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Aurora Institute

FLVS Online Curriculum Design: Best Practices for Creating Competency-Based Learning Experiences

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Julie Young

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

The FLVS Model

In April 1994, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning published a report providing eight recommendations for improving the state of learning across the nation.

  • Reinvent schools around learning, not time.
  • Fix the design flaw; use time in new and better ways.
  • Establish an academic day.
  • Keep schools open longer to meet the needs of children and communities.
  • Give teachers the time they need.
  • Invest in technology.
  • Develop local action plans to transform schools.
  • Share the responsibility: finger pointing and evasion must end.

The foundation of the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) learning experience is “any path, any pace, any time, any place.”  At FLVS, the clock does not dictate curriculum, the presentation of information, or the methods by which a student moves through the learning process.  Instead, the focus is on mastery learning, quality over quantity, and the creation of individualized paths.

FLVS operates on a performance-based funding model.  State funding is received for students who successfully complete any segment of a course provided by FLVS.  All FLVS courses are written to the Florida Next Generation Sunshine State Standards and will be written to Common Core by 2013-2014.

Examples in practice:

  • Students are able to start courses at any time throughout the calendar year.
  • Students are able to personalize the time they spend in the course and the work they commit to complete each week.
  • Instructors spend time listening to and interacting with students about their work allowing for formative, just in time, and individualized instruction.
  • Students are encouraged to resubmit their work for mastery learning after receiving specific feedback from a certified instructor.
  • Students may take a module pretest to assess their prior knowledge.  Teachers individualize the learning path for students.

FLVS Online Curriculum Design

What are our core beliefs about student learning experiences?

 FLVS uses a constructivist approach to learning coupled with an understanding that cognitive learning theories provide valuable guidance for online curriculum design.  Using technology as a vehicle, FLVS develops and delivers learning experiences that are engaging, relevant, and challenging, ultimately preparing students to do successful and meaningful work in the 21st Century.

  • We leverage the online environment as a tool to deliver engaging, active, and challenging curriculum and to build a community of learners.
  • We believe learning occurs through the development and delivery of dynamic, engaging, and interdisciplinary curricula.
  • We believe students learn best through actively participating in and applying knowledge to relevant situations and issues.
  • We believe students find success when the responsibility for their learning is shared by their instructors, their families, their peers, and members of their community interacting as facilitators of learning.
  • The student is the driving force behind every decision we make.

How do we create competency-based courses for students that promote engagement and deeper learning?

Here are core elements of quality online curriculum design which drive our work and help us create meaningful work for students.

1) Student Involvement in Product Development

The student is the driving force behind every decision we make.  For curriculum product development, this means involving students in course design.  Marketing specialists create student personas for curriculum design teams allowing for a deep understanding of what specific students may bring to a course such as World History.  What are some themes or design elements that engage students?  What may be some common misconceptions?  What is the motivation of a student taking World History online?  What is their typical grade level?  What preconceived notions might students bring to the course experience?  What do we know about the audience?

Student advisory groups participate in the course development process at all phases providing ideas and feedback as well as testing lessons, content pieces, media assets and assessments for usability and effectiveness.

After a course is released to a broad audience, student feedback is used to make enhancements to the course experience and future development.

2) Curriculum Alignment

Competency-based courses begin with the end in mind.  What are the learning goals for the student?  At FLVS, curriculum design begins with the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards.   Curriculum Designers unpack the standards determining the knowledge, skills, and cognitive activity necessary for students to gain mastery of the set of competencies aligned to each subject or course.   Assessments, tasks, and instructional activities are designed to guide students to mastery of the competencies.  It is vital that the work we create for students help them master the stated learning goals and that the instructional strategies, activities and mini-tasks prepare them for the work they will do.

3) Relevant Tasks

Students are engaged when the work we create for them to do is relevant to their lives now or they see connections to the work they will do in the future.   A certain percentage of assessment tasks are designed to be relevant and authentic.   Other mini-tasks are clearly aligned to the end product so students see relevance in their work.  There is a wealth of performance task resources helping teachers and curriculum designers stay fresh in their design of work that is meaningful to students.

4) Appropriate Complexity and Difficulty

Depth-of-knowledge (DOK) was created by Norman Webb from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Webb’s DOK provides a common vocabulary and context when thinking about students and how they cognitively engage with the content.   Webb developed four DOK levels that grow in cognitive complexity and can help teachers and curriculum designers better align tasks to the identified competencies.  Curriculum designers use DOK to blueprint a full course assessment plan prior to beginning development of granular pieces of the learning experience.

The difficulty level of assessment tasks is best evaluated through analysis of student work products.  Why is this important?  As we design more cognitively complex assessment items, mini-tasks, and projects, there is a risk of unnecessarily increasing the difficulty level.  A natural learning and improvement process occurs when teachers and curriculum designers test curriculum with students.  We must build time for reflection and refinement of the work we have created for students.

5) Strategies and Support

Students come to an online course with a unique set of knowledge, skills, motivations, and prior experiences with a subject.  In order to prepare all students for a cognitively complex level of thinking and assessment, students need formative interactive experiences allowing them to visualize and explore in a way that builds schemas of understanding.

In the 2009 report Multimodal Learning Through Media; What the Research Says, the authors state that our efforts to increase and deepen learning for all students are more likely to succeed when our work is informed by how the brain functions, how people learn, and the best multimedia designs for specific learning objectives.

Appropriate use of media and design elements, embedded literacy support, scaffolding, and choice in assessment tasks are proven strategies for increasing student success in an online course.  Of highest importance is the relationship and support of the instructor.  Online instructors need quality professional development experiences in order to support online students with cognitively complex tasks.  Teachers need to understand the how and why of curriculum design, how to assess student work products, and how to adjust a student’s learning path where appropriate.  Teachers also provide a personal voice to the content and opportunities for student-to-student interaction that enriches the course experience.

6) 21st Century Competencies

Beyond the core competencies of each subject area, there are some generally agreed upon 21st Century Skills that prepare students for the future world of work.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills created one such framework located at

To place value on these competencies, assessment tasks must be written to include mastery of these skills.  Curriculum designers include specific competencies such as creativity, communication, collaboration, or media literacy as elements of authentic tasks.  To ensure alignment, these skills are included in project rubrics allowing students to understand expectations and giving teachers opportunity for specific feedback on a student’s development of such competencies.

7) Continuous Improvement

All learning experiences can be improved.  Theory informs practice and potentially more important; practice informs theory.  As new courses are delivered to a broad audience of teachers and students, methods for evaluating product success must be considered and carefully planned.  How will you know a course is successful?  What are the measures of success?  How will an organization make decisions about product improvement?  What additional resources or strategies can be added to the experience to meet the needs of all learners?

To truly create competency-based tasks that lead to deep learning, educators will need to continually focus on how to improve the art and science of our practice.

__________About the Author__________

Julie Young is the CEO of FLVS.She serves on the Board of the United States Distance Learning Association, International Association for K12 Online Learning, Florida Learning Alliance, Florida TaxWatch Center for Educational Performance and Accountability, Florida Sterling Council Board of Directors, K-12 Blackboard Advisory Council Member, and Microsoft K-12 Advisory Council Member Assistant. She was also recognized by Technology & Learning Magazine as one of the Top 30 influencers in Ed Tech, along with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.