Interviewed by: Laura Orozco

Salt Lake City, United States

Utah’s premier online school is leading the way in terms of e-learning strategies. We talked to DeLaina Tonks, director of Mountain Heights Academy, about the main challenges and the great advantages of virtual education.

Mountain Heights Academy is a virtual school. How does it really work? What is your methodology?

Mountain Heights Academy is a tuition-free public, online charter school. We wrap face-to-face social activities, service learning, and leadership opportunities around a 100% digital school day. Schoolwork is divided into weekly modules, which empowers students with the freedom to complete their assignments when and where they choose within each week. We are home to 550 full-time and 200 part-time 7th-12th graders, and we have the highest Statewide Online Education Program pass rate in the state, at 96%.

What kinds of students choose this type of education?

DeLaina TonksSince Mountain Heights Academy is a public school, we take all students. Some are previously homeschooled students looking to graduate from an accredited school, while some have an IEP or 504 plan and are seeking a customized pathway for their education. Others come for the flexibility because they are actors, athletes, and musicians who take their laptop with them around the world as they perform and compete. And finally, some attend for our accelerated university programs and the ability to take courses at their local Applied Technology College.

What are the main advantages your virtual education system offers students?

Mountain Heights Academy’s student population varies from year to year. Students come because they value the flexibility of fitting school in around their own schedule and the unparalleled interaction they enjoy with their teachers.

Some of the advantages are:

  • Flexibility and the ability to work anywhere, any time
  • Individualized teacher interaction for students
  • Teacher and administrative responsiveness
  • Social activities and leadership opportunities
  • Customizable curriculum
  • Use of a school laptop for full-time students

What’s your experience with Moodlerooms been like, and what kind of utilities do you give it?

Our Learning Management Sytem (LMS), Moodlerooms, is an integral part of our school. It is essentially our “campus,” where all of our courses “live.” Students access all content through Moodlerooms. Teachers are able to track student progress, digital footprints, and use that information to know which students to contact so they can work individually with them in order to fill gaps in understanding or provide extra assistance.

Are there any improvements that the school has made to the LMS that you can share with us?

We have connected Moodlerooms with Genius, a Student Information System designed specifically for online platforms. Genius pulls the data out of Moodlerooms and displays it in a dashboard that is conducive to viewing by both parents and students.

When it comes to virtual education, what is the biggest challenge in educating students between the ages of 12 and 18?

One of the biggest challenges in virtual education is the learning curve of moving from a traditional setting to online. In a bricks and mortar setting, a bell rings, signaling that it’s time to change classes. Online, students have to determine on their own when to move on, which provides flexibility, but also opportunities for distraction. They have to make the choice to open the laptop and log in, then to manage their time wisely once they are there. It prepares them for the world they will face after they cross the graduation stage.

What virtual tools do you use to face these challenges?

At Mountain Heights, a laptop computer is provided to each student, along with cutting-edge applications, programs and social media tools. Students learn to use real-world, 21st century technology in their competency-based Tech Tools course, and create cross-curricular e-portfolios to showcase stellar work throughout their high school experience. Moodlerooms integrates with our Gmail platform to provide access to the Google Suite of tech tools as well. And finally, we use Blackboard Collaborate to provide virtual face-to-face time and synchronous learning opportunities for our students and teachers.

Last year, the school won The Best of State prize. What’s the reason for this recognition?

Mountain Heights Academy maintains its position as the highest-rated online school in Utah, based on graduation percentages, state test scores, and completion rates, due to data-driven instruction, teacher interaction, and a customizable, open educational resource curriculum that can be tailored to meet the needs of every student.

In your opinion, is e-learning the future of education?

Digital education is certainly part of the fabric of the future of education. It provides avenues for equity and access to students who otherwise would not have the same educational advantages as their peers. It provides options for students who, for whatever reason, cannot easily attend in a bricks and mortar setting. It provides flexibility for those looking to find the best of both worlds in their schooling experience. It provides a customized educational pathway where gaps can be filled based on data. Digital education is certainly a winning proposition!

*DeLaina Tonks, director of Mountain Heights Academy