Tag Archives: Virtual schools

Why is virtual schooling advancing at a dial-up pace?

Kids are adapt at using electronic media. Why not tap into that interest for educational purposes?

Katherine Mangu-Ward, writing on virtual schooling, starts out her article this way:

I know a 3-year-old who’s a master of online multitasking. Give him an iPhone, and he’ll cheerfully chat you up while watching YouTube cartoons or playing an alphabet game. In 2010, toddlers start consuming digital information not long after they’ve started consuming solid food.

Now take that kid, tack on a handful of years, and drop him into a classroom. A child who was perfectly content with a video stream, an MP3, and a chat flowing past him is suddenly ordered to sit still, shut up, and listen while a grown-up scrawls on a blackboard and delivers a monologue.

There are plenty of issues with online education: Is the technology readily available across income levels? (There are plenty of subsidies for low-income families.) How well does it compare with off-line education? (Favorably, it turns out.) And most importantly, will political pressure keep it from achieving its potential?

Mangu-Ward describes the different ways that online providers have approached the established education industry. There’s working with it (the Florida Virtual School) and taking an in-your-face approach (the company K12).

Though there are some promising developments (notably in Florida, where the virtual school offers only a la carte classes and not diplomas), “online education is coming to the masses at the speed of a 14k modem.”

For one thing,  the NEA opposes online schooling–or at least when the online experience lets students get an education apart from the environment of a traditional public school. Here’s an official statement from the teacher union:

There also should be an absolute prohibition against the granting of charters for the purpose of home-schooling, including online charter schools that seek to provide home-schooling over the Internet,” says the organization’s official policy statement on charter schools. “Charter schools whose students are in fact home schoolers, and who may rarely if ever convene in an actual school building, disregard the important socialization aspect of public education, do not serve the public purpose of promoting a sense of community, and lend themselves too easily to the misuse of public funds and the abuse of public trust.”

This statement touches on several of the key questions of the debate over schooling: How important is “socialization”? (Home schoolers can interact with the broader world very well, from what I have observed, and some aspects of institutional school life–the cliques, peer pressure, reckless behavior, the burden of minority students of “acting white,” and so forth, aren’t exactly things that all parents would want their children to be socialized in.) Should the intellectual curiosity, learning style, and interests of a child be subsumed to some broader need to spend time in an institutional setting?

The NEA’s opposition to virtual schooling isn’t just bluster; its affiliates in Indiana, Wisconsin,  and Oregon have succeeded in stunting the growth of virtual schooling through persuading the legislatures to impose restrictions on who may enroll. The educational interests of kids, it turns out, are less important to lawmakers than the financial and power interests of the union.

Kansans, meanwhile, can take heart. There are several online programs available to them, and they’re available across districts lines, so if one doesn’t work for your student, you can always try another. See this page for more information.

Virtual schools save money, please parents

Talk about win-win: A virtual school in Idaho has saved money for the school district that sponsors it, has had good academic results, and is popular with families.

More on virtual schooling

One of the most common search-engine terms that people use to find this site is “virtual schools.” No surprise there, I suppose. I will be adding some information to the virtual schools section in the days to come, including summaries of recent stories on the topic.

Wisconsin Audits Virtual Schools

Earlier this year the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau virtual schools in the state. The full, 116 page report is in PDF, but you can read a much shorter set of highlights. What follows below is an even shorter list.

History of enrollment

  • Virtual schools started operating during the 2002-03 school year, with 4 schools operated by 3 school districts enrolling 265 students.
  • During the 2007-08 school year, 15 virtual charter schools enrolled 2,951 students, most of high-school age.
  • Over 90 percent of students participate in open enrollment–that is, their virtual school experience is provided by a district other than the one to which they are assigned by their residence.

Where’s the money?

  • Under state law, a school district must pay the district that operates the virtual school $6,007 per full-time student. About half–8 of 15–of the virtual charter schools spent less than that.
  • Most of the revenue received by virtual schools ($14.2 million out of $18 million) came from state aid payments.


All 161 teachers employed by a virtual school program have licenses that are required by state law. Teachers in one district do not meet a new requirement concerning subject-matter licensing.

Academic performance

  • Compared with students in traditional schools, students in virtual programs scored higher on reading but lower in math on state assessments.
  • However, “only a small number of pupils were continuously enrolled in virtual charter schools for the past several years,” suggesting that comparisons may not yet be valid.

Coming later, perhaps: Some tidbits from the full report.

Lifting the Caps on Virtual Schools

Education Week reports on efforts to lift the caps that restrict the growth of virtual schools in some states. Among the points:

  • Online enrollment is growing at 30 percent a year.
  • In Wisconsin, over 90 percent of parents, teachers, and students involved in online schooling are satisfied with it.
  • Teacher unions are concerned that they’ll lose members if online schooling leads to a decline in the number of teachers. [No surprise!] Yet online schools can give today’s teachers new career options.
  • Because of enrollment caps imposed by legislatures, some online schools in Oregon and Arkansas have waiting lists. Some schools in Wisconsin may face the same situation in two years.

Another challenging facing online schools is that they are subject to legislatures cutting their budgets. From a political economy standpoint, that’s understandable, especially if the online schools are stand-alone ventures and not part of a school district. School districts have political power through members of school boards and being seen as a community asset. Online schools, by contrast, are much smaller (at most 1 percent of the enrollment of any state), their students are sometimes dispersed throughout a state, and as a result, they’re more vulnerable.

For more on virtual schools see the Kansas Education page on the topic.

Virtual Schools Update

I have updated the page on Virtual Schools, in particular, the directory of virtual school programs in Kansas. The update isn’t complete, however, so be warned. One remarkable fact about the list is that districts big and small are getting into the act, which is a good thing. If you want a “credit recovery” program to repeat classes you failed or just didn’t complete, you can find them. If you want to take an advanced class that isn’t at your district, you can find that, too. If you want to take “general” classes online rather than in a classroom, you can do that, too–and choose from a number of options, too!

Kansas Serves as a Model for Virtual Schooling

My friends at the Platte Institute for Economic Research say that Nebraska ought to look to Kansas when it comes to virtual schooling. Policy analyst Anne Duda writes the following. (I’ve made the most interesting and relevant comments in bold).

Technology has transformed everything in our daily lives. We carry cell phones in our pockets and GPS mapping equipment in our tractors, but yet, we in Nebraska have not fully allowed technology into our school systems. Despite computers being a staple in almost every classroom, they are not being used to their full potential. If technology were properly integrated then students in Cozad and Louisville would be able to take Arabic and Cantonese along with all thirty-seven Advanced Placement (AP) classes. There should be no reason students in Lexington and McCook do not have the same opportunities as students in Millard or Lincoln.

Virtual education can provide many of these services at a lower cost, with higher test scores, grades and AP scores than ordinary classroom education. States such as Kansas and Florida have documented over 10 years of success; therefore, many of the complications associated with starting a new system have been remedied. Virtual charter education systems allow the state to save money while concentrating on what students need.

Ideally, all Nebraska students should be eligible to attend virtual charter schools free of cost. “Charter schools are public schools founded by teachers, parents, or community organizations that operate under a written contract with a state, school district, or other entity. Because they are public schools, charter schools are open to all students, they cannot charge tuition, they have no religious affiliation, and they abide by the same state and federal testing, financial, anti-discrimination, health, and safety regulations. Unlike traditional public schools, however, charter schools are managed locally on-site and operate with more autonomy and flexibility than traditional public schools.” [1]

Virtual charter schools are a little different in that all class interaction is over the internet, students will not necessarily be in a school building. The implementation of virtual charter schools is not only cost effective, but has several other advantages as well. First, transportation to and from school would no longer be a concern to families, especially in rural areas. Inner-city parents would have additional alternatives to a failing school. In addition, adult learners returning for their GEDs would have greater flexibility in their options by being able to take classes online, at home and on their schedules.

Not only will virtual schools benefit parents and students, but teachers will benefit as well. Virtual schools systems provide curriculum to teachers, which reduces valuable time currently required for lesson planning. This would also allow teachers more time for instruction and feedback. Having curriculum provided would give every class the same basic format. Through trial and error, other states have found that a standard format helps students learn because, while the course content will vary by subject, the layout of each lesson is relatively similar. In addition, computer menus, options, and help are all located in the same location, enabling the student to jump in and start learning class material.

Virtual school systems allow for two types of classes to be offered. One option includes interactive teacher-led lessons; the other is self-taught with daily feedback on homework and progress from accredited teachers. Teachers typically instruct between twenty and fifty students, depending on grade levels. The teacher regularly monitors students’ homework and attendance in addition to making phone contact with parents twice a month, which is more than most traditional schools. The benefit of the dual class options is that students who are proficient in one subject may need less hands-on help from a teacher. At the same time, if they are in a class where they struggle, they will need and receive guidance that is more intensive.

Classes can be taken either full-time as a replacement for traditional schooling, or as a supplement to add a particular class that the home school district might not offer. Students taking classes as supplements to their regular schooling could use a study block during their regular school day to take a class, or they can take it at home, the library, or the community center like the full-time virtual students. Classes are electronically customized to each student, providing instruction at the exact level they require. With virtual education, students are no longer frustrated because the pace of class is too slow or too fast. These programs can be especially relevant for students with learning disabilities. In fact, the most successful, documented virtual schooling program, What Works Clearinghouse, is designed specifically for helping special needs and low-achieving students improve their reading skills. All of this can be done for a fraction of the cost of traditional education.

Currently, school financing is based on a rarely seen, archaic formula that provides funding to the schools as a whole. Virtual schools operate differently. Each student is provided with funding equal to the average cost per student of the regular public schools. If the child attends a virtual school or a traditional public school full-time, then that school receives all of the student’s money. If the student attends both schools part-time, then the money is divided based on how many classes the student is taking at each facility. This money could not transfer to religious schools, since that would take additional legislation. Another added bonus of virtual charter schools is a lack of taxing authority; they cannot raise your taxes because they have a short fall, which is not likely. In Oregon, for example, ordinary public schools spend $10,000 per year, per child. The state’s charter schools operate on less than $6,000 per child.

Despite costs and education benefits, virtual schools do have one potential downside; lack of social interaction. Students are able to interact with their teachers and classmates online through chats, message boards, instant messaging and e-mail, but they lose a face-to-face connection and the skills associated with it. Communities can make up these short falls by providing activities, including prom and homecoming for their students. YMCAs, YWCAs, and churches can provide sports while community and cultural centers provide activities for students to socialize. Another option is mixed classrooms, particularly with the younger students, in which the students spend part of their day on guided virtual learning and the other part of their day in traditional classroom learning. Social interaction is not a large enough issue to table the idea of virtual schools, especially not when it will give communities an excuse to gather.

The primary obstacle in Nebraska for virtual education is legislation. First, we have no charter school legislation. The two most important aspects of a potential bill are that the charter schools will report directly to the State Board of Education and that no limit exists on the number of children that may attend. Without these, future virtual education bills would be hindered before they were even written. The second piece of legislation that is needed, is a virtual education bill, which mostly needs to allow a school to exist without students physically being in the building. In addition, it would need to address funding formulas, primarily allowing money to follow students.

Virtual education will benefit everyone in the state. It will reduce overall education costs to the taxpayers of the state, while increasing class options and opportunities. The lack of social interaction can easily be solved by communities coming together for their children.

Virtual schooling along with charter schools allow for schooling to be truly adapted to the changing circumstances of the new century. They could also help address the challenges of counties with low and declining population. At least Kansas has some charter school legislation (it could be made better). And it does have some experience in virtual schooling. It’s not the only way to improve schooling, but it is a valuable part.

Latest on Virtual Schools

Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning 2008 offers an introduction to online learning.

Full-time or supplemental?

One common way of disaggregating online programs is to distinguish between supplementary and full-time programs.

Programs are (generally) supplemental or full-time. Though the distinction is not always sharp, here are some of the qualities that generally characterize the two types of programs.

Supplemental programs:

  • A student takes one or two courses online but are otherwise enrolled in a traditional school.
  • No Child Left Behind and other assessment requirements are levied on the traditional school program.
  • Are generally funded by a dedicated appropriation from the legislature.
  • Their growth is measured by the number of course registrations. One-third are increasing registration by a rate of more than 50 percent a year.
  • They’re generally at the high-school level.
  • Most are run by a state education agency, not necessarily the department of education.
  • Supplemental programs are more common than full-time ones: While 17 states offer “significant” full-time programs, 23 offer “significant” supplemental programs.
  • Generally, “state-led online programs” are created by the state, are open to students anywhere in the state, and offer supplemental opportunities to students. The Illinois Virtual High School, the Kentucky Virtual High School, and the Michigan Virtual High School are examples.

Full-time programs:

  • A student is enrolled exclusively in an online program.
  • No Child Left Behind and other assessment requirements are levied on the full-time program.
  • In most states are funded by a per-pupil formula for full-time enrollment equivalent (FTE).
  • Their growth is measured by FTE enrollment, not course registration.
  • Their growth comes not so much from more students enrolling in existing programs, but more programs being developed. On the other hand, the second-largest full-time program grew 25 percent in the year surveyed.
  • Are generally not run by a state-level agency. The exception is the Florida Virtual School, which has over 700 full-tine students, but many more students taking supplemental classes.
  • May be run by either a charter school or a local school district.
  • Often supported by an organization such as Connections Academy, K12 Inc., Insight Schools, or iQ Academies, which provides content, teacher training and management.

Who takes online classes?

A variety of students, though it appears that honors students outnumber students who are “credit recovery,” or making up failed or missed classes.

Some numbers about growth of online learning

  • Most small programs are run by districts (LEAs, technically); most big programs are run by a state agency.
  • The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School has 7,798 students. It is the largest full-time program. The second-largest program is the Ohio Virtual Academy, at 5,225 students. But most full-time programs have fewer than 1,000 students.
  • Nearly one-third of all supplemental programs have seen course registration increase by 50 percent or more.
  • Programs that felt constrained in their growth blamed funding more than any other cause. These were generally supplemental rather than full-time programs. The policy environment was the second-leading concern.

Policy Issues

The report mentions some policy issues that face online learning, including:

How should students and programs be assessed? One way is to take a snapshot test of online programs, but many people think that a “growth model” is the best way of assessing the student and the program.

Should teachers be required to take additional training? Do teachers learn how to teach in a virtual school setting? Some states are deciding that the answer is yes, and creating new requirements.

Can students take an online program anywhere, only only in their own district? Some states still place restrictions on students seeking online coursework. Should a student’s district of residence have a veto over whether he takes an online class offered by another district? Incredibly, in some states that is the rule. But if a student does “leave” the district for a program offered elsewhere, how much money goes with him? The state base amount? Local money?

How quickly can home-school and private school students be eligible for these programs? Some states say that only students who attended a public school in the previous year may attend a public virtual school. While we recognize the concern over funding, this requirement fails to recognize that the focus of public education should be about educating students. Making a student first spend a year in a public school would be, for many students, making them “mark time” until they can do what they really want–learn in a way that works for them.

What should be the basis of funding? : Based on geography? Should funding for online schooling be based on geography, or should the same amount be allocated to each student’s online learning regardless of where he lives?

What about elementary students? While most students who take part in online learning are high school students, some are elementary school. The appropriateness of online learning for lower-division students presents a host of questions that we’re going to omit for now.

Will online learning truly disrupt class? Business professor Clayton Christensen suggests in his book “Disrupting Class” that online learning will revolutionize education. The authors of Keeping Pace, by contrast, warn that any transformation is not automatic. They point out that the people who benefit from online learning (students) are not the people who fund schooling (that would be legislators) or purchase educational services (for now, that’s school districts). In other words, there are a lot of institutional obstacles to online learning being a significant force for change.

Where does Kansas fit in?

How does Kansas compare with other states?

  • There are 35 programs in the state, run either by a school district or an educational service center.
  • It does not have a state-led supplemental program; 34 states do.
  • It does offer full-time programs; 21 states do.
  • It is one of 17 states to offer both supplemental and full-time programs.
  • Two states (Kansas is not one of them) currently or will require that a student take at least one online class to graduate.
  • Florida is the only state to require that all districts create or provide an online learning program.
  • In Kansas, Colorado, Idaho and Wisconsin, program audits led to suggestions that a moratorium be placed on online learning. Instead, the legislatures in each state placed additional regulations on the programs, but not a moratorium.
  • By contrast, two states (Connecticut and Delaware) scaled back their plans, citing budget concerns.
  • Unlike Wisconsin, it does not place a cap on the number of students who can take an online class or participate in an online program offered by another district. Unlike the Texas Legislature, the Kansas Legislature has not opposed students crossing district lines.
  • Kansas gives an equal funding to students regardless of geography. (This is a good thing.)

Recommendations of the report

  • Make sure that families are free to choose online learning.
  • Schools of education should teach future teachers how to teach online courses.
  • States should recognize teaching credentials of other states. This will help teachers cross state lines.
  • Create a national standard for content. [Not sure we can buy into that.]
  • Revise financial standard to make sure that the qualities of the online environment are taken into account, rather than depend on “seat time” and other old-school measures.
  • Establish basic tools for measuring program quality. For example, do students complete courses?

Here are some other takeaways from the report, though not formal conclusions:

Per-pupil funding models are more stable than legislative appropriations.

Kansas Resources

Finally, KSDE has a portal to information on virtual schools.

Virtual Schooling Can Prevent Some Dropouts

This next item comes from the U.S. Department of Education. It describes the benefits of virtual schools and online learning. Virtual schooling can benefit students for a variety of reasons, including offering talented and gifted students classes they can’t get in their regular school.

For other students, it’s the difference between going to school or dropping out:

The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts, found that “circumstances in students’ lives and an inadequate response to those circumstances from the schools led to dropping out.” Most students surveyed for the report said that their classes were uninteresting and lacked opportunities for “real-world” learning, so the students lost interest in going to school. Other reasons that students dropped out included the need to make money, to care for a family member, to raise a child, or because academic challenges caused them to fail or fall behind due to a lack of earlier preparation.Appropriately implemented, online learning can enable districts to provide solutions to help address each of these reasons students leave school and as a consequence, could play an important role in reducing the current rate of high school dropouts. A Project Tomorrow survey of more than 319,000 K-12 students nationwide discovered that 57 percent of high school students indicated interest in or have taken an online course in the past year, and 39 percent liked the self-pacing that online classes could provide. In 2007, the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) found that “42 states have significant supplemental online learning programs, or significant full-time programs, or both. Only eight states do not have either of these options, and several of these states have begun planning for online learning development.”

The Growth of Online Learning

Teens are one of America’s fastest growing groups of online users and consumers. Just six years ago, surveys showed that merely 60 percent of American school-aged children used the Internet. Yet as of November 2006, a PEW Internet & American Life Project survey showed a dramatic increase, with 93 percent of teenagers online regularly and more than nine in 10 Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 using the Internet. The fact is that more teens than ever before use the Internet as a way to interact with others–and it’s not just to send and receive email, but to create and share information and content more often than any other age group in the country.

While teens are immersed in the online culture, according to a 2007 survey by the Sloan Consortium, only 700,000 public school students, mostly high schoolers, enrolled in online courses in 2005-06. While the total number represents a very small sample of the total high school population, the latest Sloan figures represent a tenfold increase over the number enrolled in online courses over their survey in the year 2000, and that number is growing. A 2002-03 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report download files PDF (521 KB) on distance learning found that an estimated 8,200 public schools had students enrolled in technology-based distance education courses, which represents 9 percent of all public schools nationwide. That survey revealed that the percentage of schools with students enrolled in distance education courses varied substantially by the instructional level of the school. Overall, 38 percent of public high schools offered distance education courses, compared with 20 percent of combined or ungraded schools, 4 percent of middle or junior high schools, and fewer than 1 percent of elementary schools.

While some schools do respond to and embrace this new teen culture, there is still a “digital disconnect” between schools and students. In the 2002 PEW Internet & American Life Project study, The Digital Disconnect: The Widening Gap Between Internet-Savvy Students and Their Schools, students revealed that the Internet helped them do their homework, and they described many other ways the Internet is used for education-related activities. Indeed, they use the Web as an “online textbook.” They sift through reference materials, organize information, and study with friends through instant messaging. Students report, however, that there is a “substantial disconnect between how they use the Internet for school and how they use the Internet during the school day and under teacher direction.” And even in the relatively small number of well-connected schools, students report that the quality of web-based assignments can be poor and uninspiring. Since then, there is increased acceptance of online curriculum, but many schools and teachers have not acknowledged that “online” is the way students communicate.

It is possible, nevertheless, to provide quality online learning opportunities that engage and inspire students. The number of online providers that utilize Internet technology to deliver effective, non-traditional learning approaches to students is growing, and several states are moving ahead with legislation that will offer online curricula as a practical alternative to the traditional classroom.

Challenging Students Outside the Classroom Walls

“Harnessing the power of innovation for the benefit of American schools is fast becoming an education imperative,” said Secretary Spellings in the introduction to the newest OII Innovations in Education Guide, Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online. The Guide, along with a webcast that promoted its availability this past December, focuses on case studies from six providers who offer rigorous curricula to students through the Web. The online content includes a variety of Advanced Placement (AP) courses, International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, and other dual enrollment options that enable students to earn college credit while still in high school.

The Guide gives examples of promising practices in key areas including ensuring course quality; recruiting, counseling, and supporting students; and tracking outcomes for continuous improvement. According to the introduction, the Guide’s “aim is to familiarize districts and schools with the issues they must consider and address if students are to achieve success in this new form of learning.” But students are ready to welcome the virtual classroom.

For more on the topic, see the Flint Hills page on virtual schools.