Even! But No Longer Odd
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.
CAN 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
"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."
FOR 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.'"
For more information on virtual schools,
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Rama Ramaswami is a freelance writer based in Wilton, CT.
This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.