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eLearning :: Going the Distance

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Offering benefits of convenience, independence, and even improved academic performance, virtual schools promise to be here for the long haul.

eLearning MICAH WILLIAMS HAD A PROBLEM.

His attendance at Lutheran High School in Orange County, CA, was down, and, a young actor, he had missed his middle school graduation in order to fly to Vancouver, British Columbia, to appear in a movie. It seemed as if he had to make a choice: acting or getting an education. As it turned out, his mother made the choice for him:both. She enrolled him at Orange Lutheran High School Online.

Now Micah logs in to OLO and does pretty much what traditional "ground school" students do: He reads background material, engages in discussions with other students, takes tests, asks questions of his teachers, and hands in assignments. He logs in at least Monday through Friday, at any time of the day from anywhere he has computer access, so he has time to pursue his acting career and get an education, too.

Ironically, it's the virtual interaction with other students that he's most excited about. "You can basically talk to any student you want to," Micah says, acknowledging that "talk"means type. "We talk all the time about everything."

Online education has been a great solution, and it's one that is working for a number of students whose circumstances bear little resemblance to Micah's. Consider Dan Hathaway, a freshman from Tennessee. Dan's an only child; his dad is a lieutenant stationed in Iraq; and he and his mother run a farm, which makes attending a bricks-and-mortar school difficult. Instead, he takes courses through OLO. He's carrying straight A's. And last November, he sent fellow students photos of calves being born.

The OLO student body consists of a mix of kids who have turned to eLearning for a variety of reasons. Some—called"blended students"—go to Lutheran High School, or one ofmany schools across the country, and use OLO to supplementtheir regular coursework. Others take online classes exclusively,and so are actually enrolled in the online high school.OLO's curriculum comes from Lutheran High; the teacherscome from the University of Phoenix and from a pool ofLutheran High educators; the funding comes from tuition.

Other OLO students include a nationally rated ice skater who lives on a ranch in Nebraska, a hockey player who travels all over the country, and a student who has had a kidney transplant and isn't sufficiently mobile to attend a regular high school. All benefit tremendously from taking classes online.

Patty Young is the director of Orange Lutheran Online, and she knows of many success stories like Micah and the others."The greatest challenge," she says, "is getting the word out toovercome people's preconceived notions about what online is."

Julie YoungData can't be an afterthought. It's being called for moreand more in the virtual world as a requirement.
—Julie Young, Florida Virtual School

The students are open to it because they're comfortable with technology. Often, the most resistant are teachers, either because they're worried that their jobs will be overtaken by computers or because they're just not inclined to change their mode of teaching. But, says Young, resistant or not, both students and teachers can make the transition: "It's really fun to watch the lights come on. We want to be innovative and visionary and try to meet the needs of many people in many different ways."

Data in the Virtual World

Founded in 1997, Florida Virtual School offers more than 90 courses and employs 295 full-time teachers and 160 adjunct teachers. Last year the school served more than 31,000 students in all 67 Florida districts and in other districts around the country.

Just as it is in traditional schools, data gathering is becoming central to online instruction, though the kinds of data virtual schools collect differ from what grounds are looking at. FLVS routinely administers surveys to students, parents, teachers, and administrators to gather data about the quality of its services, asking questions that address student-teacher communication and the quality of the school's support staff. In each survey, participants are asked to indicate any areas of concern or recommendations for improving the school's services. The information has proven invaluable for making useful changes.

Last year FLVS made a quantum leap in data collection when it launched Virtual School Administrator, a system developed specifically to track all aspects of operating a virtual school and monitoring student progress. Julie Young, the president and CEO of Florida Virtual School, calls VSA "the brains of the school." The system logs all the communication between students and teachers: e-mail, assignments, discussions, and phone calls.

So FLVS administrators have access to data not only on individuals— how a student is progressing, how many assignments in a teacher's inbox need to be graded—but also on the school as a whole. They conduct extensive analysis of what's going on in each course and with each teacher. Using information that tells them which types of teaching strategies work best in which situations, the administrators can adjust their training or realign courses or develop new courses. They analyze the data monthly and make updates quarterly.

Young wanted predictive data, but until she came across VSA, she says, "every system that we looked at was for traditional schools....It was really important for us to have the ability to make informed decisions." Now FLVS is marketing VSA to other virtual schools. "Data can't be an afterthought," she says. "It's being called for more and more in the virtual world as a requirement."

Virtual High School, based in Maynard, MA, predates FLVS by a year. Since 1996, VHS has offered full-semester online courses in a collaborative with high schools in 30 states and 20 countries, so most of its students are supplementing their regular high school curriculum with Virtual High curriculum (although there are home- and summer school students, too). The teachers come from those same participating ground schools; they're trained by Virtual High School.

Various membership options are open to schools, which in exchange for contributing one "NetCourse" to VHS students are able to offer their own students access to VHS's full catalog of online classes. Virtual High is funded entirely by member schools and participating families.

The school's CEO, Liz Pape, is a believer in online "classrooms"—a cohort of 25 or so students interacting with each other and with the teacher—as opposed to online "courses," in which students pace themselves and are in only occasional contact with teachers and other students. She says parents should get familiar with all the available distance learning programs, asking questions such as: What's been the track record of success? Is my student the kind of student who's intrinsically motivated to take an online course? Is the teacher actively engaged? What's the course design? Pape wants parents to hold online providers to strict standards, including providing evaluations of their curricula.

"Parents need to be aware," she says, "that because there isn't any Consumer Reports or Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, they need to do the research. There are no standards for what a good online course should provide. There's still a lot of work to be done."

Like Florida Virtual School, Virtual High uses data to keep track of how it's doing. The school collects data annually on its students' performance on the national Advanced Placement examinations. From 2001 to 2006, VHS students' overall pass rate on AP exams was 70 percent, 10 points above the national average. Numbers like these add cachet to eLearning. Not only do online schools enable students to free up time for other activities; not only do they compensate for physical or geographical restrictions; not only do they give students an opportunity to escape negative experiences in regular schools—they also can provide a better education. "When folks ask me whether or not kids can learn in online courses," Pape says, "for Virtual High School, the answer is a resounding yes."

A Chain of Online Schools

Keith Oelrich is taking virtual education another step. He's building a national network of online schools. Founder and CEO of Insight Schools, Oelrich recently opened his first school in the state of Washington. "This is entirely for students who need an alternative," he says. "Our model is about bringing students back into the public school system."

Oelrich points out that about 5 million high school-age kids in the United States don't attend school. They may have fulltime jobs, careers as athletes or entertainers, health or physical issues, or even children themselves. For whatever reason, these kids find it difficult or impossible to attend regular high schools.

So there's obviously a market. This fall, Insight School of Washington had 2,300 applicants; it could take only 600. The students each received a laptop and printer to use during their enrollment in the program. They work out individual student learning plans with their "I-learning instructors" that include monthly objectives aligned with Washington's state standards. The instructors monitor students' plans and teach courses. The school itself is authorized by the Quillayute Valley School District, over on the Olympic Peninsula, whose superintendent is a big advocate of online learning.

Oelrich says it cost about $2.5 million to develop the school; he'll take a financial loss on the first year. But the program operates on 60 percent of the budget of a ground school, which comes out to about $5,000 a student, suggesting a good return on investment lies ahead. Besides, the rewards transcend money. At an information session in Yakima, WA, last June, Oelrich expected 40 participants; he got 170. After the session, a woman grabbed his hand and said, "This program will be the difference between my son staying in school and going to jail."

Focus on...SUSAN PATRICK

The head of NACOL says that online learning can help patch the holes left by traditional education.

Susan Patrick probably knows more about the many onlineschools around the country than anyone else. She's the presidentand CEO of the North American Council for Online Learning. Three years old, NACOL was launched as aninternational K-12 nonprofit organization representing the interestsof administrators, practitioners, and students involved inonline learning in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.NACOL's overriding goal is to facilitate collaboration, advocacy,and research to enhance the quality of K-12 online education.

Patrick has traveled all over, not only in her role as the head of NACOL but also as the former director of the US Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology. She's not entirely pleased with what she's seen—for example, that only 30 percent of high school chemistry teachers hold a degree or credentials in their field; or that physics isn't typically taught in the United States until the 12th grade, as opposed to the eighth grade in Mexico. "You start to see this huge gap," she says. "Are we preparing our kids to be globally competitive?"

The implicit negative answer can be ameliorated, Patrick believes, by online learning. She notes that fully 30 percent of the training in the corporate sector is eLearning-based, and that technology fields such as biomedicine and computer engineering are experiencing the fastest growth. It just makes sense, then, for students to be exposed to eLearning early—even if they attend regular schools. Patrick says that 90 percent of students who take virtual courses do so from their own school buildings.

"The biggest issue we have is not whether education is online," Patrick says. "The biggest issue is to make sure that every single student in America has access to the best education available. And we can make that true with online learning."

Collaboration Is Key

The typical goal of distance learning is to provide students with coursework they wouldn't otherwise have access to. In New Mexico, the goal of distance learning is to provide school districts with coursework they wouldn't otherwise have access to. Many of the districts are so geographically removed from any urban or academic areas, their students can't, for instance, take a field trip to the aquarium. It's Paul Romero's job to deliver those opportunities.

Romero is director of technology for one of the nine regional education cooperatives in the state, in Raton. Founded in 1984, it consists of eight rural school districts, which include 27 public schools, two charter schools, one private school, and 3,081 students in all. Romero's mission is to provide support and services throughout New Mexico. Such support and services may include:

  • E-rate support
  • engineering support
  • distance education
  • training (technology integration, videoconferencing)
  • technology assessments
  • brand and purchasing recommendations
  • technology planning
  • wide area network implementation

HPREC gets very little state money. Romero says that he and his staff spend 60 percent of their time looking for funding. They apply to a variety of sources for federal and state monies, including the Federal Communications Commission and the US Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program.

Romero has been working with educators for more than 20 years. He sees technology, specifically online learning, as a boon to education. "As we train teachers how to use the technologies," he says, "students get a better education." Those technologies, provided for Romero's group in large part by IT supplier CDW-G, include videoconferencing and interactive whiteboards, which are especially useful to students in the more remote schools. After all, the population is 1.8 people per square mile, compared to a national average of 79.6 people per square mile. As Romero says, "Sometimes out here in the wilderness, you think people don't know what you're doing."

With online technologies, having someone you can depend on is critical. Romero says, "We needed to come up with a partner who was highly accessible and very customer service-oriented." It works like this: Romero gets a call from, say, Clayton Municipal Schools, 400 students small, 82 miles away in rural northeastern New Mexico; the district is having problems with a network that's old and outdated. Romero calls

CDW-G and coordinates when and where Clayton will receive software, router switches, cabling, and anything else it needs. Within a week, Romero's team has everything installed. CDW-G may be HPREC's technology partner, but Romero has many other collaborators, including the New Mexico Public Education Department and the New Mexico Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, as well as several junior colleges, community colleges, and universities. In this case—and others— it doesn't take a village to raise a child; it takes a network. Just as a network of hardware and software is necessary to provide the appropriate technological pedagogy, a network of organizations and individuals is necessary to provide the appropriate support and know-how.

Some of the most conclusive evidence of the rising popularity of online education can be seen in the enrollment numbers of Georgia Virtual School. In only its second year, Atlantabased GAVS already has 1,469 students, twice the enrollment from year one. All are part-time students—74 percent come from public schools and 26 percent from private and home schools. GAVS designs its own courses, based on Georgia Performance Standards. It also purchases courses from other virtual schools. Sometimes it even trades courses; it recently traded Japanese for Chinese with Virginia's Virtual Advanced Placement School. GAVS is funded both by the state and corporate grants. BellSouth, which is headquartered just 10 blocks away, has given $20 million over three years.

Kristie Clements, the school's program manager, cites the example of one GAVS teenager who had just moved to a bricks-and-mortar school in order to get a hands-on component in occupational therapy, but she also needed a French 2 course for her high school diploma. The school didn't offer French; however, GAVS did, so she was able to take the therapy course at school and the French course online. Clements' example is an acknowledgment of online learning's ascendancy:"I truly believe in online education. It's not the wave ofthe future; it's currently here and it's not going away."

:: web extra :: For more on this topic, visit T.H.E. Journal. In the Browse by Topic menu, click on eLearning/Web.

Neal Starkman is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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