Virtual Schools Rapidly Building Online Education Foothold

The nation's kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) public schools are no longer simple brick-and-mortar buildings with teachers and kids but are fast evolving into "virtual schools" where students surf in for their courses from outside.

This summer, Florida will make it mandatory for every school district there to start providing a "virtual school" for kindergartners through eighth grade, giving parents a choice of letting their children attend classes and take tests via computer over the Internet. The state already funds the Orlando-based Florida Virtual School which last year was used by more than 63,000 middle and high school students with special needs.

Experts in the field, including those at the U.S. Department of Education, acknowledge they don't have hard numbers about how many of the nation's 49 million public school K-12 students are taking accredited virtual-school courses but best estimates are that about 1 million participated last year in totally online courses or "blended" education in K-12 public schools that combines in-classroom and Web-based curriculum, mostly at the high-school level.

That's according to the "K-12 Online Learning" survey done by the Sloan Consortium, a cooperative effort involving Hunter College and Babson College researchers, published in January based on a poll of school districts throughout the country to come up with an educated guess. That estimate of virtual schoolers is up 47% from Sloan Consortium's last survey two years ago.

About 4 million college students are said to be currently enrolled in fully online courses, but K-12 now seems to be taking off.

Alabama and Michigan in recent years have both passed laws requiring a measure of online instruction for high school kids because it was viewed as a positive experience and a chance to provide advanced courses not otherwise locally available, says Powell. But Florida's House Bill 7067, "Virtual Instructions Programs" which kicks in July 1, goes much further, requiring Florida school districts to run full-time virtual schools for kindergartners through eighth grade, with cyber-school options for upper grades, too.

"You have to offer something," says Elisabeth Walden, network manager in the Florida's Jackson County School District, which has over a dozen K-12 schools and about 7,500 students. "This is going to transform the way education is delivered in schools."

Walden's school district and its schools are still in the process of mapping out an approach. It could either be recording what happens in the classroom, where many teachers today use computer-based instruction and electronic "Smart Boards" in lieu of the old chalkboards, and streaming it out to registered students outside the classroom. Or it might mean turning to the services of an educational content provider.

For many Florida schools, though, there's concern because not only will there be costs involved in the virtual-school rollout, but if parents opting for virtual schools don't like what's offered, they can switch to another school and with it would go the funding.

Of the 44 states offering virtual-schools today in some form, the largest programs are in Nevada and Florida, says Allison Powell, vice president at the International Association for K12 Online Learning (iNACOL), the Vienna, Va.-based organization whose 2,300 corporate and academic members are trying to keep up with the dramatic changes that appear to turning America into a nation of virtual schoolers. Schools are deploying VoIP, adding microphones, video streaming and setting up online discussion groups for students who take this instruction via their computer, either at home or in a local library. Often tests are being taken online and graded.

Schools "are using products like Blackboard, a learning management system," says Powell. One of the hardest things for schools to do is to create online content, so they often turn to content vendors. Teachers are being paid to provide virtual schooling, which might involve teaching an online class after the brick-and-mortar school day is over.

It's easy to get the impression the traditional classroom is being outsourced or that the K-12 virtual school will shake up education the way e-commerce did retailing. But advocates say it's a mistake to be afraid of changes that will benefit learning.

"Australia and Canada have been doing this for a long time," says Powell. "And Singapore even has one week a year when they shut down their schools and have an e-learning week." That's in part to prepare for any emergency that might keep children from brick-and-mortar schools but still allow learning to proceed, if possible, online.

In the U.S., virtual schooling is being used for many reasons, to help students catch up with remedial work, because they are homebound or to provide opportunity for advanced coursework, according to the Sloan Consortium study.

In general, it's viewed as a way to provide flex-time in learning for K-12 students, and in rural districts, the report states, "online learning is not simply an attractive alternative to face-to-face instruction but increasingly is becoming a lifeline to basic quality education" because of teacher shortages in math, science and foreign languages.

But do students show they can learn at least as well in the virtual-school experience? It may be too early to tell, but the one of the biggest barriers cited in the Sloan study is students need to have a high level of "self-direction" and discipline or virtual schooling is likely to fail.

Mike Kunz, district network manager at Collinsville, Illinois Community School District #10, says schools there have provided homebound students 2-way access to the classroom and teachers via Webcams and Skype.

Sometimes this has meant making security changes, such as making adjustments to the 3Com TippingPoint IPS the district uses. Virtual schooling definitely means having plenty of bandwidth available--the district recently bought a 3Com 10G switch to boost speeds--with the intent of rolling out videoconferencing in the future. But budgetary concerns are paramount now in the economic crisis hitting the state, Kunz points out.

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