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Virtual High Schools: Part 2
New Programs Meet New Needs

Technology in the Classroom CenterOnline education, particularly at the high school level, is a fast-growing trend in the United States. In Virtual High Schools: Part 1, Education World examined four well-established virtual high school programs and offered guidelines for educators who are developing new programs. Today, in Part 2, Education World writer Mary Daniels Brown looks at several new and distinctive virtual high schools and examines the concerns of some of those programs' critics. Included: A close-up look at six new virtual schools!

All across the United States, school districts, state universities, and for-profit companies are developing virtual high schools to fill a variety of needs. Visit six of those schools and see how the experts feel about this use of technology in education.


The University of Missouri-Columbia High School (MU High School), which developed as an arm of the university's distance education program, began offering a complete high school diploma program in the fall of 1999. "We've had online courses for about three years now and offer approximately 20 courses that are entirely online," Kristi Smalley, MU assistant principal, told Education World.

MU High School now has 203 students enrolled in 991 classes in its diploma program, Smalley said. Of those 991, only 48 have withdrawn or transferred into other study programs. "That's a [dropout] rate of less than 4.8 percent, which is very good, especially for independent study coursework," Smalley told Education World.

"We serve a variety of students for a variety of reasons," Smalley said. "We especially wish to serve older students who, for whatever reason, dropped out of high school and now would like to complete their high school diplomas.

"We have also found that our diploma program has sparked the interest of charter schools, home-schooled students interested in earning an accredited diploma, and military and missionary families living outside the United States," Smalley told Education World. Children whose families travel around the country (or even around the world!), athletes and entertainers whose lifestyles do not fit into the traditional high school mode, and students who are homebound for medical reasons also benefit from online learning.

"Independent study," Smalley added, "is the perfect option for these students, allowing them to learn at any time from any place."

In spite of the size of the diploma-granting program, Smalley said, most of the students enrolled at MU attend traditional high schools and take an online course or two to supplement the curriculum. The students then apply the credits toward diplomas awarded by their own schools.

"The reasons these traditional high school students accept our courses are varied," Smalley explained to Education World. "Some students need a course to graduate or want to graduate early. Others have a scheduling problem at their home school or want to pursue an interest in a particular topic. Still others attend small schools that do not have a certified staff member to teach a particular subject," she said.

Teachers certified by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Smalley said, develop all MU High School courses. "We have instructional designers on staff who are able to orient, guide, and assist our teachers as they develop online courses," she added.

The program is self-supporting, funded entirely by payment of student fees, Smalley noted. "In most cases, a student's family pays tuition fees," she said. "If a school is not able to offer a particular subject because there is no teacher, the school district usually pays the fees."


The state of Illinois began discussions about a statewide virtual high school in July 1999, and the grand opening of the Illinois Virtual High School (IVHS) is scheduled for January 1, 2001.

"We are attempting to be all-inclusive -- to offer opportunities to all types of students," said Deborah Hutti, Illinois Virtual High School Consortium co-chair. Those opportunities will include advanced placement, dual credit, curriculum enhancement, remedial education, and curriculum enrichment courses. "Our greatest concern," Hutti told Education World, "is that we provide opportunities for all secondary school learners, not just a segment of the secondary school population.

"Educators for the IVHS will be Illinois-certified secondary school teachers selected from a pool of educators who have indicated interest in the project over the past year," Hutti added.

IVHS currently receives financial support from the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Board of Higher Education. For future funding, Hutti said, "We have looked at all types of models, including the state, the student, the school district, and the bartering method. What we do know is that there must be some type of balance between open availability and fiscal responsibility. All students must be able to participate regardless of socio-economic status."


The Alabama On-Line High School (AOHS) grew out of an effort to save the state's many small rural schools from consolidation, according to Jim Wrye, program manager with the Program for Rural Services and Research at the University of Alabama. The K-12 schools, which typically have between 30 and 50 students per grade, had been closing, which "is not good for these small communities," Wrye said.

To remain open, the schools needed a way to provide all the courses the state requires for a diploma. "Scheduling and finding teachers was difficult for the rural schools," Wrye told Education World, "and teachers often had to travel from school to school. Because a teacher is able to teach in several schools over the Web, AOHS provides a way to share teachers among schools."

Development of AOHS began two years ago, when some students in the smallest schools in Alabama took courses from the Concord Consortium Virtual High School to see whether Web-based learning worked. The experiment was successful, Wrye told Education World. "The students did very well, and we learned how kids learn online."

Because of the VHS experiment, the developers of AOHS also learned what kind of guidance kids need to succeed with virtual education. "This is a huge issue," Wry said. AOHS requires every participating school to have a site coordinator who is in daily contact with the teacher of the online courses. The coordinator knows what the day's lesson plan includes and supervises the students as they work on the lesson.

AOHS piloted its first class in the 1999-2000 school year, when 40 students enrolled in a grade-12 environmental science course about Alabama watersheds. The program, which has since received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Services, is now offering Spanish I and Math in Society (a 12th-grade course), reworking the environmental science class, and developing tenth and 11th grade English classes, Wrye said.

The Alabama department of education will review all AOHS courses for content, Wrye told Education World. "The state will own the course. We won't be paying a vendor," Wrye said. "We'll own it and be able to improve on it."

Wrye explained that AOHS has changed the way students and teachers view computers. "The computer becomes a resource, not a bell and whistle," he said.

"Our need," Wrye continued, "is good quality instruction and access. We look at technology to fulfill that need. You have to establish the need first, or you're throwing money and opportunity away on technology. Need should drive the purchase."


According to the U.S. Charter Schools Organization, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, charter schools are "nonsectarian public schools of choice that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. ... Charter schools are accountable to their sponsors -- usually state or local school boards -- to produce positive academic results and adhere to the charter contract. The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for this accountability."


The Basehor-Linwood Virtual Charter School (VCS) in Kansas was created when state education officials wondered what kind of school would operate if granted a charter through the state of Kansas, according to VCS director Brenda DeGroot. The state had also been installing technology in its schools, and administrators wanted to integrate that technology into the charter effort.

Now in its third year, enrollment in the K-12 school has grown quickly -- from 63 the first year to 302 the second year and 368 this year. The school initially targeted at-risk students but soon realized the program could connect with a large number of home-school students as well. This year, DeGroot estimated, 75 percent of VCS students are home schooled. The remainder are at-risk students, such as students who are homebound for medical reasons, pregnant girls, and students who have been expelled from traditional schools.

VCS is very conscious of accountability, DeGroot noted, and students take assessment tests once a year at proctored locations.

Gifted students have done well in VCS, DeGroot said. She cited the example of one home-schooling mother who said she used to have to spend a lot of time and money preparing her son's lessons. For the past two years, however, the boy, a straight-A student, has pursued VCS coursework on his own.

Students who have not been successful at VCS, DeGroot added, are those who had dropped out and thought the online school would be easy. To succeed with virtual education, DeGroot said, students "must be self-motivated and driven to accomplish daily goals.

"Part of our charter was to allow traditional school to step outside the box," DeGroot told Education World. "In the next year, our task is to share what we've been doing with others, both in Kansas and nationally."

DeGroot told Education World that people sometimes ask her whether virtual education is the wave of the future. She says it is, but it won't replace traditional public education. "This is a new, good alternative," she said, "another choice we should make available."

"[As a student] I would not have liked virtual school," DeGroot said, "but for some students, going to school is their worst nightmare. Virtual school is a good alternative for those students."


Choice 2000, an online charter school serving five southern California counties, was founded in 1995. Changes in state education laws recently caused upheaval and mass resignations at the school. Dr. Daniel S. King, a retired assistant superintendent with the San Bernardino City Unified School District, reorganized the school.

The major change the school made under King's direction was in the method of instructional delivery. Most Web-based schools deliver asynchronous education, which means that students are not necessarily logged on to the virtual classroom at the same time. Under the asynchronous model, students log in at will and see work that the teacher and other students have already posted.

Choice 2000 has gone "to full synchronous teaching that utilizes full direct audio between teacher and student," King told Education World. Under this delivery method, students must log in at set times for particular classes. "The real strength of this delivery system is that it can be totally focused on instruction," King said. "Our ability to have a vocal interaction between teacher and student really heightens this."

Classes cover a semester's worth of work in nine weeks, King explained. Enrollment closes after the first two weeks of each session, then reopens at the beginning of the next nine-week session. Choice 2000 currently has 188 students enrolled and a waiting list of 30.

California funds Choice 2000 based on average daily attendance, "the same as all other public schools in the state," King said. Classes are free to students who live within the school's five-county service area; other California residents are not allowed to enroll, King said. Students outside California pay tuition to attend.

"We have kept growth down, ensuring that we have the instructional base to support a quality program," King told Education World. He advises new virtual high school programs to resist the temptation to grow too quickly. "Go slow, be sure you have a quality curriculum and teachers to meet your needs as you grow," King said.

Like the other experts Education World consulted, King emphasized that virtual education is not right for every student. "This is a difficult learning environment," he said. "It takes a disciplined, focused student to take full advantage of the offerings."


Daniel Jenkins Academy of Technology (DJAT), a choice school run by Florida's Polk County Public Schools, opened in August 2000. High school students at DJAT go to the school building daily, but they do their work completely online.

The combination of virtual education with bricks-and-mortar-school attendance came about because of space restrictions, DJAT principal Sue Braiman told Education World. A middle school and a high school both occupy a renovated middle school that lacks the space necessary for a full middle school and high school program. The building does, however, have enough room for a middle school and a computer lab. So every high school student at DJAT sits at a lab computer and takes classes through Florida High School (FHS), the statewide virtual secondary program. Several times a day, buses shuttle students between DJAT and a nearby high school, where the students can take elective courses. The DJAT middle school follows a traditional classroom format but with an emphasis on technology.

The DJAT high school has two faculty members for about 40 students, Braiman said. The faculty members help students with time management, deal with technology issues, and act as a liaison with FHS.

"The most striking thing about this system," Braiman told Education World, "is that kids take ownership of their learning. They have more say about their learning than kids in a regular classroom do."

Braiman also said that students aren't used to the amount of teacher feedback that the rigorous FHS curriculum provides. "Some have trouble accepting this," she said. "There's no way to have an excuse in this program."

Education World talked to Braiman about six weeks after the start of the school year. By that time, she said, the students were taking more responsibility for completing their work and managing their time. "The risk was well worth taking," Braiman told Education World. "We're learning a lot about learning. [Virtual learning] is not for everybody, but most of the students are finding success and loving it."


The growth of virtual learning isn't without its critics, however. "There has been an over-reliance on technology to solve a host of problems our schools are facing," William L. Rukeyser, coordinator of Learning in the Real World, told Education World. "Virtual high schools take this to the max." Rukeyser's organization, headquartered in Woodland, California, analyzes the impact of technology on K-12 education.

Rukeyser explained that he is not as concerned about the use of technology on the high school level as he is about computer use in earlier grades. He distinguished between an occasional virtual course or two to supplement a high school curriculum and a completely virtual high school program.

"Correspondence schools have a long history in America," Rukeyser said, noting that those schools have served a purpose for people who live in remote areas or have scheduling problems or physical limitations that prevent them from attending a traditional school. He described the change to "an electronic means rather than the pen-and-paper means" of delivering such courses as a growth in the industry of correspondence schools.

"There is a lot to be said for the judicious use of technology to deliver learning that can't be delivered face-to-face in schools," Rukeyser continued. He cited the example of small high schools that can't support a variety of language and advanced math and science courses. "Properly organized in existing high schools, this may be one of the most valuable uses of technology in education," he said.

In the replacement of traditional classrooms with computers, however, Rukeyser said he sees "an indication of quasi-religious faith in technology that should be subjected to healthy skepticism.

"There is non-verbal communication that goes on all the time in a regular classroom, as teachers present material and students react," Rukeyser explained. "Even two-way video communication doesn't get that kind of subtlety of non-verbal communication. Students need the socialization of actively operating in genuine reality, not virtual reality."

Rukeyser also pointed out that technology can put a huge financial burden on taxpayers. "This equipment becomes obsolete much more quickly than schools are used to," he said. "Even if the original equipment is obtained with federal or grant funding, the cost of the professionals needed to supervise the equipment and the students falls to the local school."

When analyzing the benefit of technology for education, Rukeyser believes, it's necessary to ask two questions: Is it effective? Is it cost-efficient? "Because of the novelty of technology, there's lots of gee-whiz enthusiasm," Rukeyser noted, "but educators need to gather and analyze data to be able to make rational public policy decisions about how to prudently use technology where it provides added value."


The National Education Association (NEA) has no official position on virtual high schools, Barbara Stein, senior policy analyst for education technology with the NEA, told Education World, although the organization has compiled a distance education quality checklist for the development of such courses. "Our greatest concern," Stein said, "is to ensure the quality of teaching and learning."

Stein noted that although many NEA members enjoy online instruction, they say that it is labor intensive, requiring a low student-faculty ratio, a lot of preparation, and the presence of an instructor at the remote site to monitor or mentor the student. "Just putting a lesson plan online isn't virtual education," Stein said. "[Virtual education] is like teaching one-on-one. As more and more virtual courses develop, we'll keep learning what does and doesn't work."


Mary Daniels Brown
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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