Using Technology to Expand Opportunity: Going Virtual

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Online courses can get to people and places beyond the reach of the traditional school setting, serving the needs ofstudents and teachers nationwide.

IN THE SPRING OF 2003, I needed to renew my Florida teaching certificate while traveling 120 days a year as an educational consultant. Maintaining my certification was vital to my position, and making use of the classic brick-and-mortar setting for certification renewal courses was physically impossible. My certification endangered, I began to search for alternatives. Fortunately, a colleague introduced me to the option of virtualcourses, and shortly afterward I entered the world of eLearning.

Going VirtualMy first eLearning course was an online reading endorsement class offered free to Florida teachers through Just Read, Florida!, whose goal is to help teachers improve reading instruction for students in grades PK-12. The class proved to be invaluable. Called the Florida Online Reading Professional Development (FOR-PD) course, it’s a statewide reading initiative that provides reading endorsement certification for Florida teachers and includes reading selections, online discussions, and an in-person meeting. It offered limitless ideas and resources all available via my laptop. Since 2003, more than 13,000 teachers have completed the class. FOR-PD is just one small example of the thousands of eLearning opportunitiesavailable to teachers and students nationwide.

A myriad of delivery methods comes within the sphere of eLearning, including telephone and web discussions, hands-on activities, web conferencing, videoconferencing, e-mails, and face-to-face meetings. Online courses offer students and teachers opportunities beyond the scope of theirlocal districts, universities, and even states.

“Online learning provides students access to the best education available, regardless of their neighborhood, geography, family income levels, or size of their school,” says Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the North American Council for Online Learning. “Online learning is expanding access and opportunities for all students to college preparatory curricula and courses, credit recovery, and supplemental and engaging course work.”

Online learning offers many more perks than mere flexibility, which explains why, according to NACOL, it’s growing at a rate of 30 percent annually to help meet the needs of students and teachers. Virtual courses accommodate teachers, low-performing students, above-level students, and even the victims of natural disasters by offering alternative methods of delivery and personalized instruction. In addition, eLearning is a component of the 2005 National Education Technology Plan. One of the NETP’s seven goals is to “support eLearning and virtual schools.” The plan also prescribes strategies to support eLearning, including encouraging the use of online education options to meet No Child Left Behind requirements for highly qualified teachers; offering supplemental services and parental choice; providing every child access to eLearning; and giving every teacher the option to participate in eLearning training.

Meeting Needs

The country’s first public, internet-based virtual school, the Florida Virtual School, was founded in 1997. In the fall of 2005 alone, FLVS’ student enrollment numbered 31,000, with a course completion rate of 85 percent. Nearly half (49 percent) of the students registered with FLVS come from schools that are either in rural, low-performing, or high-minority districts. Currently, FLVS serves middle and high school students, with more than 80 courses. The most popular classes this year include Personal Fitness, Geometry, Algebra I, and Spanish I.

FLVS serves parents, too, who have found it to be a valuable experience that encourages their participation.“We splashed water around in our kitchen during the metric unit,” one parent posted on the school’s website. “It is so cool that you have created hands-on assignments over the internet. It has really opened my eyes to the possibilities in virtual school, when I had been a little skeptical about not having a teacher physically there.”

Florida Virtual School has spawned an industry. Twenty-three states now offer statewide virtual schools, and eLearning continues to show increases in popularity and effectiveness. One such descendant is the Louisiana Virtual School, which in 2000-2001, served just 130 students across nine school districts; during the 2005-2006 school year, those numbers were projected to climb to 3,000-plus students in more than 60 districts. To help accommodate the needs of students who were displaced or in overcrowded classrooms due to Hurricane Katrina, LVS has since added another 280 students. The school is also enrolling Katrina-affected students for the summer to help them meet graduation requirements.

The Louisiana Virtual School has been effective in a number of ways. Its Algebra I Online Project targets both rural and urban districts that have schools in which one or more sections of Algebra I are being taught by uncertified math teachers. The project offers those uncertified teachers professional development opportunities designed to improve mathematics instruction. The program is having an impact: In 2005, students enrolled in Algebra I Online had a higher mean score on the Iowa mathematics exam than the control students. Nearly 98 percent of eighth-graders in the course scored “basic” or above on Louisiana’s high-stakes Louisiana Education Assessment Program for the 21st Century (LEAP 21) test, with 42.5 percent scoring “mastery” or better. Perhaps most impressive, 84 percent of enrolled students successfully completed the course— up from a 61 percent completion rate during the pilot year of the project.

Reaching Rural Students

In Alaska, more than 25 percent of school districts offer eLearning classes through videoconferencing and the web. The Lower Yukon School District, in cooperation with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Center for Distance Education, offers English 111 as a dual-credit opportunity for rural students. Fifty percent of eligible students took advantage of the web conferencing course and earned college credit. Additionally, in 2005, the Kuspuk School District began distance education via videoconferencing, through support from Enhancing Education Through Technology and Rural Utilities Service grants. The district offers traditional courses in AP English, Algebra I, and Algebra II, as well as unique offerings such as Publications, Service Learning, and FAA Ground School. Imagine the value of completing ground school in one of the district’s eight villages accessible only by air and river travel.

Going VirtualSimilarly, since 2004, West Virginia’s Educational Development for Planning and Conducting Evaluations (ED PACE) program has offered a hybrid virtual Spanish I course for rural middle school students who lack access to certified Spanish teachers. ED PACE is one of 10 recipients of the US Department of Education’s evaluation grants, and conducted a quasi-experimental, scientifically based research study on student performance in its online Spanish class. Using a sample of 250 virtual and 170 traditional classroom students, the research found that students taking online Spanish performed on a par with those taking faceto- face Spanish classes.

Getting Engaged

There’s more to eLearning than accommodating need and helping states and districts meet NCLB teacher mandates. Virtual courses also have a positive effect on student engagement and achievement. In Pinal County, AZ, a consortium of four small school districts pools technology resources to provide videoconferencing professional development for teachers and stimulating learning experiences for students. Teachers attend training on how to effectively use videoconferencing, and also participate in coaching sessions. Videoconferencing is then incorporated into course content that includes virtual field trips and special presentations. Teachers have found videoconferencing to offer an excellent opportunity for sharing real-life content,resulting in better student engagement.

“Videoconferencing opens the world to our teachers and students, enabling classes to visit Japan, Australia, China, and Great Britain,” says Jill Dingman, Pinal County’s grant coordinator. As teachers participate in the videoconferencing sessions, they also comment on the personal benefits of watching master teachers and experts in various fields deliver highquality lessons. They have used these learning experiences to build on their own teaching skills. Arizona’s eLearning opportunities for teachers are not limited to videoconferencing. This year, more than 4,000 teachers have completed courses via Arizona’s School Services through Educational Technology (ASSET) program.

Growth and Opportunity

Virtual education can mean a variety of things to educators and students, depending on their personal circumstances. For me, online courses afforded a way to maintain my teaching certification. For others, eLearning will fulfill different educational needs. As states and districts maintain and broaden eLearning options via virtual schools, expanded portals, and enhanced videoconferencing, teacher and student learning opportunities will continue to grow without end.

Christine Fox is SETDA’s director of professional development and research.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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