Cody Millin is nine-and-a-half years old and looks like a typical fourth-grader, but he's in sixth grade and has no trouble doing the work of a typical middle school student. He does all of his learning from home and likes working independently. He says, "I'd get bored waiting for others to finish an assignment. I like to do my work and move on to the next thing." Like most homeschoolers, Cody works at a desk in his house, where his mother is his learning coach. Unlike most such pupils, however, Cody is part of a public charter school that's licensed by the state of Pennsylvania.
Nick Dull is enrolled in a single online class. This tenth-grader spends most of his day in a traditional classroom but chose to learn geometry online because of a scheduling conflict. After he leaves Pine View High School in Sarasota, Florida each day, he heads home and logs onto his virtual class. His online teacher is available via e-mail; his classmates, who may be in other schools, states, or countries, are available through collaborative workspaces, e-mail, and Web conferencing.
These students are part of an increasing number of learners taking advantage of the current upsurge in e-learning options. Contributing to this growth are a variety of factors, including federal legislation, better technology capacity in homes and schools, a growing recognition of e-learning's cost effectiveness and ability to reduce dropout rates, and also recent significant improvements to online content and infrastructure (see "Content and Platform Toolbox").
According to Tim Stroud, executive director of the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), "In the last half year, there has been a major change; public schools are discovering that online learning has a place in their systems. Parents and students want the flexibility, and districts find that it saves them money on textbooks, which can go online, and personnel, through hiring retired and part-time teachers."
Also known as online learning, virtual learning, and distance learning, e-learning relies on the Internet as a way to deliver instruction to students. For this article, we define "virtual schools" as Internet-delivered comprehensive instruction primarily for students in the earlier grades, and "virtual courses" as accredited, individual classes provided to students who are still also in traditional secondary education settings. Hybrid models are beginning to emerge as well.
At this juncture, virtual schools primarily provide alternatives for homeschooled students; rural, ill, or incarcerated students; and for children who are actors, athletes, or models. Parents are the primary educators, and teachers serve as their support system. Parents grade daily work and log in the results online. Students submit major assignments via e-mail or traditional mail, and teachers review and provide feedback. Parents and teachers communicate about the student's progress via phone and e-mail.
Virtual courses, on the other hand, don't supplant the brick-and-mortar school but extend and expand its offerings. They provide enrichment, acceleration, or credit recovery and can also address students' scheduling needs or learning styles. For schools faced with a shortage of qualified teachers or too few students interested in taking a particular course, e-learning is a cost-effective option. Courses follow a standard scope and sequence. For an example of a virtual course outline, see "Online Course Outline" at www.techlearning.com/vhscourseoutline.
In both virtual schools and virtual courses, students work at their own pace and meet assignment deadlines. A combination of quizzes, tests, projects, and portfolio submissions are used to evaluate student performance, and students are also required to take standardized tests.
E-learning provides parents and students with flexibility, allowing students to work at their own pace
States, regions, districts, schools, and both commercial and nonprofit companies offer various forms of e-learning (see "A Sampling of Virtual Learning Providers"). According to the U.S. Department of Education, at least 15 states now provide some form of virtual schooling, and about 25 percent of all K-12 public schools offer some e-learning or virtual school instruction options. (See the T&L article "Virtual School: Legislative Update" April 2005.) The national educational technology plan, "Toward A New Golden Age In American Education: How the Internet, the Law and Today's Students are Revolutionizing Expectations," supports virtual schools, digital content and broadband. The plan also predicts that within the next decade, every state and most schools will be involved in e-learning. For details, visit www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/os/technology/plan/2004/plan.pdf.
Before selecting a provider or creating their own e-learning ventures, districts must make decisions about several policy issues, including the following:
Rules and Regulations
Teacher certification remains a major point of concern. Each state licenses or certifies its own teachers, who are approved to teach students only in that state's schools. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' efforts to set national standards and certification processes may help online teachers cross state lines and maintain the position of teacher of record.
Granting credit to students for courses is another area of concern. For online learning to succeed, students must earn credits from teachers who are not physically in their districts; they must be able to progress through the grades regardless of their physical location, and their attendance must be measured differently, often in terms of assignment completion rather than seat time as with students in brick-and-mortar schools.
When schools and districts cede teaching and credit granting authority to outside entities, they are required by the DOE to evaluate all learning materials and instructional methods to ensure they are of the same caliber as their traditional counterparts.
To some extent, educators can apply existing evaluation tools and processes. Attendance measures may vary because seat time isn't an option, but an online curriculum has to meet the same state curriculum standards, and content, methods, and assessment must be as appropriate as in a brick-and-mortar school. Teachers must be certified and qualified to teach the course, and instructional delivery methods must include student mentoring, support, and frequent communications.
According to a report from the North Central Regional Education Laboratory (NCREL), "State policies rarely provide specific outcome requirements for online programs, relying instead on local district quality controls, state assessment tests, and self-enforced guidelines established by online programs. While this approach matches the policy applied to physical schools, it raises concerns because online learning practice is new and not well understood (especially by the local district policymakers)."
The report concludes, "Online education practices are being developed in the absence of clear state-level guidance, and the window for proactively developing such guidance ahead of practice is closing. States are attempting to apply to online programs policies created for physical schools, and these policies often do not fit well."
The National Education Association concurs. The "NEA Guide to Online High School Courses" states, "Standards and methods that have been studiously crafted to instruct students in physical classrooms cannot simply be double-clicked into an online environment."
There are several issues that states and districts must consider around funding and online learning. The first is the source of money to create or purchase online courses, and the second is the impact on school, district, or state budgets. Education funding is achieved on a per-student basis based on average daily attendance (ADA). Financing formulas normally allow schools to use basic education funding to pay for e-learning, even if local tax and bond monies are excluded. According to Mickey Revenaugh, vice president for state relations for Connections Academy, e-learning costs per child are $5,000- $5,500 a year, which is close to the average per pupil dollars in many school systems. (Per-student funding ranges from $4,200 in some states to more than $10,000 in others.)
The impact on budgets may be considerable. Some programs bring students back to public schools from homeschooling, which adds funding to school district coffers but is a drain on state budgets that didn't fully support students at home. Students who switch from traditional to online learning may no longer bring their ADA funds to the local school. Instead, the funds may pass though the district to private ventures. Entrepreneurial districts bring in new revenue from online students at the expense of feeder districts that lose the students' ADA funds. According to the NCREL report, "In some cases, vendors compete with public schools for funding, creating a situation in which the growth of online education is driven by funding opportunities and threats, rather than students' educational needs."
The ongoing controversy over teaching evolution has been in the news again recently, and with parents in greater control in virtual schools, questions of what the curriculum includes and who determines what to teach can arise. See "Thorny Evolution," on techlearning.com.
As more virtual schools emerge, the relationship with teachers unions is sure to be tested. Educators in most districts belong to a union that serves as the bargaining agent for contracts and benefits, either the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association or a partnership of the two. Yet many virtual teachers are not members of a union that bargains for them.
According to Bruce Friend, chief administrative officer of Florida Virtual High School, when they began operation, the teachers were from Orange County, Florida and belonged to the union affiliate there. Now that FLVS is independent, teachers may be union members from their previous positions, but there is no bargaining agent. CEO Julie Young says, "FLVS offers annual contracts that outline expectations and hold teachers accountable." Teachers get the standard pay scale and have solid compensation plans that are comparable to or better than those in school districts.
As for virtual schools, it really depends on the state and partnerships. According to Mickey Revenaugh, "In Wisconsin's Connections Academy, for example, the teachers are employed by the Appleton Area School District and are members of the district's local union bargaining unit. Elsewhere, where the teachers are employed by a charter school, they certainly have the right to form a separate bargaining unit, but have so far chosen not to do so."
It may take some time for virtual schools and teachers' unions to find a happy medium. On a positive note, Connections Academy is in discussions with the California Teachers Association about partnering with them to develop schools together in California, integrating a master union contract unique to the virtual school setting. However, in the Northern Ozaukee Wisconsin school district, the union filed a lawsuit against the district which, if successful, will shut down the school and put the virtual teachers out of work.
Success and Failure
With virtual learning such a new phenomenon, the issue of how well students perform is key to a program's longevity and replication. Detractors point out early evidence of failure. For example, according to 2003 test results, students who attended Pennsylvania's six cyber schools scored below the state average in a majority of proficiency tests. In Ohio, the three cyber schools that were tested during the 2002-2003 school year also did not fare well in standardized tests.
Just recently, the attrition rate of Colorado students who attended virtual schools appeared to be greater than that of peers in traditional schools. More of their cyberschool students also repeated a grade last year, and a higher percentage of online students at the state's largest cyberschools were rated "unsatisfactory" in math compared with the state average.
Advocates point out that many online students enter these programs already one or more grade levels behind and lack the discipline necessary to work independently. Many enroll in a virtual school program after failing in traditional schools.
In addition, NCLB regulations for adequate yearly progress require having all students show up for the test, and schools are deemed inadequate if too many students don't take the test. Some virtual schools with high numbers of previously homeschooled students are struggling to make sure that students who are unused to this kind of mandate show up.
Supporting the argument that low achievement in some cyberschools may be a reflection of a low achieving student population is the fact that virtual Advanced Placement courses report a high degree of student success. According to the Educational Testing Service, more students are passing AP exams than ever before and some state education agencies believe that the improvement is in part because of online courses.
According to NACOL's Tim Stroud, "It's too early to draw reliable conclusions about online learning programs. There is only a single scientifically based research study on the effectiveness of online learning at the K-12 level, a meta-analysis of 116 studies from 14 Web-delivered programs between 1999 and 2004.The analysis shows that online learning can have the same effect on student academic achievement as traditional instruction." See "The Effects of Distance Education on K-12 Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis" at www.ncrel.org/tech/distance/k12distance.pdf.
Careful investigation and planning is essential to introducing an e-learning component into a district's options, and the Northern Ozaukee School District in Fredonia, Wisconsin provides an interesting model. Read about how Superintendent Bill Harbron started the process for creating a virtual school in our June 2005 Leadership Guide. Also included will be an outline of the steps essential for a successful launch.
The Future of E-Learning
Despite the fact that e-learning is beset with a host of challenges and issues that continue to make it controversial and often difficult to institute, it is nevertheless already widely recognized as an invaluable resource for students, educators, and parents. As we progress deeper into the 21st century, the primary challenge may lie more in moving beyond the traditional ways of teaching and learning that still cling to both in-person and virtual learning environments, and into the broadening realm of possibility that the newest technologies have opened to us.
Gwen Solomon is director of TechLearning.com.
Content and Platform Toolbox
The following resources are good places to start when researching online learning content and delivery options.
BrainPop (opens in new tab)
BrainPop provides interactive, animated content for K-12 students, allowing them to watch educational movies and then take quizzes on their Web site.
In Broward County, Florida, the virtual high school uses Riverdeep's Destination Math and Destination Reading. Because the Riverdeep software is Web-based, it plugs right into the district's online learning structure.
Connections Academy integrates streaming video content from unitedstreaming, now owned by Discovery, into its online lessons.
SAS in School
SAS in School's Curriculum Pathways multimedia materials are integrated into FLVS lessons. The teacher creates the lesson and puts the video into perspective.
The Kentucky Virtual University offers virtual learning opportunities in 19 districts using PWLN, the PLATO Web Learning Network, an application service provider.
Macromedia Tools (opens in new tab)
Florida Virtual Schools develop course content using Macromedia's Dreamweaver, Flash, and Captivate, providing rich media content to anyone with a browser.
K-12 curriculum developers and educators use Blackboard, the platform that higher education employs for authoring and management, to design online courses.
Kentucky Virtual High School licenses course content from eClassroom and uses its delivery system to provide program management and administration tools.
The Educator course management system used by FLVS keeps track of delivery, assessment, and all administrative tasks.
Microsoft Class Server (opens in new tab)
The Cyber Village Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota uses Microsoft Class Server as its platform because it allows teachers to blend their own learning resources with commercial content.
Aventa Learning provides online learning content for K-12 institutions with courses available in 48 subjects, including 18 AP subject areas.
The Quest Network, Inc.
LifeQuest Expedition is the 12th in a series of award-winning interactive educational adventures from Dan Buettner and his team at The Quest Network.
Class.com provides local school districts with complete e-learning solutions: Internet-based courses, training, software hosting, and consulting services.
WebCT, Inc. is the world's leading provider of e-learning systems for higher education and has expanded into K-12. Institutions in more than 70 countries are using WebCT's e-learning solutions.
The Illinois Virtual High School uses Elluminate Live! as a virtual conference room for weekly team meetings of teachers from around the state.
A Sampling of Virtual Learning Providers
Connections Academy provides free public education that students attend from home.
K12 Online Home Schools (opens in new tab)
K12 Online Home Schools provides a comprehensive curriculum solution for districts and schools wanting to serve students through distance- or home-based learning programs.
Florida Virtual School (FLVS)
Florida Virtual School provides free online classes and instruction to all public, private, and homeschool students in Florida.
Virtual High School (VHS)
Virtual High School students can select from a range of semester-length and full-year online courses.
Apex Learning Online Courses offer distance learning opportunities for secondary students.
KC Distance Learning
KC Distance Learning serves more than 23,000 students through their high school distance-learning programs.
Illinois Virtual High School
The Illinois Virtual High School (IVHS) offers over 100 courses to its 370 participating public and private institutions as well as to homeschooled students.
Kentucky Virtual High School
Kentucky Virtual High School offers an online curriculum licensed from PLATO and targeted specifically for Kentucky's grade school students.
Texas: Region IV Education Service Center
The Texas Virtual School offers high school students credit and not-for-credit courses that they deliver and monitor on Blackboard.
Wisconsin Virtual School
Wisconsin Virtual School (WVS) partners with school districts throughout the state to offer online education to middle and high school students.
Plano ISD eSchool
Plano enrolls a total of 2,863 students with a completion rate of 86 percent and an overall passing rate of 98 percent.
Branson School Online
Branson School Online has 700 students and is a public online alternative program available to students throughout Colorado.
Cyber Village Academy
The Cyber Village Academy in St. Paul is an example of a new approach, one that combines on-site and online learning on alternate days.