How Virtual Technology Has Improved Online Education: Q&A with Julie Young

If you asked Julie Young how she feels about the opportunity to be a part of a new virtual high school, she would be quick to show her excitement. Young is the founding President and Chief Executive Officer of Florida Virtual School (FLVS), the first and one of the most influential K-12 online education providers in the nation. Under her leadership, FLVS expanded from 77 students in 1997 to two million students across the nation and 68 countries worldwide.

Most recently, Young joined the Arizona State University family as the Deputy Vice President of Education Outreach and Student Services for ASU Prep Digital School. Through her role with ASU, she continues to lead from the front lines of virtual education. We had the opportunity to catch up with Young, a 2011 McGraw Prize winner, about her work in virtual education.

Before you started Florida Virtual School, you worked as an assistant principal and completed your undergraduate and graduate degrees studying education. How did you originally decide to enter the field of education?

I knew early that I’d become an educator. I lived across the street from my elementary school, and I felt a special ownership of the space and my place in it.  My dad and I jaywalked to school every morning, and I always felt a rush of decadent excitement watching my friends being ushered by a crossing guard.  Maybe even then I knew my place wasn’t likely to be traditional!  I felt a special connection to education even then, an ownership as we boldly struck out to school. By the time I was midway through first grade, emboldened by a teacher I adored, I recognized the raw promise of school and learning. School was a happy place for me, and as I grew, it just made sense that education was my home.

How did you originally get started in virtual education?

While working as a curriculum/technology coordinator in 1989, I was approached by IBM and chosen as one of two people to train others as part of a district-wide partnership between IBM and Lee County School Board. My job was to train teachers throughout the district on how to make the best use of their IBM computers and courseware. It was a tremendous learning opportunity, taking me out of the school setting, placing me in the IBM local office to work hand in hand with IBM’s Education and Sales teams. That experience was the catalyst that paved the way for my position at FLVS.

Tell us about how you developed FLVS after your work with IBM.

After my husband was transferred from Ft. Myers to Orlando, I was given the opportunity to pursue a grant that would create online courses to fill the gaps for homeschool students and rural schools that did not have access to high level Advanced Placement and honors courses. With the help from friends at IBM, I learned how to design, develop and deploy the first online courses. As more and more families chose FLVS, we learned that this option was greater than expected and many more students could benefit from the offerings. Initially designed to allow the student to learn at any time, in any place, by any path, we were able to iterate and fill the space created by the need for virtual education.

Initially, we carefully partnered and collaborated with public schools. This allowed FLVS to be appropriately viewed as a partner, not competition. In 2003, the state legislature created FLVS as a stand-alone, statewide district, governed separately from Orlando County Public Schools. By this time, we had a strong following within the home school community, and more and more public schools depended upon FLVS to fill their gaps in course offerings. This is when our current funding model was established.

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments while you were with Florida Virtual School? In the online education field altogether?

Without a doubt, my biggest accomplishment is designing a school that authentically placed the student at the center of the administrative decisions. Through doing this, FLVS could individualize the education process, so every student had a personalized experience. Within this model, FLVS teachers truly learned how to meet students where they were, designed an individual path to take them where they needed to go, and monitored their progress along the way.  This is a concept that is taking root in models across the country—personalized education is at the center of authentic learning, and I truly take deep pride in the fact that I had the privilege of pioneering an industry that embraced student agency and valued student engagement at the highest level. 

What vision do you have for ASU Prep Digital High School, and how do you plan to achieve that vision? How did you become involved with the high school?

Like all progress, my vision is centered in iterating upon and re-visioning models that are currently working. Using the context and knowledge from my time as a leader in digital education and marrying it with the innovative leadership at Arizona State University, I have a vision to create a new model of online K-12 education. By embedding this model within ASU’s larger, robust infrastructure, students benefit from resources and strong leadership while simultaneously being provided with a culture that is enmeshed with expectations for higher learning. In doing this, we will create the next generation of digital learning. We will connect students with each other around the globe, encouraging students to recognize that geography is no longer a boundary.  Quite simply, my vision is to take the best of my experience with FLVS—to root the student firmly in the center of all decisions—and leverage the ASU expertise, and the latest technologies to reshape the student experience in the digital world.

Throughout your years of experience with online learning, what type of impact have you seen with students who are learning through this modality? How was online learning improved the field of education overall?

Online learning has transformed education. Before the advent of online learning, students were confined to their individual schools.  They were grouped based upon age, sometimes ability, and then prescribed what, when, and how to learn.  Online education has literally revolutionized the entire framework for learning.  Through adaptable platforms, rich and robust content, and accessibility, students have the ability to learn beyond the four walls of the schoolhouse.  Students are not limited to the resources of their families and communities, but rather they can use online learning as a tool to expand their horizons. In addition, with the advent of virtual reality and digital field trips, all students now have the opportunity to virtually travel the world. This is a remarkable, impactful result of using digital education.

As for improvements, online learning has improved immensely in terms of the technology and curriculum. Blended learning and learning centers are a positive step forward and there are some stellar national models pushing this instructional model. From my own experience, students who take multiple courses in high school are so much more prepared for coping with the college experience. Students have learned to manage their time and plan ahead. They’ve learned how to use the technology tools, so they are not only comfortable scheduling classes, reloading their meal card and paying their parking tickets online, but they are also comfortable with video conferencing, video chatting, and online meetings with multiple participants. The scope of the impact scales all the way through their college experience to their careers and their lives.  Online learning has the ability to create wholesale improvements in the lives of the students who take courses during their K-12th grade path.

Did winning the McGraw Prize in 2011 elevate your mission at all? How did it help with the school’s visibility in the community? 

Yes. The recognition of the Prize was such a personal and professional honor, as well as an honor for the school. It was a turning point in my life and career. Being chosen among people I considered to be such giants in the education space was a bit surreal. The impact of the recognition gave me pause and reminded me of what an awesome responsibility I had in my role and my field. I felt this renewed sense of urgency; it drove me to be even more committed to finding ways to provide new opportunities for students to succeed.

My success has been through the privilege of leading and working with remarkable teachers, leaders, parents and students who believed there were opportunities for our students beyond what they saw currently, and who intuitively believed that in education one size doesn’t fit all. My greatest strength is knowing how to surround myself with smart people who share each other’s ideals and beliefs in the power of transformative education.  They also have skills I don’t necessarily have, and together we accomplish amazing things. Every award I have “won” is a tribute to a deliberate and collective effort on behalf of students.