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Virtual High Schools: Part 1

The Voices of Experience


Online education, particularly at the high school level, is a fast-growing trend in the United States. In "Virtual High Schools: Part 1," Education World examines four well-established virtual high school programs and offers guidelines for educators who are developing new programs. Part 2 will look at several new and distinctive virtual high schools and examine the concerns of some of the program's critics. Included: Tips for successfully launching a virtual high school program!

"It's probably an idea whose time has come," Richard Siddoway told Education World during a discussion of virtual high schools. He is in a position to know. Siddoway is principal of Electronic High School (EHS), the most recent addition to the Utah distance-education program.

Now in its third year, Electronic High School offers eight courses. Twenty more are under development. "By September 2001, we will have English 9-12, the entire social studies group, the math curriculum (pre-algebra through calculus), and the sciences" available on EHS, Siddoway told Education World. Plans call for the addition of music history and appreciation and art history and appreciation.

Funded by the state legislature, the courses are free to Utah residents; out-of-state residents pay $100 per semester per class.

Electronic High School has four large audiences, according to Siddoway:

  • students who have failed a class and need to make up credit
  • students who want to take a class they can't get at their local high school
  • students who want to earn extra credit and graduate early
  • home schoolers.

It appears that the addition of online courses has not pulled students away from the other forms of distance education available in Utah -- which include televised classes and EDNET, a two-way conferencing system that connects all Utah high schools. Enrollment in EHS at the beginning of the 2000-2001 school year was three times that of a year ago, Siddoway said, while enrollment in the other two distance education programs remained constant.

Tips for New Virtual High School Programs

Administrators at four virtual high schools share their expertise.

"Outsource your technology," Bruce Droste, director of the Concord Consortium's Virtual High School, advises virtual schools just starting out. He learned the hard way that maintaining servers is not a job for a virtual school program, Droste told Education World. Now, although the program is headquartered in Massachusetts, the high school resides on servers in Houston, Texas.

"You have to be willing to listen and to change quickly, to refocus direction," says Julie Young, of the Florida High School. Young advises new virtual high schools to start doing some type of external evaluation early on and to keep evaluating. "If you realize something's not working, change it," she says.

"Create courses that are extremely interactive and allow easy interaction among classmates and teachers," advises John Baker, of the Virtual High School, in Ontario, Canada. Baker also says that employing the right people, developing excellent content, and providing powerful communication tools are the keys to a successful program.

"Keep the quality high," Richard Siddoway, of Utah's Electronic High School, advises educators developing new virtual high school programs. "Our courses are equal to, or more rigorous than, courses in a normal high school."


Virtual High School (VHS), another established virtual education program, was funded by a Technology Challenge Grant awarded to the Hudson (Massachusetts) public schools by the U.S. Department of Education. The virtual high school program, which opened in the fall of 1997 with 28 participating schools, now serves more than 3,000 students from 150 schools in 30 states and five foreign countries.

In addition to the 150 academic courses offered, Virtual High School features a yearbook, a school newspaper, a student showcase, and a student and faculty lounge. The program has been "a tremendous resource for smaller, rural, remote schools," VHS director Bruce Droste told Education World. "Through participation in the program, those schools -- which can have as few as 100 students -- have been able to add 150 good-quality courses to their catalog," Droste said.

Each school that participates in VHS supplies a teacher, who receives extensive training from the Concord Consortium, the high school collaborative that runs the program. Each teacher, who earns 12 graduate credits for completing the training, then creates and delivers one online class. For every teacher who participates, the school earns 20 student seats in VHS virtual classrooms. Each participating school also provides a site coordinator to handle technical problems and to supervise its own students.

"People get focused on the technology aspect," Droste said, "but this is education. This is hard work. The teachers make it happen."


In 1996, the Orange County (Florida) public schools started an experimental Web school featuring three teachers who offered five courses. At about the same time, Florida's Alachua County also proposed a statewide online school. The Florida High School (FHS), begun in August 1997 as a joint project of the two school systems, currently has 5,000 class enrollments and serves about 3,800 students. That's double the enrollment of just a year ago, according to Julie E. Young, FHS principal.

The flexibility of a program such as FHS, Young told Education World, can appeal to a wide variety of students, including gifted students, students who have learning disabilities, students who have failed a class, professional athletes, and private school students. Young estimates that about 25 percent of current FHS students are home-schooled.

This year, the Florida legislature passed new legislation making FHS a state project. Run by a seven-member board appointed by the governor, the program is currently funded by the legislature, but the board is exploring other sources for future funding. "One of the challenges of distance learning is creating an appropriate funding model," Young said. "It's hard to determine what it really costs."

THE VIRTUAL HIGH SCHOOL, ONTARIO, CANADA, of Ontario, Canada, began offering online courses in 1996. John Baker, president and CEO of, the engineers behind the privately funded project, says the program hopes to enroll 1,000 students by the end of this year. "[We] are establishing partnerships with school boards and districts throughout North America and around the world," Baker said.

"We are very focused on meeting the needs of all types of students," Baker told Education World. He explained that a virtual high school program is appropriate for home-based learners, students wishing to take courses not offered in their regular schools, students looking for an alternative to summer school, "and those who are interested in learning online at a pace comfortable for them."

School districts or states that have an established partnership with usually pay the cost of a student's classes, Baker noted. Students not affiliated with an established partner pay their own fees.


All the experts agreed, however, that virtual high school is not for everyone. "Students have to be self-motivated to learn to succeed in online classes," Baker said.

"This type of education," Droste added, "requires a conscientious student because it puts the responsibility for learning on the shoulders of the student." Droste also pointed out that a virtual classroom is more democratic than a traditional classroom. "The kid who dominates a class from the front row is less happy here," he told Education World.

Young told Education World that a student who doesn't like school for reasons that have to do with learning -- a student who has a severe disability that hinders reading, for example -- is usually not a good candidate for online education. She also noted that a student who is placed in an online classroom without wanting to be there will probably fail. "In an online classroom, the student has to engage," Young explained.

Baker agreed. Students with no desire to learn, he told Education World, "are going to struggle in an online environment because they will not be able to passively participate." Virtual school students, he explained, "need to take an active role in their education, which is something that is also increasingly important in the knowledge economy and for success throughout a career."

Droste noted that students who drop a class in school and think an online course will be an easy way to make up the lost credit probably won't do well with virtual education either.

Young agreed. Students who take a full class load at a traditional school and participate in lots of extra-curricular activities may think an online class is an easy way to pick up extra credits. Such students may be overwhelmed, she told Education World. "It's not true that an online class is easier and will take less time," Young said.


The prime candidate for virtual education, Young told Education World, is a student who enjoys learning, who likes to figure things out, and who enjoys independence and reading. This person need not be a star student, Young added. Someone who learns at a slower-than-average pace can also succeed in virtual classes.

Students who feel different or atypical in some way can also benefit from online classes. "In Virtual High School, nobody stutters, nobody has acne, nobody is overweight," Droste told Education World. "For the first time, students can go to school with no barriers."

Droste noted that VHS has been a wonderful resource for a participating deaf school. He also recounted the remarks of a girl in a wheelchair who had been a poor to mediocre student until earning a B in her first online course. When the site supervisor asked why she had done so much better than usual in the online course, the student replied, "That's easy. This was the first time nobody was staring at me."

Students who need scheduling flexibility can also benefit from online classes because they can complete their work at times convenient for them. "The open-entry, open-exit model appeals to kids," Siddoway told Education World. "Open-entry, open-exit" means that a student can start a course whenever he or she chooses and take as long as necessary to complete it. Students can complete 20 hours of course work, for example, by working one hour a day for 20 days, two hours a day for 10 days, or even four hours a day for five days. There is no penalty for a student who takes 30 hours to complete the same amount of work another student finishes in 20 hours."

To illustrate the benefit of the open-entry, open-exit model, Siddoway cited the example of a high school senior who needed to complete a state-mandated health class in order to graduate. This student was also involved in the school musical, which rehearsed during the same period as the health class. She enrolled in the health class through EHS and finished the semester course quickly by working on it for 75 hours over the winter holiday break.


Critics of virtual high schools say that these programs don't allow for socialization. Young disagrees. "Socialization takes place online," she told Education World, adding that teachers and students both say they know one another better in their online classes. Droste agreed. "Students say that they know their VHS teacher better than any other teacher in their building. And teachers say they know their virtual students better than their face-to-face students," he told Education World.

When asked whether the administration of a virtual high school has yielded any other surprises, Young said that teachers in her program initially thought that communication by e-mail would suffice. They've found, she says, that "a phone relationship makes a big difference in success." Young added, "Parents are our partners. Teachers speak to them [on the telephone] at least once a month." Teachers also send lots of e-mail messages to both parents and students, Young said.

Siddoway told Education World that a major surprise to him has been how quickly the program has grown. Enrollment in EHS for the fall of 2000 is three times that of a year ago, he said, and the program has had to open additional sections of many of its courses.

Another surprise to Siddoway has been the variety of students taking the classes. He told of telephoning a student who had completed a human biology class but had not indicated a school where his credit should be reported. The man who answered the telephone told Siddoway, "I retired at 65 from a health-related industry. I'm 81 now, and I wanted to catch up with developments in the field." At the other end of the age spectrum was the fifth grader who had exhausted all the math courses available at his elementary school. He was able to take geometry through EHS. Those examples show how virtual learning can be individualized to meet a student's particular needs, Siddoway pointed out.

On the negative side, Siddoway told Education World, because the EHS program lacks a completely effective way of maintaining class rolls, a few students might have been lost in cyberspace. He added, however, that this is a software problem that the staff is working to correct.

"Often people ask me when online schools will replace bricks-and-mortar schools," Young told Education World. "They won't ever replace them, but they will complement them. Virtual schools provide one more opportunity for public education to meet the needs of students. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition."


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