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updated: 3/15/2020 3:03 PM

Online curriculum designed to improve students’ life skills

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  • Kathy Rivera of Deer Park is president of Virtual Learning Systems, a web-based social studies curriculum program for schools.

    Kathy Rivera of Deer Park is president of Virtual Learning Systems, a web-based social studies curriculum program for schools.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Kathy Rivera of Deer Park is the owner of VLS Education, a web-based education system.

    Kathy Rivera of Deer Park is the owner of VLS Education, a web-based education system.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 

Kathy Rivera developed a successful career as an award-winning television and online content producer.

Her newest venture, however, is focused on giving students the tools they need to develop their future careers.

Rivera is president of Virtual Learning Systems, a web-based social studies education curriculum designed not only to improve students' grasp of the subject, but also develop critical thinking and analytical skills.

VLS' curriculum falls under four strands: History, government, geography and economics. Within those strands, there are 13 units ranging from the U.S. and Illinois constitutions to the history of labor unions and the civil rights movements.

Rivera said each unit begins with a 3-5 minute video that sets the premise for the content.

After viewing the introductory video, students are given an assignment and work in teams to gather more information and create a presentation on the topic. The classroom teacher acts as a facilitator, making sure students are engaged in the research and collaboration. Teachers receive "think sheets" from the program to help them generate ideas for students, answer questions, and assess their final presentation.

Living history

"We turn our students into what we call SSIs, Social Studies Investigators," Rivera said. "The students go and interview folks outside the classroom, such as civic leaders, parents, first responders -- people who pertain to the unit."

The program has been used by the River Ridge High School District in Elizabeth, near Galena, as well as the Bronzeville Charter School in Chicago.

Curriculum content is developed with the help of Bradley University's Department of Education, under the leadership of Associate Dean D. Antonio Cantu, Ph.D. Cantu was a member of the task force that developed federal social studies standards used in K-12 education today.

"He was in tune with what was coming down from government," she said, "We wanted to make a visual storytelling curriculum so the kids could be engaged in learning."

Getting students to develop their analytical and critical thinking skills has been a focus for Rivera, who sees this as a mission to assure students develop the skills needed to enter the 21st century workforce. In addition to working with Cantu and Bradley University, she interviewed several executives from large companies to find out what skills were lacking in young people entering the workforce today.

Overwhelmingly, the executives said the key skills were critical thinking and the ability to work in teams, she said.

The mission is a personal one for Rivera and began decades ago after her son brought home a history book he was using in school -- and she realized it was the same book she'd had when she was a child.

An established Chicago television producer and president of FirstStar Digital Media, Rivera created an award-winning series on Illinois history, "Pride in Illinois," which was aired by PBS and CBS. While the series was also released in a VHS videocassette format, distribution to schools was very difficult, she said.

About seven years ago, she revisited the project as online distribution became a simpler alternative. Schools now access the program through a password-protected link, Rivera said, and the program can be used by students or teachers at any time.

"It's a good marriage of technology and content," she said. "We can host millions of kids with flawless execution."

VLS is marketing the curriculum to schools across the nation, Rivera said, with a 60-day free trial. After that, the cost is $30 per student for all 13 units, she said. There are no licensing fees, she added.

With more schools using the curriculum, Rivera said she hopes to entice more investors to help grow the product, with a goal of building the curriculum to 50 units by 2022 and eventually expanding into science and math.

While technology continues to expand its presence in education, Rivera is quick to state that VLS is not a replacement for textbooks ... or teachers.

"We give teachers the tools that will help them, not replace them," she said. "We empower our students to think, and that's critical in today's workforce.

"We are changing the face of education. That's our goal."