eSN Special Report: Beyond virtual schools


A child sits at home in front of his computer screen, working through a virtual-school lesson by mindlessly clicking through the multiple choices, never talking to a teacher or a fellow student or even glimpsing the great outdoors and interacting with the real world.

This static, impersonal, anti-social school experience is the image that many parents, teachers and school administrators continue to have in mind when they picture the world of online learning, even as more and more brick-and-mortar school districts explore full- or part-time virtual education.

But this image is a flawed one, experts say. Not only are most online-education programs highly interactive, with students engaging in virtual discussions with teachers and their peers as they work on inquiry-based projects and activities, but often the learning takes place within—or is supplemented by—a traditional classroom experience.

Characteristics of successful online teachers Whether schools adopt a full-time virtual model, or a blended or supplemental approach to online instruction, their success depends on having high-quality online teaching. The International Association for K-12 Online Learning’s National Standards for Quality Online Teaching describes the skills and characteristics that effective online teachers should possess. Here’s a summary of the organization’s standards.

These days, virtual education can be more than a home-schooled child sitting alone in front of a computer. Purveyors of online-education products are creating various delivery methods to suit school districts, students, teachers, and parents with differing needs, requirements, and budgetary constraints, said Susan Patrick, president and chief executive of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

“Today every student can access a world-class education with online courses taught by talented, qualified teachers at any location,” she said.

And it’s not one-size-fits-all, said Ron Packard, chief executive of K12 Inc., an online-learning company founded in 1999. “But there’s a natural inertia and resistance to change in education, and we’re fighting that and trying to overcome the myths.”

These myths persist even as technology-based distance education has grown, with enrollment jumping 65 percent from 2002 to 2005 and more than 1 million K-12 students taking online courses during the 2007-08 school year, according to studies cited in a recent report by the U.S. Department of Education.

The same report also found that students who take all or part of their classes online may perform better than students taking the same course with only face-to-face instruction, and that the most effective approach might be a combination of face-to-face teaching and purely online instruction.

This “hybrid” or “blended” model is one of three alternatives that have emerged as popular and proven options for students, schools, and parents who aren’t interested in full-time virtual schooling. With the “supplemental” approach, districts can buy online courses a la carte to supplement and fill gaps in the traditional school curriculum. And the “classroom solutions” option allows schools to give students the benefit of online-course curriculum but present it, with the help of technology, in a traditional classroom setting.

“There are a lot of myths out there, but we’re making good progress by offering these different options,” Packard said. “It’s a good mix.”

The blended model

The name Chicago Virtual Charter School is a bit misleading. Though this Chicago Public Schools program initially was authorized to operate as a full-time online program with its founding in 2006, “there were some misgivings about that, so a face-to-face component was added,” said Bruce Law, current head of the school.

Now the school’s 560 students, in grades K through 11, spend 92 percent of their class time in a virtual setting and 8 percent in rented space at the Merit School of Music Building on South Peoria Street in Chicago’s West Loop.

“People typically think about two paradigms: the traditional brick-and-mortar school where students come in the morning and leave in the afternoon, and home-schooling. Our kind of virtual education lies between the two,” Law said. “People have a difficult time understanding that.”

Each student must report to the brick-and-mortar building one morning or afternoon each week, Tuesday through Friday, for traditional classroom instruction. “We use SMART Boards and have a wireless computer environment, but other than that it’s not any more high tech than any other brick-and-mortar school,” Law said. “The focus is on interaction between the children and the work they’re doing.”

The students interact with the same teachers in person as they do online. “That’s created stronger relationships between the teachers and the families,” he said.

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

The virtual component of the program—administered by K12 Inc.—takes place in the students’ homes, and features more than just online exercises or computer printouts. “K12 sends equipment and tools to the students: microscopes, dirt, rocks, seeds, paint for art, books. There’s a lot of offline work,” Law said.

There is some individualization possible, though not as much as with a full-time virtual school. At Chicago Virtual Charter, students can work at their own pace to an extent, but “if you’re a seventh grader at a fifth-grade level, you still have to take the seventh-grade assessment in the state of Illinois,” Law said. “You’ll have to catch up, and this program can help you catch up more quickly.”

K12 currently works with a total of four blended, or hybrid, schools. “It’s a very interesting option. It allows you to do some things face-to-face, and allows for intense remediation,” Packard said.

So far, the Chicago Virtual School has primarily drawn in students whose guardians want to get more involved in day-to-day instruction but aren’t interested in home-schooling. “You cannot do schooling here if you don’t have a parent with a serious commitment to the education of the child,” Law said. “For families that want to be involved in their children’s education, we have structurally built that in. It’s like we’re getting back to the early 19th century, when families were more involved in the education of children.”

The school also has emerged as an attractive option for students from areas of Chicago that “are simply unsafe,” Law said, pointing to the September schoolyard fight at Christian Fenger Academy High School on Chicago’s South Side that left 16-year-old Derrion Albert dead.

“I don’t think that all the socialization in a traditional school setting is positive,” Law said. “And the sum total of a child’s socialization doesn’t take place in school. We’re not failing the children in that way.”

Though the school has not yet received its performance evaluation for the past year, Law believes the program is “either right at or slightly above Chicago Public Schools in terms of our academic performance.”

A hybrid program like that of the Chicago Virtual School might not be “the silver bullet for solving education’s ills,” he said, “but it does offer a viable and powerful educational option.”

The supplemental model

Another option that has caught the eye of traditional brick-and-mortar school districts is supplemental online learning. With this, online courses can be purchased a la carte from companies like K12 and others, allowing schools to fill gaps in their curriculum and letting students progress beyond their school’s current course offerings. Language classes have proved to be popular buys, as well as Advanced Placement and elective offerings, Packard said.

Since last spring, two Michigan schools—Dwight Rich Middle School in Lansing and DeWitt Junior High in DeWitt—have used grant funds to offer Spanish as a supplemental, online course through K12.

“Kids are busy, and this gives them another option in case the Spanish class is full. It also gives the student online-course experience,” said Tim Brannan, project director for the grant and professor of education technology at Central Michigan University. “It’s a viable option for students who haven’t been able to fit Spanish into junior high. We offer it as an after-school option, so it doesn’t displace teachers. And it gives kids something productive to do with their time after school, if they need that.”

Last spring, about 51 students participated at DeWitt and 15 students participated at Dwight Rich. “We provide the computer lab, the technology, and the support, but the structure of the course comes from the online module, which provides all the instruction. But it can be used as a supplement to face-to-face as well,” Brannan said. “The interest has been very strong.”

Across the country, supplemental online learning is growing 25 percent to 30 percent a year for K12, Packard said. “Parents can be involved in education, and it’s a lot more inexpensive than hiring a tutor,” he said. “It also gives kids something constructive to do. And it works as well in rural areas as it does in urban.”

Though the Michigan middle-school students can get IDs and passwords and progress through the class work at home, the program is primarily designed to be administered within the school building. To receive high school credit for the course, the online student must take the same final exam as the students in the brick-and-mortar classroom.

“We are interested in how technology can improve student achievement,” Brannan said. “But we want to take baby steps, rather than diving off into the deep end.”

Classroom-based solutions

The North Panola School District had little choice but to dive off into the deep end last year after the North Mississippi system experienced significant fiscal and academic issues that required serious reform. Susan Furick, senior director of classroom academics for K12, went in and met with district administrators to see how the online-learning company might help pull North Panola, primarily at the elementary-school level, out of its rut.

The solution that Furick and the school district arrived at sat at the opposite end of the continuum from a full-time virtual or even blended-school model. “We use K12 curriculum full-time, but it is done exclusively in the brick-and-mortar schools,” Furick said. “So it’s more like the traditional classroom environment, but it uses technology tools and online-course curriculum.”

With this teaching model, teachers take the one-to-one format of online learning and bring it to the one-to-many classroom environment. The program uses interactive whiteboards, small-group online activities, and printed materials to teach online-based curriculum. K12 also offers training and professional development, turning teachers into “subject-matter heroes,” even in the “toughest subjects and struggling classrooms,” according to the company.

“We’re simply giving classroom teachers great tools with which to teach,” Packard said. “We’ve seen incredible student performance gains in the schools where we’ve put that curriculum in. They’re going up 10, 20, 30 points a year.”

Though these sorts of results no doubt appealed to the ailing North Panola district when the new idea was first presented, Furick and the implementation team still faced some challenges in getting the program up and running. The infrastructure at the schools was not up to snuff and was unable to handle the traffic when more than one teacher logged onto the internet at once. One classroom didn’t have any electrical outlets. So K12 worked with the state education department to increase bandwidth and make the schools tech-ready.

Tech-readiness also was an issue for many of North Panola’s teachers. “Even kids from impoverished backgrounds had cell phones or had played Xbox. They had access to that stuff. The teachers didn’t have that same level of tech competency in their personal lives,” Furick said. “In some cases, we were teaching teachers to eMail for the first time. That hurdle was really difficult to get over.”

Some teachers also had difficulty adjusting to the K12 way of teaching certain subjects. For example: Many were accustomed to teaching fourth graders about fractions by showing slices of a pizza or a pie. “We use a linear approach instead, [looking] at the fractions as a ratio between two numbers,” Furick said. “So a lot of times we had to re-teach the teachers.”

The parents in the district showed very little resistance to the change in curriculum and teaching approach, given that the schools were in such trouble. “We did extensive outreach. There was a monthly newsletter, open office hours. We taught them to help the child at home,” Furick said. “Parents came in and wanted to help.”

Now, classes at North Panola begin with a lesson, derived from an online textbook, that is displayed on an interactive whiteboard. There are animations and videos and other visual tools used to make concepts, like the effect of friction, come alive. Then the students use handheld e-clickers to respond to multiple-choice questions electronically.

The e-clickers allow the teacher to keep close tabs on student progress, and they help with assessment—always a big issue when bringing online-based learning into the traditional brick-and-mortar system. In North Panola, students take tests every nine weeks to measure achievement. Other quizzes are given throughout the term to make sure learning is progressing at the right pace. And the students take the same state-mandated curriculum tests as students in the traditional schools.

“The students have been showing proficiency or better on the tests,” Furick said. “That’s a really good indicator for us.”

This model for online-based learning, along with the “hybrid” and “supplemental” models, offers even the least virtual of schools the chance to experience online-based learning—and to try it in small bites or a bigger gulp, Packard said.

“Throughout educational history, a lot of people have only had one choice in their education,” he said. “This is about using online learning wherever, and however, it can help.”

Christine Van Dusen is a freelance writer living in Atlanta who writes frequently about technology and education.


Chicago Virtual Charter School

North Panola School District

K12 Inc.