The idea of students entering a virtual classroom and holding electronic rather than face-to-face meetings has become quite accepted at the collegiate level. The model is now making its way into the K-12 market, mainly as a supplemental educational option.
“The initial resistance to online education has ebbed and educators are now finding appropriate uses for it,” Adam Newman, vice president at Eduventures, a K-12 market research firm, told TechNewsWorld.
Online education has proven to be quite popular at the collegiate level with inveterate institutions such as Harvard University joining fledging ones like the University of Phoenix in offering these classes. The model has slowly been making its way into K-12 education, mainly at the high school level. Thirty-eight states support this education model in some form, and Michigan now requires that every high school graduate take at least one class online.
Online classes take advantage of current technology to enable students to “attend” class at any time from any place — at home, at work or at the local coffee house. A wide range of courses are available, from English and math to biology. In these classes, students download electronic textbooks, send their tests to teachers’ in-boxes, chat with peers and teachers online about course content and communicate via e-mail, chat rooms and Webcasts.
The flexibility appeals to a range of students. In some cases, the students are high-performance athletes, young actors and actresses, or musicians whose travel schedules do not enable them to attend classes like typical students.
Virtual schools also serve students who do not fit within traditional education. There are some students who do not want to sit in a classroom and listen to a teacher lecture. In an online format, students learn at their own pace and gain more control over how they allocate their time.
Also, some students create behavioral problems in the classroom but do not have the opportunity to act up in an online environment. For various reasons, certain students just do not perform well in a group setting and respond better when faced with the individual challenges found in virtual classrooms.
In other instances, traditional classes are just not an option for certain students. Some have been recently released from incarceration, others are pregnant or parenting, some have to work full-time and still others experience transportation issues. Schools do not want students to become frustrated and drop out. Such reasoning is practical as well as altruistic: school funding depends on the number of students in each classroom.
In addition to helping students, online classes benefit schools. There are instances where a school may not have a faculty member qualified to teach an advanced placement math or science course, but it can be offered online via a virtual school. One challenge schools face is the cost of maintaining their buildings; an online option is usually less expensive than a traditional class.
It is estimated that a few hundred thousand students are taking these classes, with the numbers varying geographically. Utah has 50,000 students enrolled in its virtual classroom and the Florida Virtual School has 31,000 students in its classes. New York and Massachusetts have not implemented any online schools.
To date, virtual schools have largely supplemented traditional education.
“Most of our students are taking one or two classes that they cannot fit into their schedule,” Todd Hitchcock, VP of Global Services for Florida Virtual School, told TechNewsWorld.
Online Full Time
There are some instances, such as Connections Academy, where virtual classes have become the primary educational method.
“We were an elementary/middle school, and our students want to continue with the online model through high school,” Susan Fancher, vice president of marketing at Connections Academy, told TechNewsWorld.
The movement to online education has been gaining momentum. In March 2006, Michigan became the first state to require that its high school graduates complete at least one class online.
As this new model takes hold, many issues arise. The educational software, or “courseware,” in this area is new and somewhat underdeveloped. Initially, virtual schools started with the ground materials and simply transferred them to the online environment, but now they are tailoring the materials to take advantage of the online features.
There are also differences between regular and online classes. In the online environment, discussions are asynchronous, meaning students and teachers exchange information whenever it fits their timeframes.
Teacher training is an issue. The online programs typically have training programs that stretch out from a few months to as long as a year, and often involve mentors — experienced teachers who walk the teachers through the program.
“Teachers are drawn to our environment because of the flexibility it offers,” Connections Academy’s Fancher said. They are able to teach when it is convenient for them rather than be tied to the 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. format followed in most schools.
When Is Recess?
The first question often posed to virtual school officials is whether the absence of socialization or extracurricular opportunities would inhibit students’ personal growth. This has become less of an issue with the influx of home schooled children, who seem to suffer no ill effects from their experience.
“Our students are quite busy with many other activities, such as YMCAs, social clubs and sporting leagues that provide them with many opportunities to socialize with their peers,” said Fancher.
The advocates have realistic expectations. They don’t expect this model to ever become as popular as the traditional model, but they do think it will continue to gain momentum as schools provide students with more options.