Learning without limits

Zach Bonner is a smart kid, but he’s a bit confused to hear that some adults still assume students in online schools are somehow worse off and spend all day chained to a computer, never learning to socialize in the real world.

Though he may be a full-time Florida fifth-grader whose classwork is completed in his family’s Valrico kitchen, less than a quarter of his time is spent in front of a computer screen. More often Zach is doing science experiments, taking field trips, bike-riding with friends from his neighborhood, reading White Fang, playing tennis–on real courts, not on a Wii–and running the Little Red Wagon Foundation, a nonprofit he founded at age 8.

He’s been enrolled in the Florida Virtual Academy, a school that uses curriculum from online-learning provider K12 Inc., since kindergarten, and every year he gets fewer questions and quizzical looks from grown-ups who don’t get how it works. Kids, he says, have never treated him differently for going to an online school.

"People ask me a lot about my school; they’re usually very interested. So I explain it to them," says Zach, now 11. "But a lot of them seem to understand now."

Says Laurie Bonner, his mother: "Online schooling is a lot more acceptable now than it was 10 years ago."

Where once virtual schooling for grades K through 12 was unusual–and perhaps only the domain of disabled children, home-schooled students, young movie stars, and school-age Olympic athletes in training–now thousands of brick-and-mortar schools in the U.S. are using online learning to augment their curriculum, aid in credit recovery, and give students the opportunity to move at their own pace.  Full-time virtual schools are gaining steam, too; about 44 states offer such programs through their public education systems.  (See "Report: Online learning a ‘lifeline’ for rural schools.")  

"The acceptance has grown," says Susan Patrick, president and chief executive of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). "More and more parents and students are aware that we live in the internet age, and they want access to educational opportunities, whether they’re offered over the internet or not."

Some of the online-learning programs in the U.S. are state-led; others are charter schools. Some take place on school-supplied computers in the home and require a parent to be present; others are conducted in brick-and-mortar school computer labs.  Most are administered by outside providers, such as K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, that tailor their course offerings and approach to the needs of a school district; other programs are looking to offer online classes a la carte.

Across the board, course registrations have grown more than 50 percent since 2007. But challenges persist.

Some states and school systems continue to grapple with outdated "seat-time" requirements, funding hurdles, teacher licensing reciprocity, and accountability concerns. Programs in Colorado, Idaho, and Kansas have come under scrutiny, facing questioned about quality and oversight. And many parents, educators, administrators, and legislators–schooled the traditional way over the last four or so decades–remain unsure that virtual education will give children the academic and social skills needed to survive and thrive in the real world.

"There are so many elements of education policy and funding that don’t take into account online learning," says John Watson, founder of Evergreen Consulting Associates, a leading researcher on the topic of virtual schooling. "A lot of people still don’t understand what online learning is. But that’s changing."

The way Patrick would begin to address the lingering confusion is by explaining what online learning is not: It’s not about sitting in front of a computer all day, staring at static documents and filling out minimally interactive multiple-choice quizzes. It’s not about watching a lecture on video. And it’s not about taking traditional teaching methods and somehow putting them on a computer.

"What we’re talking about is interaction with the teacher and peers, and group work and collaboration, and making education more engaging," Patrick says.

A chemistry class, for example, would involve intricate experiments conducted with school-issued lab equipment, sent to the home. A student might play a maze game as a way to understand Cartesian coordinates or make a model of the ocean floor using a baking pan, clay, and water. An algebra student could move ahead during a lesson or linger on a particularly difficult math problem as needed. For physical education, the student could go to a local gym and keep track of his heart rate while he goes through a set number of pushups, squats, and biceps curls. A Portuguese language class would likely include students from Portugal, working with U.S. students on group projects coordinated through web-based discussion boards and chats.

In most cases, the student also is participating in team sports, volunteer work, field trips, and other in-person social activity. Still, it’s true that a good portion of the actual communication in virtual schooling does take place via computer and not face-to-face. But advocates of online education say this is a plus–it prepares students for a world where life is not structured in class periods and adults increasingly communicate electronically, work remotely, and meet virtually.

"When you get out into real life, you can’t just walk into a volleyball gym and play for an hour, and leave when the bell rings. You have to figure out a routine and get it to fit into your schedule," Patrick says. "Online learning teaches the students how to do that."

Download the report as it appeared in eSchool News as s PDF.

Today’s tech-savvy student can toggle between the virtual world and the real world with ease, says Watson: "Whether parents like it or not, kids do a lot of socializing online. But they can balance that with face-to-face communication. Students don’t see the divide there, the way that some parents do."

Laurie Bonner believes her son is actually getting more in-person socialization as an online student than he would if he’d enrolled in a traditional school.

"In a brick-and-mortar school, there are so many more restrictions on their time," she says. "When I went to school, we got three recess periods a day. Now, some schools only give them 30 minutes. Zach can work at his own pace and build in time to go outside, do Cub Scouts, activities at the Y, and go camping."

Zach Bonner fits the profile of one kind of online student: the gifted achiever whose pace of learning exceeds that of many of his peers, and who would be bored and might stagnate in a traditional class setting. Virtual schooling also works for slower learners, kids in need of credit recovery, and students with medical and emotional issues. A child with severe diabetes, for example, might struggle to manage his blood-sugar levels in a traditional classroom. He might need to eat snacks in class when other children aren’t allowed to, or leave class at inconvenient intervals to give himself injections. Online learning also works for children who have been mercilessly bullied and whose fear keeps them from focusing on their studies.

Addressing the needs of all these different kinds of students and tailoring a teaching approach for each would be incredibly difficult in a traditional school, where budgets are repeatedly slashed and teachers are overworked and underpaid. Online schooling is a cost-effective alternative, Patrick says. There’s less overhead, so the per-child cost or special state appropriation is smaller than with brick-and-mortar schooling. "It’s a way for using money more efficiently in school districts during tight times," she says.

Funding, however, is one of the biggest obstacles to the growth of online education. A survey of program administrators found that 66 percent of those who would like to see faster growth cite lack of funding as the main hindrance. Connecticut and Delaware, for example, established state-led online programs in 2007-08, but because of budget cuts, they didn’t grow, according to Evergreen’s Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: A Review of State-Level Policy and Practice.

Idaho Digital Learning Academy (IDLA), on the other hand, saw its annual appropriation rise from $450,000 in 2003-04 to $1.1 million in 2006-07 and saw its enrollments grow at an "extraordinarily fast rate." For the 2007-08 school year, IDLA was given $3.2 million and had 6,619 enrollments.

Many states limit funding to a "usual course load," according to the Keeping Pace report, though some make more funding available for accelerated students. Kansas and Colorado, for example, have established a standard level of funding for all online students, regardless of where the student lives and where the online school is situated.

"State budgets are tight, and it’s always a challenge to do more with less," says Kim Ross, superintendent of Houston Schools in Minnesota, a 450-student district that started an online program in 2002 and now has 1,650 students enrolled from all over the state. (Two of the largest programs are the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, with 7,798 students, and the Ohio Virtual Academy, with 5,225 students. Nearly two-thirds of online programs have fewer than 1,000 students.)

The variety in size, budget, and approach owes in large part to the state legislatures and what rules and regulations they require for supplemental and full-time online learning programs.

Florida passed a law requiring its school districts to provide online learning opportunities, with the goal of offering full-time virtual education to students in grades K-8 who want to take advantage of it by the 2009-10 school year, according to Keeping Pace. Michigan in 2006 was the first state to mandate an online learning experience before graduation; Alabama followed with its own online learning requirement. Hawaii and Wyoming have established task forces to research options, and South Carolina recently opened its first online charter schools. New Jersey initially instituted an online-education requirement but backed away, owing to cost concerns, in favor of making virtual classes available but optional.

"In the state of California, they only fund 240 minutes of instruction. Divide 240 minutes by a 50-minute period, and you’re only talking about 4.8 classes a day–you’ve already filled up the school day," Patrick says. "So if a student wants to take a sixth period, California doesn’t have a way to pay for it."

The current legislative session is still young, so it’s possible some states will make more moves to encourage, expand, and fund online education. "A number of states are looking at options; there’s a lot of activity out there," Watson says. "There’s really good evidence from many of the states that have extensive online learning opportunities that online learning works. Online learning certainly isn’t for everybody; it’s a matter of making it an option."

Expediting that process are companies like K12, which was founded in 1999 and has grown by 50 percent every year. It now serves more than 55,000 students in 21 states.

In the earlier days, K12 met some resistance from school districts that saw the company as a competitor for their students. Now, according to founder and chief executive officer Ron Packard, the schools are coming to view K12 as a partner in helping to deliver online instruction and meet the needs of kids who aren’t finding the right fit in the traditional school setting.

And while it has taken some time to sway school administrators in this direction, resistance from teachers has been scattered and short-lived.

When Ross’ program–a partnership with K12–started up in Minnesota, the teachers’ union filed suit against the state education department in an effort to decertify the online school. Since then, though, the teachers in the district have come to see the online school as a good complement to the brick-and-mortar system.

Overall, K12 hasn’t felt much resistance from teachers, Packard says. The company now employs 1,600 educators. "We’ve been flooded with teachers who want to teach with us," he says. "They’ve seemed really ready to embrace this. It’s younger teachers, but also retired teachers."

The same benefits that students derive from online learning–such as a more flexible schedule, and the chance to delve more deeply into topics of particular interest–also apply to teachers, he explains.

Allison J. Dracha became a virtual teacher in August 2003, and though she often teaches from her home, she still sees similarities between the traditional learning environment and virtual schooling. 

"We are a public school and are held to the same mandates by our state’s department of education as the brick-and-mortar schools," says Dracha, who teaches elementary and middle school science and mathematics for Agora Cyber Charter School in Pennsylvania. "And I feel just as, or more, connected to the students, because I take the time to get to know who the child is. I often ask them why they chose our school; this helps me understand who they are and the path they took to get here.  Many parents have told me they know more about me than any other teacher their child had in a brick-and-mortar school."

Debbie Wotring became involved in online education when she enrolled her own children in K12’s program at the Ohio Virtual Academy. She is now a lead teacher there, overseeing 12 teachers and 28 students.

"In any one grade level or class, you will have many different levels of abilities. In an online environment, each student is able to work at their own pace and at their own level within set guidelines," she says. "In an online environment, students are able to select the way in which they would like to learn a concept. They may decide to write a speech, create a poster, or take a written assessment to show that they have mastered a concept."

Like Dracha and Wotring, all of K12’s teachers are certified to teach in their individual states. At this point, most programs are not open to students across state lines–though this can vary on a case-by-case basis, because the decision is generally up to the specific school district.

"In most cases, when students take an online course from a state virtual school, the local and physical school is granting the credit," Watson says. "The national Virtual High School works this way as well, with local schools granting the credit."

He adds: "Most of the national organizations and companies are working through organizations at the state or district level to grant credit, and in most cases to secure funding. There are a couple of national online schools, but they are private and tuition-based, so their student numbers are low, at least so far."

The credits do, however, typically transfer if a student moves to a new district. And they are being recognized by colleges. Institutions of higher education–which were the first to try out and embrace online learning–don’t view online high schoolers as weaker candidates, says Mickey Revenaugh, who co-founded virtual-schooling company Connections Academy in 2002.

"There may have been a point 10 years ago that a college might look askance at a diploma from a charter school, but that’s all gone by the wayside. Charter schools are now just as recognized as private schools. The same thing is true of the virtual-school experience," she says. "What we’re hearing from colleges is that our students are better suited to online learning at colleges and that they’ve developed good time management and self direction through online learning."

Zach Bonner, for one, believes his online schooling is preparing him well for the future. It’s given him time to work on his foundation and plan a 625-mile charity walk from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the plight of homeless kids. He collected 27 truckloads of sundry items for people left homeless after Hurricane Katrina and won the Alexandra Scott Butterfly Award in 2008, given to "an exceptional child hero." He’s met Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and been featured on Good Morning America.

He wants to go to Harvard University and eventually become a prosecuting attorney, and he doesn’t worry at all that his online schooling will somehow stand in the way. He expects that more and more kids will join schools like his–and adults will become more and more comfortable with the idea, too.

"I have lots of flexibility," Zach says. "I really enjoy it. It’s right for me."

Christine Van Dusen is a freelance writer living in Atlanta.


International Association for K-12 Online Learning

K12 Inc.

Connections Academy

Florida Virtual School

Virtual High School

Evergreen Consulting Associates

Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: A Review of State-Level Policy and Practice