meet the learning needs of students in its
member districts. Students are served through area learning centers
(alternative education), care and treatment programs, career tech
programs, gifted education, a mentor program, Northern Star Online
courses, special education and world languages. During the 2013-2014
school year, ISD 287 served 12,633 students part-time or full-time.
Intermediate School District 287 (ISD 287) was formed in 1967,
primarily to organize career and technical education and special
education for its member districts.
The district offers programs and
services that work better collaboratively rather than individually,
according to ISD 287's director of teaching and learning, Jon Voss.
The district is also able to offer low-incidence programs or "things
ahead of the curve," he said. It operates as a public intermediate
school district under state law. Most of its funding, he said, flows
through its member districts. District 287 served 12,633 students
part-time or full-time in 2013-2014.
ISD 287 has offered Russian, Japanese,
Chinese and advanced math to school districts around the state,
using an interactive TV system. Voss said many Greater Minnesota
districts still use these interactive TV classes for their students.
But the TV networks haven't been used as much in the Twin Cities,
partly because the larger metro districts could offer those classes
themselves and partly because other ways of doing it began to
evolve, he said.
The district eventually started looking at
online programs as a way to offer world language classes. Voss
said the district was looking for a way to overcome the space and
time barriers that occur when students are spread around. It
eventually began developing online language classes in Chinese and
ISD 287 started online programming in 2003
through its Northern Star Online program. The program started
when Minnesota law changed to allow students to enroll in an online
course from outside their enrolling district, essentially creating a
form of part-time open enrollment, Voss said. The law (the Online
Learning Option Act (124D.095)) allows students to take online
courses from another school district and get the course credit in
their home districts. "It's pretty rare around the country," he
pointed out. "Very few other states allow online course enrollment
outside of the home school districts." He noted that some students
in Minnesota take all their classes through an online school and get
their diplomas directly from that online school. There are about 30
approved programs in the state offering online courses, run by
districts, consortia of districts or by chartered schools.
Eventually many districts started offering
online classes, Voss said, but they found it to be resource
intensive. Offering the online classes through Northern Star Online
was more efficient, included courses that met most of the high
school graduation requirements and made use of teachers who had
already received some training in online learning in their own
courses and teachers for the inaugural program were provided by
Eden Prairie, Richfield, Bloomington and Osseo.
The district's Northern Star Online
program served 2,032 students in 2013-2014, some full-time, but most
part-time. Approximately three thousand students enrolled in 5,200
Northern Star Online course this year (2014-2015). Most of those
students take one or two online courses per year, Voss said.
There is some tension between online
providers and students' home school districts, because the money
follows the student. Voss said if a student enrolls in an online
class through Northern Star Online, 88 percent of the student's
state funding apportioned for the one class goes to ISD 287 and 12
percent goes to the student's home school district.
There are several Minnesota organizations
that have grown up around online learning:
Online Learning Alliance,
which is a group of online providers that have been approved by
the state, both supplemental and full-time. Voss said the group
has always focused on sharing as much as possible: ideas,
curriculum and processes.
More schools are now using online learning
to run blended and flipped classrooms. Voss said blending,
combining online learning with classroom learning, is now a hot
topic. And he said the use of flipped classrooms-in which students
watch lectures or lessons at home on a digital device and then get
help with the concepts as they put them into practice in the
classroom-has "exploded." A number of districts are offering the
flipped-classroom format as a regular practice, including the Byron
and Stillwater School Districts. "It's great when it all comes
together," he said. "The teacher can circulate and help students who
are having difficulties." Students spend the classroom time working
on higher order thinking problems and can work in groups to learn
There is not one answer to what the best
combination of online learning and classroom learning is for every
student. But Voss said being able to combine the two allows for
a lot of flexibility. "There's a richness of different models just
in the fully online models," he said. "There are some that operate
as project-based and some that operate with a specific focus. And
there are all sorts of different models for how school districts are
incorporating the online curriculum."
About one to two percent of students in
Minnesota are fully enrolled in online classes only. Voss said
there seems to be a plateau in the number of families who are
comfortable with their students in a full-time online program. There
are still custodial and social functions in having students
participate in an educational community in a classroom. "A lot of
the fears that school buildings will all be empty with tumbleweeds
blowing across the parking lots have not been borne out in the
near-term," he said.
But, Voss said, the number of students
doing digital work inside their classrooms has grown substantially.
"Ultimately," he said, "that would be the goal: that every student
has some sort of online experience in every class, at every grade
level, in every school. It's almost impossible to think how you
could move forward without it." Examples include blended learning
projects (Edina, Richfield, Orono), digital curriculum initiatives
(Eden Prairie, Hopkins, St. Louis Park, Wayzata, Westonka); online
programs for local students (Minnetonka, Robbinsdale, Osseo), or
fully online school options (Brooklyn Center).
ISD 287 builds some online courses for
districts to share and use as they want and some for online programs
run through Northern Star Online.
Partnership for Collaborative Curriculum has become the largest
effort to pool resources from all districts in the state to build
open digital courses that meet Minnesota academic standards and can
be shared openly through creative commons licensing.
People have raised questions about the
role of teachers in online courses.
Voss said the question is often posed
as, "Can the content be the teacher? Can you have all the online
content there and not have to have as much of a teacher presence
with it?" He said the questions raise issues to consider in moving
from largely a classroom-based experience to some kind of blend of
content in a digital format and innovative use of classroom time.
"Most students still want some kind of
social experience in learning," he said. "It's nearly impossible to
put all students into a digital environment and expect that they're
all going to do well. The questions are what is that combination,
what is the role of the teacher and what is the role of the
building. Those things are ripe for innovation."
Colleges do accept online credits if the
student's home school has approved the transfer credits from the
online courses and entered them onto the student's transcript.
In Minnesota, only school districts can offer online courses with
state funding, Voss said. So, the home school district determines
how to transfer those credits, as they do with any other credits
from another school district.
All subject matter can all be delivered
remotely. Voss said the question is what experience you want to
get out of it. We're learning that the knowledge basis, the
basic-skill building and things that are more routine and repetitive
can be done more efficiently in an online format. It can adapt to
the students as they go and give students immediate feedback, so
they can move on to the next thing without having to wait.
"Anything that's a little more complex,"
he said, "is always going to take more time to set up and more
resources to create an environment where students are interacting
more, using higher-order thinking skills and thinking beyond the
basics. That's where the strength of classroom teaching and getting
groups together in time and place becomes a lot more important. You
never lose the importance of the teacher, because he or she can put
people together, find out their strengths and weaknesses and guide
them in the right direction."
But instead of the teacher being the
source of all the information, he said, all of the information can
be accessed from different places. The teacher builds the
environment and the kind of activities that encourage the students
to find it.
Online education through Northern Star
Online will probably grow in some areas and diminish in others.
Voss said some of the early remote or online course offerings are
moving back into the schools, as schools become more flexible in how
they manage their time and space. But there will always be a certain
number of students who need to do their work away from school for
various reasons, such as students catching up on credits,
accelerating their learning or needing a flexible schedule.
"We keep looking at the next content area
we can do that schools may not be ready to do yet," he said. "We're
focusing on project-based learning as the software systems become
more sophisticated." He said it's becoming easier to track what
skills students are developing on more complicated problems.
Students must get permission from their
school districts in order to take online classes from non-district
organizations or to accelerate their time in high school. Voss
said there are no legal barriers to students moving through high
school in less than four years, but there are structural and
financial barriers. And districts generally tie achievement to some
type of course, rather than separately assessing a student's
knowledge, since credits are tied to courses and credits lead to
earning a diploma. "There are ways for schools to do it, but they're
limited," he said. "Most districts have some kind of
An interviewer observed that, in contrast,
we don't hold students back because of age in high school sports.
Talented seventh- and eighth-graders can play alongside high school
students on high school varsity teams.
Online learning options by themselves
won't have a great impact on closing the achievement gap between
white students and students of color or between rich students and
poor students or on closing resource gaps among schools. Two
things that would help, Voss said, are expanding broadband access to
every home and every school and obtaining digital devices for every
student. He noted that school computer networks must keep growing to
meet increasing demands. And having sufficient broadband capacity in
the regional library system is critical for people who don't have it
at home, he said.
Doing repetitive work on a computer might
not be very engaging for those students who aren't that interested
in academic work to begin with. Building in the social learning
environment that motivates kids to spend time on online work is as
important as having online courses available, Voss said. "In blended
programs, we can put the digital curriculum where the teachers can
do whatever they want with it," he commented. "But if teachers don't
think creatively about how to change the way they organize their
classrooms, their time and their groupings, it's not going to do the
students any good."
Online learning raises the question of the
role of the school. Creating opportunities for students through
online learning raises the issue of education versus schooling, Voss
said. "They used to be the same thing," he said. "But now with so
much of education becoming possible outside of school, what's the
role of school? It's still based on the academic diploma notion. But
schools should also be working with students on social, emotional
and mental health issues and should be offering career and technical
education. If we can move some of the routine academic learning to a
digital environment, then we can concentrate on those additional
A lot of schools are innovating by
retooling their classrooms to be more like labs, where students can
work on their own. Voss said the innovations are responses to
concerns about the best ways to use classroom environments. In the
lab-like classrooms, students can get together and work in groups on
their own on projects that cross academic disciplines and involve
higher order thinking skills.
ISD 287 offers career and technical
education (CTE) programs, some of them online. In a new program
Gateway to College,
students go to Hennepin Technical College and spend part of the day
doing their K-12 coursework, Voss said. Then they spend the rest of
the day taking CTE classes at the college. The district also offers
individual Career and Technical courses at Hennepin Technical
College, and a range of CTE courses in its special education and
area learning center programs.
He said it's possible to put CTE into an
online format, but the courses still have to be organized so
students will want to do the online work and can see what the
purpose of their work is. Then students will have more incentive to
take the next step in learning in a hands-on classroom environment.
Homeschool students enrolled in a
full-time online program get public funding, but they can't get
public funding for taking online courses part-time. A
shared-time provision in state law allows homeschool students to
take some of their courses at a public school. But the courses must
take place in the school building, not online, unless the students
are enrolled full-time in an online program.
Metro suburban districts are the biggest
consumers of Northern Star Online programs. But Voss pointed out
that kids from around the state use the program, mainly for
specialized courses like Japanese or to manage a flexible schedule.
There is no online school run by the state, but kids from all over
the state can take courses from Northern Star Online or any other
state-approved online learning provider through the Online Learning
Option Act (124D.095).
ISD 287 has promoted the use of
and other free, open, online course providers.
"We recommend that schools take advantage of all that's out there to
meet their needs," Voss said, noting that Kahn Academy is a great
resource for math. The explosion in growth of open education
resources has given schools a wealth of curriculum to choose from,
he said. But it is still the school's role and responsibility to
organize, guide, document and verify student achievement to prepare
them for the next steps toward college and career.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,