More High Schools Go Virtual

By: edited by Marguerite Jordan Email
By: edited by Marguerite Jordan Email

May 1

When high school student Courtney Wilson was out of school for a month after contracting mononucleosis, she found it nearly impossible to keep up with the schoolwork. Subsequent health issues prevented her from returning to high school full-time. Home schooled by default, Wilson missed the social environment of her high school. On line learning at Michigan Virtual School, however, provided a portable school for her. She's currently taking two courses on line--astronomy and journalism--and attending Ferndale High School part-time.

Although her social life at high school has been reduced, Wilson's generally positive about the changes in her schooling. "Education is like a sport," she says, noting that the on line courses have taught her willpower. "You have to give it your all and when you fall, just get back up and try again."

Last April, Wilson's home state, Michigan, became the first in the nation to require high school students to complete one on line learning course in order to graduate.

"To compete in the global economy, students need 21st century skills," says Dan Schultz, senior development and policy adviser for Michigan Virtual University, whose virtual--or on line--high school offers more than 100 courses ranging from Business Ethics to Global Issues. "Other states are looking at Michigan's on line learning requirement as part of their own strategies."
Some doubt virtual schools
Supplemental e-learning environments at the high school level are increasing in popularity, with more than twenty states offering some funding for virtual high schools. Within the next decade, every U.S. state and most U.S. schools will offer some form of K-12 on line learning, according to the U.S. Department of Education's 2004 National Educational Technology Plan.

Though home schooled students have used virtual schools for years, a growing number of traditional students are taking one or more courses on line while attending a brick-and-mortar high school. These students attend regular classes at their high schools, but also participate in on line classes through a virtual school.

Some students are seeking extra assistance through the on line programs, while others take advanced courses and electives that are not offered at their local high schools. The range of subjects available through virtual schools allows students to find courses that more closely match their interests, says Susan Lowes, director of research and evaluation at the Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Not all educators feel that on line learning is the best answer, however.

"Virtual schools are no substitute for good public schools," says Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers. "They're not a solution for the improvement of education."
Worldwide classroom
Despite opposition from some educators, virtual high schools continue to experience increases in enrollment. Virtual High School (VHS), a nonprofit organization that has been offering credit-bearing high school courses to students since 1996, currently has more than 10,000 students enrolled through its more than 450 member institutions around the world.

"We offer the ability for schools to have a very extensive course catalog," says Liz Pape, VHS's president and CEO. Among VHS's curricula: Java programming, screenwriting fundamentals, and Mandarin. Advanced placement (AP) courses are also popular, since many rural high schools lack qualified teachers in subjects such as physics, languages or advanced math, says Pape.

The full-semester courses are completed in a computer lab during regular class periods, but students also have the option of working on weekly assignments from home. Each Virtual High School class is capped at 25 students, who are required to complete weekly homework assignments, participate in on line discussions, and work on team projects.

VHS students sit in the virtual classroom with peers from around the world. The give and take between students of different nationalities teaches them unexpected lessons (kids in Dubai, some American students learned, ski indoors in a refrigerator-like building).

"If you're a kid from Massachusetts or California, taking a course about the Holocaust with kids from France, Germany, and Capetown, South Africa, there are going to be very interesting views about the Holocaust," says Pape.

At Florida Virtual School (FVS), enrollment has increased dramatically to 30,000 middle and high school students--up from a little less than 5,000 students in the 2001-02 academic year.

"Students of today are not the typical student of yesterday; often they are highly involved in careers or precareers--whether they're athletes or entertainers," says Pam Birtolo, chief learning officer for FVS, the country's first statewide Internet-based public high school. FVS offers classes that range from the General Equivalency Diploma (GED) to life management skills to ten advanced placement courses. Teachers keep in touch with students and parents via e-mail and the phone.

"Learning is highly individualized," Birtolo says.

Moving up to on line higher-ed
Though researchers have yet to study the link between on line secondary education and on line post-secondary institutions, some students who have completed on line courses while in high school say they were more likely to try out an on line college course or virtual degree program.

One such student, Olga Semoukhina, is now a sophomore at Pace University in New York. The former Virtual High School student is taking an advanced English course on line while pursuing a marketing internship and teaching figure skating on the weekends. The on line course is going well, she says, and it's helped further improve her writing skills and discipline.

"Since I had such a good experience in high school, I figured I'd give it a try in college," she says.

In high school, Semoukhina moved from Queens, New York, to Marlborough, Massachusetts, and had a hard time adjusting to classes in what she considered "Small Town USA." Classmates poked fun at her Russian accent and often excluded her.

"Everyone knew each other since they were five years old," she says. "I was an outsider."

Taking on line classes through Virtual High School helped ease Semoukhina's transition. She enrolled in classes such as Learning about the Stock Market, business law, and AP English, which weren't offered at her high school.

"It gave me more time to spend on schoolwork because I wasn't going out as much," says the 19-year-old. "Basically everything is now on the Web," she says. "You need to know your way around."

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