Second in a series of posts looking at the rapidly evolving world of online education for school-age students. Click here for Part 1.
“The student of the future will truly be an explorer, a researcher, a huntsman who ranges through the new educational world of electric circuitry and heightened human interaction just as the tribal huntsman ranged the wilds. Children, even little children, working alone or in groups, will seek their own solutions to problems that perhaps have never been solved or even conceived as problems.”
McLuhan, M., & Leonard, G. B. (1967). “The future of education: The class of 1989.” Look magazine, February 21, pp. 23-24.
When McLuhan and Leonard wrote those words 46 years ago, they probably did not anticipate that school-age students of this century would first master that “new educational world” by playing games and exploring “heightened interaction” via social media. Aside from a handful of early educational programs like Oregon Trail, the first attempts to teach full courses online were mainly college-level classes. Many adult learners welcomed this, as it permitted flexibility and gave access to people not living near a campus. Online courses have been widely used by teachers for CEUs for over 30 years.
Some of the introductory college courses were made available to high school students who wanted to have “enriched” study or gain some college credits while still in school. When the demand for online courses soared for all ages, curricula were adjusted to suit the delivery and content management systems developed. The technology kept evolving, adding the ability to manage group work and discussion groups as well as individualized instruction.
Virtual high schools have proliferated all across the country in the last decade. They are not simply classes delivered via the Internet, but interactive courses that can be adapted to many learning styles. A student can attend an online high school from anywhere in the world, but many work with programs from their own state. Students can move through work at their own pace, have peer groups online, and have consistent interaction with their instructors. While various types of virtual schools exist, most integrate real-life experience with academics.
Types of Virtual Schools
Many virtual schools are online public charter schools, most often an extension of an existing school or school district. Some traditional schools offer their own programs—for a few courses or for the entire program. These virtual schools are largely funded through their districts. The cost to families using an online public charter school is minimal, with some schools even supplying computers. If the student is using the family computer, it may need to be updated or upgraded to support the latest technologies, but each school will have specs available. Often these schools work only with students in their own state, but there are national programs as well. Most of those have registered charter schools in each state they support, but the actual headquarters and teachers may be located in another state.
Online private virtual schools are also available. Just like their physical counterparts, private virtual schools are required to be accredited in the state they serve. They may seek accreditation in several states, just as online public charter schools do. They will have a tuition-based program, and the costs vary widely. These schools are often supported by a particular group, such as a religious-based organization or college. Most often, parents select an online private school for the same reasons that they choose a traditional private school: because it fits their values or lifestyle, because of smaller student-to-teacher ratios or more personal attention, or because it offers particular classes or support for their student.
When special equipment is needed for a course, like a microscope for biology, some programs have them available for loan, but many do not. When loaned, a deposit may be required. As you consider the school, be sure to ask about resources and fees.
Both public and private options may offer their courses strictly through their content management system, or they may be prepared to develop individual learning plans for each student. Many blend both of these features. As an advisor or parent of a student looking at virtual schools, asking to see demonstrations and examples of courses or custom learning plans is a good way to see what is right for your student.
For students with learning differences or specialized needs, many of the resources that states make available to all students are also available for students in virtual schools. Martin is an occupational therapist who works at a Florida school that has both traditional and online classes: “We have students who are dealing with spinal injuries, and we can use the state resources to outfit them with the right add-ons to their computers whether they attend classes or learn at home. If a family is not currently working with a social worker, they can find one through their home district to get this started.”
Selecting a Virtual High School
Is a virtual high school right for the student in your life? Consider the following questions: Is this student looking for a chance to move ahead at her own pace? Has this student struggled with the structure of classroom learning? Would the student learn faster without the distraction of a class full of peers, or does he thrive on having friends around? Are the classes that interest him unavailable at the local school?
When considering online schools, you will want to look at many of the same factors you would look at when considering a traditional school. Examine the school’s website closely, and have the student look, too. Most offer demonstrations or sample lessons for you to review, and some have videos of their programs being used. Some virtual schools cater to at-risk students and others support special interests and advanced studies. Talk to a representative and an actual teacher if possible. Be prepared to give some examples of your student’s school successes and struggles so you can discuss how these would be addressed by the program. If you are looking for a virtual program to meet a specific need or augment a classroom-based experience, ask how the program supports that need. Ask about the role the parent or guardian plays in their program.
Some lifestyle situations make virtual schools ideal. Dale is an Air Force pilot whose family has moved around the world as his career has transferred him. “My younger kids loved the base schools, but as they got into high school, the adjustments of moving showed stress in their studies. We opted for a national online high school, and our sons have had the same program move with them with every change. They still connect with other teens wherever we have lived, but the consistency of their coursework has been a stabilizing force.”
The Whole Package or Bits and Pieces?
Some virtual schools are package deals, but many allow students to choose only a handful of courses online. For many students, taking both classroom courses and online studies may be the best option. Check with your school advisors as well as the representative from the virtual school to see what is available and how the cost is determined.
Living in a mountainous area of Washington, far from a large city, Mike and Terese have opted to join a homeschool group in their region. They were thrilled to find a virtual public high school program that gives their high schooler access to advanced calculus and chemistry classes. “I was comfortable with our homeschool community’s resources for language arts, social studies, and history,” shares Mike, “but as my daughter’s interest in science flourished, I knew she needed some expert help.” They found a public charter program supported by a school in Seattle and added a smartphone to the learning room. “Using video chat lets her get the feedback and help she needs and also develop a classroom-type relationship with her teacher.” The entire family has been enjoying adding some chemistry lab work to their learning experience.
What About Social Needs?
Yes, the virtual school experience is different from the traditional classroom. “You can’t see the faces of your classmates as they start to dissect a frog, or smell the Bunsen burners,” says Donna, who teaches online science courses for a national program. “But today’s technology lets students work in groups and access their teachers easily.” She views it as a very reasonable trade-off, giving each student the chance for individualized learning.
As for the social side of school, families and programs take several approaches. A student virtually attending a public charter school that’s in his community is often able to participate in the same extracurricular activities as other students, even sports. When that option is not available, virtual schools can help parents build partnerships with local resources like youth groups or activity clubs. Families who live in remote areas are faced with these challenges whether they have students in a local, virtual, or homeschool program. Many have found planning volunteer events in their regions and participating in the planning of local events to be a great social resource. The bottom line is that students and their families will likely need to put in some extra work to make social connections, but it’s very doable.
Virtual high schools are certain to gain a stronger foothold in the education system. Expect to see some of their best features and content management systems start to show up in traditional classrooms as well. Every student faces different challenges and has different needs. When the neighborhood school is not a good match, an online opportunity might be. To find out more about virtual high schools available for your students, start with the resources suggested below.
Have you taught through a virtual high school? Do you help students connect with online learning opportunities? Are you the parent or guardian of a student who is going the virtual school route? Please share your experiences, we would love to hear your comments.
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Complete Guide to Online High Schools: Distance Learning Options for Teens & Adults by Thomas Dixon
Best Online Schools
Global Academy from the University of Miami, designed for students living abroad
Heppner’s Legacy Homeschool Resources has class resources but also has supporting items like microscopes available
And remember to check for programs in your own state, via search engines or your local school advisors and librarians.