Even! But No Longer Odd

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Once regarded as an unconventional alternative for atypical students, virtual schools have achieved mainstream acceptance, and are now seen as providing an education equal to-- if not better than-- what their traditional counterpart offers.

Even! But No Longer OddCAN A CYBER DIPLOMA BE FOR REAL? One need only consider Jacob Swink for an answer to that. The 17-year-old 12th-grader has been attending Connections Academy, a K-12 virtual school, for the past three years. He's a solid B+ student. "The only reason I'm not an A," he says, "is because of a tough AP computer science class."

This fall, he'll go on to Bloomsburg University, a four-year public college in Bloomsburg, PA. He is proof positive that online learning offers a competitive alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar schools. "I heard about Bloomsburg at a college fair and talked to them," he says. His application sailed through. "I never even got a phone call-- I just got accepted a couple of weeks later."

Swink's experience is becoming commonplace. With hundreds of K-12 schools routinely offering online courses, the idea of a full-time virtual school is no longer as outlandish as it once may have seemed. Thanks to giant improvements in technology and the quality of their academic instruction, most virtual schools now hold a trump card they had not possessed: credibility.

"There were many questions five years ago and not enough experience with online learning in the K-12 arena," says Dawn Nordine, director of instructional technology services for Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA) 9 in Tomahawk, WI, who also serves as the director of Wisconsin Virtual School. "I think there was doubt as to the academic progress a student could achieve online and the quality of the experience."

"There used to be a lot of the same concerns with traditional schools as well," says Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), a nonprofit group, and former director of the Office of Educational Technology at the US Department of Education. "Until there was online learning, when was the traditional school the gold standard?"

Whatever skepticism lingers is being put to rest by early research that affirms the value of online instruction-- and the value of the students receiving it. "All of the preliminary data," Patrick says, "shows that virtual school students are equal to or better than students in traditional schools."

A Dubious Beginning

The prevailing view of online schools had been as a nichefiller-- a fringe alternative for students whose circumstances or geography prevented them from pursuing the conventional classroom-oriented education, according to Gary Lopez, executive director of the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education (MITE), the parent organization of the National Repository of Online Courses (NROC), a nonprofit network of educators, administrators, and technologists that provides online course content for high schools, colleges, and advanced placement programs.

"Students who needed to take advantage of this kind of instruction were some kind of special needs students," Lopez says. "They were students who didn't have access to regular brick-and-mortar resources. They were students who were out of the loop. They were pregnant teens or incarcerated youth-- there was something about them that didn't fall into the middle of the bell-shaped curve. This was a solution to get them some of what they needed because they couldn't do it the regular way. That's changed. Now this instruction is being looked upon as something that is appropriate for those who are in the middle of the bell-shaped curve.

"What we've seen happen in the last couple of years is a shift from online content being a solution to a problem, to actually becoming a real learning tool that people turn to because it works better, and because it may present topics in a way that you can't do with chalkboard and textbook."

"What we've seen happen in the last couple of years is a shift from online content being a solution to a problem, to actually becoming a real learning tool that people turn to because it works better."

Getting to this point has taken time. Ever since distance learning mushroomed in the 1990s, the perception of online instruction has been influenced by the scandals associated with diploma mills. For example, in 2005, University High School, a correspondence academy in Miami, caused a furor when state investigators discovered that the school-- which offered no classes and had no accreditation-- had helped struggling student- athletes boost their low grade-point averages so that they could play college athletics. Since diploma mills operate under the radar, it's hard to determine exactly how many there are, but reports from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the e-newsletter World Education News & Reviews put the number at several hundred-- with about 300 of those operating online-- raking in collectively anywhere from $200 million to half a billion dollars each year.

Such statistics, coupled with traditional educators' unfamiliarity with the virtual school model, contributed to the suspect repuation of online instruction. "I don't know if virtual schools were considered inferior so much as educators and consumers just didn't understand them," says Timothy Snyder, executive director of Innovative Digital Education and Learning-New Mexico (IDEAL-NM), a public education program. "How does the technology work? Is it reliable? How do you know the student isn't having someone else do the work? That doubt was, and is, exacerbated by the diploma mills that have always been around, but are being given new visibility on the web."

The early form of online learning also failed to impress. "The original online instruction was an electronic version of a correspondence school-- you used e-mail rather than postcards or letters," Lopez says. "They'd give you an assignment, you'd do it and send it back. It would get corrected and sent back to you. Your interaction with your instructor was mostly just to grade your papers and to comment upon your work. There are certain topics where that's just not an effective way to work. You're not going to learn chemistry, biology, calculus, and physics that way. There were a lot of topics for which that was just inappropriate."

Lopez says this lack of usefulness for core topics was compounded by "the tarnishing of this sector" by diploma mills and dubious purported educational organizations that used the web to offer vocational training in trades like gunsmithing. "That left us in a bad starting spot."

Impressive Numbers

Even! But No Longer OddFOR MANY YEARS, reliable information on K-12 virtual education was hard to come by-- until the Sloan Consortium published a landmark report in 2007 titled "K-12 Online Learning: A Survey of US School District Administrators." So well received was it that in 2008 the organization repeated the study, a comprehensive survey of about 10,000 randomly selected school districts. The researchers collected extensive data on fully online and blended learning (part online and part face-to-face instruction) in K-12 schools.

While acknowledging that "online learning in colleges and universities has progressed more rapidly than in K-12 schools," the report cites the rapid progress that school districts are making in integrating online offerings into their curriculum. In the 2007-2008 academic year, the total number of K-12 students engaged in virtual courses was estimated at a little more than 1 million, up by almost half from the previous year.

Among the surveyed school districts, 75 percent had one or more students enrolled in a fully online or blended course; 70 percent reported having one or more students enrolled in a fully online course; and 41 percent had one or more students taking a blended course. These numbers represent a 10 percent increase from the previous academic year.

The Sloan Consortium researchers urge some caution, however. "While the numbers are impressive, we do not want to present a picture of unbridled enthusiasm for online learning in the K-12 schools," they write, noting that educators are still concerned about the quality of online courses, costs, and state and local education policies relating to virtual schools. But the report's conclusion is optimistic: "If K-12 follows the pattern of enrollment growth in higher education, it is quite possible that online learning will emerge as a substantial component of all learning at the secondary level."

Over time, a key to casting aside doubts about online schools has been the performance of the students enrolled in them. Though only now is data starting to collect, the numbers compare online students favorably to their brick-and-mortar counterparts on standardized exams. Keith Oelrich, founder and CEO of Insight Schools, which operates a network of fulltime, tuition-free online public high schools, says that at Insight School of Wisconsin, "our students score above the state average on the ACT." He adds that his students in the state of Washington, near Insight Schools' home base in Portland, OR, score above the state average on the SAT.

Virtual school students' high achievement may well result from their discipline. Though flexible because they're virtual, well-run cyber schools don't allow any goofing off. Connections Academy, which Jacob Swink attends, expects students to adhere to the regular school calendar, have their attendance recorded daily in the school's proprietary learning management system by a legal guardian or a designated representative, and participate in state and school standardized tests, which are held at a physical location and are proctored. Instruction takes place through a combination of interactive work on the school's website, e-mail, telephone coaching, and postal mail, but face-to-face interactions, such as field trips and community activities, are also provided and encouraged-- making it difficult for a student to drop out of sight.

In fact, you'll get an argument that the maturity demanded of virtual school students has made online schools not merely the equal of traditional schools, but superior to them by one notable measure: developing 21st-century skills. "We're hearing from our students more and more, they feel better prepared for college," says Oelrich, a pioneer of the K-12 virtual school movement who says that 10 years ago he and other proponents of online instruction were "lone voices in the wilderness." He notes that the nature of virtual schooling reinforces those skills. "Online kids have to be self-motivated, manage their time, organize. Kids who go to traditional school are still sitting in a classroom for 50 minutes at time. They're not learning those self-discipline and self-motivation skills you need in college. Our kids are learning that in high school."

"You have to be self-directed, responsible," says Wisconsin Virtual School's Nordine. "These are key 21st-century skills that any employer would want in its future workforce. Online learning demands those qualities in order to be successful."

Transformed by Technologies

The mainstreaming of cyber-based education is seen in the sheer number of students flocking online. A 2008 report on e-learning from the Sloan Consortium that surveyed 10,000 school districts (see "Impressive Numbers," left) estimated the total number of K-12 students engaged in virtual courses in the 2007-2008 academic year at a little more than 1 million-- a 47 percent leap from the previous year. Enrollment is predicted to grow another 23 percent in the next two years.

In the view of IDEAL-NM's Snyder, the most notable reason for this expansion in K-12 e-learning is the maturation of communications technologies, which has transformed the virtual classroom by broadening online academic content and the modes by which it can be delivered to students. IDEAL-NM offers 36 courses, including ones in New Mexico history, chemistry, English, Spanish, and financial literacy, to New Mexico students in grades 9 to 12. Each is taught by a state-licensed teacher. In the fall 2008 semester, more than 870 students-- about double the number that officials had expected-- from 46 school districts enrolled in at least one online class.

"Kids who go to traditional school are still sitting in a classroom for 50 minutes at time. They're not learning those self-discipline and self-motivational skills you need in college. Our kids are learning that in high school."

"As with many innovations, it has taken some time for best practices to emerge and quality-assurance mechanisms to be put in place," Snyder says. "Those practices and mechanisms are now largely in place." And they have made all the difference to the value and rigor of online instruction, Snyder believes. "The look, feel, and overall quality of today's online courses are far beyond those that existed even five years ago."

Patrick of iNACOL says the instructional design of those earlier online programs didn't get beyond merely re-creating textbooks on the web. "What has changed is our understanding of what makes good instructional design," she says. "It's not just posting PDF documents and expecting students to read them. It's a whole different set of activities. Discussions, simulations, and learning resources are much more developed than they were 10 years ago. The technology is much more robust today for supporting interactions."

She ticks off a sample of what has come in the last several years: iChat, YouTube, Skype, online gaming. Today's online courses make use of web conferencing, podcasts, wikis, interactive whiteboards, online communities, and so on. "You can actually teach online in real time with avatars," she says, citing the use of the virtual world Second Life. "You can hold court with live video. There are so many supporting technologies, new content curriculum, and instructional tools that can be used."

The result is a learning environment that virtual school advocates say rivals and in some respects surpasses the conventional classroom.

"Think about the use of programs like Elluminate or WebEx that allow students to accelerate through materials that include streaming videos, simulations, and discussion boards," Patrick says. "Classes are coming together, forming groups, having group projects and discussions-- things that you rarely do in a traditional classroom because there's not time."

What's more, the cost of these technologies is dropping rapidly, enabling more and more school districts to afford them and growing the online sector even more. "The first online course my company built, back in 2000, cost $750,000 for a onesemester course," says Insight Schools' Oelrich. "Now tools are available that bring those costs down by 90 percent or more."

Lopez goes so far as to call e-learning an "economic necessity" as a way of solving critical issues facing the public schools: "How are you going to save money? How are you going to save teachers' jobs? How are you going to get the kids educated? If you do the simple economics, virtual schools can be the answer."

A Move to the Center

Even as entrenched as virtual schools have become, Patrick says some old biases remain. "There are still people in leadership positions in education who say, 'I don't understand how students can be successful when they don't have a teacher teaching them.' There is a teacher teaching them-- a faculty member who is trained to teach online who is teaching the child in a new way. There are not people who are actively against online learning. They just don't know what it is."

Interestingly, Patrick says the one holdout is the military, which still treats brick-and-mortar schools as superior. "Military recruiters have a bias against online learning, and that has been a huge problem for the last 10 years," says Patrick, noting they confer less weight on virtual coursework. "They tier online transcripts lower. I hear about it all the time. I'm trying to go to the Department of Defense right now and ask them what this is based on and get it fixed."

But that case is the exception, and demonstrates an attitude that is growing obsolete among K-12 educators, Patrick points out, with the Sloan Consortium survey reporting that 70 percent of school districts now offering online courses. "Those kinds of numbers indicate that people are starting to learn about it-- and get it."

The students themselves got it a long time ago, Lopez says. For a generation raised on digital technology, there's no strangeness associated with taking a class on the web. To the contrary-- receiving content online is the convention. "The digital natives, the kids who grew up with this, have never known it another way, have never actually cracked an Encyclopedia Brittanica that wasn't digital," he says, pointing out that enough time has now passed that many of them have grown into teachers.

"This is how they've studied, how they've worked, how they've written papers, how they've communicated with their friends. This is how they do it. And they're speaking to students who work this way too.

"It's moving toward the center," Lopez says of online learning. "The infrastructure and technology are there. And culturally, this feels okay to us; it doesn't feel weird. I think we could have this conversation in four or five years, and we'll say to each other, 'Now look-- it's everywhere.'"

::WEBEXTRAS ::
For more information on virtual schools, visit our website at www.thejournal.com. Enter the keywords eLearning/Web..

Rama Ramaswami is a freelance writer based in Wilton, CT.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.

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