Virtual Schools: What Are They and Can They Help Kids Learn?

This post is part of this month’s “What’s Going Right in Public Education” series, highlighting achievements and forward-thinking ideas happening now in education policy, law, and practice.

Step into most public school classrooms today and the prevalence and value of technology as an educational tool is undeniable. Even urban schools districts, many strapped for cash as a result of the economic downturn, are improving technology available to students. With companies like Apple reducing tablet prices and rolling out new digital textbook programs, school districts can actually save money by going digital (not to mention save the backs of students toting heavy textbooks from class to class).

A recent study from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) showed that 87% of all 12 to 17 year olds use the Internet regularly. So the increasing ubiquitousness of classroom technology makes sense. Schools are just trying to keep up with the times. And it doesn’t hurt when technology makes financial sense, keeps kids engaged, and prepares students for a future when technological expertise will be required.

However, the most fascinating change technology has brought to the world of education hasn’t been its impact inside the classroom, but its role in redefining what a classroom is. Today, students don’t need to be in a traditional brick-and-mortar school to learn, speak to a teacher, receive credits, and graduate. Learning can happen anywhere there is an Internet connection.

What are Virtual Schools?

Virtual or “online” schools have emerged as an increasingly popular alternative to the traditional school model. Virtual schools have a number of benefits, offering scheduling flexibility, content differentiation, individualized pacing, and accessibility to a diverse cross-section of students.

In general, virtual schools allow students to take classes online that they would traditionally take in a physical classroom. Classes in reputable, established virtual schools are surprisingly structured and tailored to provide individual attention to students when they need it. There is a real life teacher leading the class, students get real feedback on assignments, and students can get questions answered by email.

CNN had a story several months ago that provides a decent overview of virtual schools and the benefits they provide. What the story left out is that virtual schools don’t need to be an all-or-nothing alternative to the traditional school model. Students and schools can supplement traditional classes with classes through an online virtual school.

iNACOL published a report that provided some great statistics about the growth of virtual schools:

  • The PreK-12 Academic segment of the online learning industry is growing faster than any other segment, with a 16.8% annual growth rate. Revenue for all segments of online learning is expected to reach $24.2 billion by 2015.
  • Supplemental or full-time online learning opportunities are available statewide to at least some students in 48 of the 50 states plus Washington, DC.
  • 27 states, as well as Washington, DC, have statewide full-time online schools.
  • 38 states have state virtual schools or state-led online initiatives, and Alaska is planning to open a statewide online learning network in 2011.
  • Many virtual schools show annual growth rates between 20% and 45%.
  • 75% of school districts had one or more students enrolled in an online or blended learning course.
  • 72% of school districts with distance education programs planned to expand online offerings in the coming year.
  • 82% of high school administrators interviewed in the U.S. had at least one student enrolled in a fully online course and 38% had at least one student enrolled in a blended or hybrid course.

Benefits of Virtual Schools

Flexibility. Virtual schools offer a number of benefits for school districts, students, and families. The first benefit is that a virtual school curriculum can be accessed anywhere and at anytime. Students and parents have taken advantage of online class flexibility in a variety of ways. A student may look to virtual school classes to supplement his or her traditional school’s curriculum. A student can take a remedial online class to improve his or her skills in a particular subject, or a student can take an online class when his or her parents and teachers feel traditional classes are not challenging enough. Some students have even looked to virtual schools when their traditional school does not offer a particular class they wish to take. Want to learn the native language of your ancestors? A virtual school may be your best option. For this reason, many schools districts allow students to enroll in a virtual school class and work on assignments at school during their traditional school day.

Some families have moved their children into 100% virtual schooling. The student would, if they choose, take classes from the comfort of their home. Many new-age “home-schoolers” have joined with other virtual school families to arrange field trips and opportunities for their students to socialize.

In addition, virtual schools typically offer a great deal of flexibility in when lectures can be viewed and when assignments are due. Online classes allow students to complete assignments at their own pace. Students can sleep in until noon and work on classes until 8 PM. As long as they are getting assignments done, students can structure their own schedules.

Personalized, differentiated content. As mentioned above, virtual schools often offer a more personalized, tailored curriculum than is possible in traditional schools. Through the magic of technology, many virtual school platforms can also focus instruction on concepts that students have not yet mastered. Students of varying ability levels also benefit from differentiated lessons and individualized pacing.

Reduces costs. For school districts strapped for cash, utilizing virtual schools to expand class offerings makes sense. Districts can offer classes that would typically not draw enough interest from the student body to make hiring a full-time teacher worthwhile. If a district chooses the right virtual school provider, schools can offer a virtually limitless assortment of classes with limited cost.

Expands access to high quality education. This post has previously discussed the benefits that virtual schools provide for students seeking a wider variety of class options. Virtual schools may also be a good alternative for low-income students seeking a better education.

The Department of Education (DOE) has published a white paper explaining how virtual schools can provide a favorable alternative to underperforming traditional public schools. The white paper explains that since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, “local school districts are required to provide children enrolled in low-performing Title I schools—identified as not making ‘adequate yearly progress (AYP)’ for two or more consecutive years—the opportunity to attend an adequately performing public school while the original school is undergoing improvement.”

Virtual schools may fit the bill for districts that must provide an alternative school venue for students in low-performing schools. If a school implemented a virtual school alternative for underachieving schools’ students, those students wouldn’t necessarily need to have a computer at home. Instead, existing school district facilities could be outfitted to create an on-campus virtual school. If districts chose, students would still physically go to school everyday. The major difference from a traditional school would be that the actual teaching would be facilitated by off-campus instructors leading lessons on the students’ computer screens.

DOE listed the potential benefits of a virtual school option for underachieving schools: Enhanced communication among students and between students and teachers, accommodation of different learning styles, unlimited and flexible access to curriculum and instruction, frequent assessment, and increasing the supply of teachers.

Wrap-up

Of course, the benefits listed above are not exhaustive. And there are likely some drawbacks that are not discussed in this post. Overall, virtual schools have provided a new option for students and families when traditional schools cannot accommodate a child’s educational needs.

If you’re looking for more information on virtual schools, visit iNACOL’s website. If you’re in Texas, the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN) is the state clearinghouse for all online courses approved by the Texas Education Agency. They have a wealth of information, including an overview video of how virtual schooling in Texas works.

Alex Hunt

About Alex Hunt

Alex Hunt is a former Yale & Irene Rosenberg Graduate Fellow at the Center for Children, Law & Policy. Alex graduated from the University of Texas in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts in government. Before entering law school, he taught middle school math at YES Prep Southwest in Houston with Teach For America. In 2010, he received New Leaders' EPIC Spotlight Teacher Award, a national award for teachers with outstanding student growth. Alex graduated cum laude from the University of Houston Law Center in May 2013. During law school, Alex was Casenotes & Comments Editor for the Houston Journal of International Law, interned for both state and federal judges, and served as Vice President of the Health Law Organization (HLO). In addition, Alex has received the Irving J. Weiner Memorial Scholarship Award (for a year of outstanding work in the UH Law Center Legal Clinic), the Napoleon Beazley Defender Award (for outstanding work on behalf of children), the Ann Dinsmore Forman Memorial Child Advocacy Award, the Mont P. Hoyt Memorial Writing Award for an Outstanding Comment on a Topic in International Law, and he was a finalist for Texas Access to Justice's Law Student Pro Bono Award. Alex is currently in private family law practice with the Hunt Law Firm, P.L.L.C. in Katy, Texas.

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