By Andrew Trotter — May 01, 2001 15 min read
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Educators are closely watching Florida Online High School as they consider the pitfalls and pluses of the Web to teach high school.

After 31 years of chalky fingers, fire drills, and the shrill ring of the dismissal bell, Betty Vail now spends her days in a cozy stucco bungalow in Winter Garden, Florida. She enjoys tinkering at her desk in the bedroom once occupied by her children. When the weather’s nice, she shifts to her screened- in patio. Sometimes, she journeys out into her suburban Orange County neighborhood to run errands. As much as possible, she soaks in the sago palms and chinaberry trees around her home.

But Vail isn’t relaxing in the lap of retirement. In fact, she says, she’s working harder than ever. It’s just that she’s swapped paper for gigabytes and red pens for a modem. Vail, 53, teaches physics for Florida Online High School. She has 90 students, a beeper so they can reach her, and a steady trail of assignments pouring in over the Internet—many at 1 a.m. or so. From the comfort of her home, Vail is perched on the cutting edge of high-tech education. Along with 60 other FHS teachers, she is part of a movement that could alter forever the nation’s notion of how kids should be taught.

Florida’s program isn’t the first of its kind—Virtual High School, run by the Concord Consortium and the Hudson, New York, schools, opened a year earlier-but with 2,500 students, FHS is one of the largest and most established online efforts. And educators across the country are closely watching its evolution as they try to better understand the potential pitfalls and pluses of using the World Wide Web to teach high school.

William Bennett, a former U.S. secretary of education, says he’s impressed by the way FHS has developed. A onetime cyberskeptic, Bennet unveiled plans in December for K12, his own online education venture. Illinois Virtual High School, which opened in January, is offering four courses created by FHS and has sent its teachers to the Sunshine State to be trained. Other schools and states have been working with FHS, too, asking for advice, technical expertise, and course information.

As for Vail, who joined the project three years ago, she’s thrilled. “I always used a lot of technology,” she says, and she welcomed a new challenge. Like many educators, Vail lives for those “aha” moments when a student suddenly catches on. For years, those epiphanies were captured in a student’s lit-up face, a sigh of relief, or a subtle nod of the head. But she hasn’t lost those moments; they just arrive over a phone line, during a live Internet chat, or from a smiley face typed sideways in one of her students’ e-mails.

And Vail loves the job’s flexibility. She can slip out in the middle of the day— as long as she has her pager with her—and take a quick break if she needs to. Some days, she works all night, even until 5 a.m., then sleeps late the next morning. Her students have permission to call for help up until 10 p.m.; one boy who works at an after-school job that lets out at 10 has permission to call until 11.

Of course, the switch to cybereducator has required that Vail be flexible, too, since she’s had to give up some reliable old teaching techniques. “Some of the zingers in the traditional classroom did not transpose to the online classroom,” says Vail, who helped FHS develop the curriculum for her course. But, even as far removed as online education is from a typical school, Vail nonetheless feels she has a good handle on how her students are doing. Indeed, she’s convinced her online class is as effective and demanding as the conventional courses she taught for years.

Florida Online High School was founded in 1996 as a pilot project run jointly by the Orange County and Alachua County school districts. From the outset, though, anyone eligible for high school in Florida could enroll.

The school offers a menu of 56 courses, everything from Latin to life- management skills. In fact, although few students take all their courses from FHS—the program was designed to supplement standard high school offerings and homeschooling curricula—they can find every subject Florida requires, minus one: gym. (That’s in the works, too, says Bruce Friend, FHS chief educational officer). The program doesn’t offer a diploma, though, so kids take credits back to their local high schools, all of which accept FHS credits.

The school’s motto: ‘Any time, any place, any path, any pace.’

So far, FHS has attracted students from varied backgrounds: 70 percent are from public schools, 21 percent are homeschoolers, and 9 percent attend private schools. Meanwhile, administrators are always looking for ways to expand. This year, they premiered 20 new courses; next year they’ll add seven more. Each new course is designed by a team of educators familiar with Web ed as well as someone who teaches the specific subject matter. And judging by the large number of awards its faculty members have won—Vail, for instance, was Orange County’s 1995 Teacher of the Year—FHS has chosen top-flight educators.

Technically, FHS teachers are on loan from 19 of Florida’s school districts. Though FHS might seem a somewhat disjointed network of teachers scattered throughout the state, its Orlando headquarters is home to the administrators who hold the pieces together and shape the school’s character. Among other things, officials meet with teachers (some of whom, like Vail, work from headquarters at times), set standards, monitor course availability, provide technical support, and keep track of the school’s finances.

The state legislature funds FHS almost entirely, to the tune of $6.17 million this past year. Supporters see it as a valuable research-and- development project and a service to Florida residents. They point to the school’s many benefits. It offers an alternative to the generally more rigid education found in conventional classrooms, for example, and allows students to resolve scheduling conflicts by taking a course or two online. Kids who need to work slowly can take their time, and those who want to zip ahead aren’t held back. And FHS offers courses that aren’t available in some places because small and rural schools in particular often can’t find or justify hiring a specialized teacher.

For all these reasons, the school’s motto is fitting: “Any time, any place, any path, any pace.”

Eighteen-year-old Ali Walker is one of Betty Vail’s students. She’s a dedicated gymnast who works out 25 to 30 hours a week, and in the spring, she travels to gymnastic competitions across the country.

There was no way Walker could keep up with her demanding schedule, complete her schoolwork, and enjoy life as a senior at Orlando’s West Orange High School. The prospect of taking an online course that she could complete after regular class hours—and at her own pace—seemed perfect. “I wouldn’t want to do it with all my courses. I like seeing my friends, interacting with teachers,” she says. But, she notes, “I have to use my time wisely.” To accommodate the demands of her sport, Walker takes two conventional classes at school—AP Calculus and AP English—before hitting the gym from 2 to 7. She does her online physics assignments at home whenever she can fit them in.

Ginny Howell, another Vail student, is in a good position to evaluate online learning: As a homeschooled teenager, the 18-year-old has studied in many ways— with her parents, in private school classes, and at local community colleges. For Howell, it’s not just the convenience factor that’s appealing; it’s the whole Web format. “I find it to be effective. Just the method itself is going to be sought out,” she predicts.

Parents of homeschoolers like Howell also appreciate FHS because they often don’t have the knowledge or desire to teach certain subjects—say, high school physics—to their children. Beyond that, says Marcie Krumbine, state chairperson of the Florida Parent Educators Association, “it helps my kids to begin to develop relationships with teachers and learn to manage their time.”

But online learning isn’t for everyone. Howell points out that it’s a good fit only for the self-motivated. “If you don’t like what you’re studying, don’t take it online,” she warns. Other students echo those sentiments. Walker says a friend who told her about the program was dropped from her course “because she didn’t really do anything.”

Online learning isn’t for everyone. In fact, roughly 25 percent of students are dropped from FHS classes after the 29-day, no-fault withdrawal period.

In fact, roughly 25 percent of students are dropped from FHS classes after the 29-day, no-fault withdrawal period. Though obviously high, that rate is better than the 50 percent national average for college online courses, according to FHS officials, who say they try to steer away students who are poorly organized or weak independent learners.

Still, Krumbine says her kids have done well with FHS. In fact, her three teenagers have taken algebra, biology, an SAT-review course, American government, global studies, and Web design from the school. And, she says, it doesn’t hurt that the courses have all been free.

Of course, online classes aren’t exactly without cost, admits FHS principal Julie Young. Though ideally the courses would be open to everyone, only students with Internet access in their homes can enroll, even if they’re taking the course through their own school. It’s not enough, FHS officials believe, to spend some regular class time online. Studying on the Web means having the tools—and the willingness—to do a substantial amount of work at home.

For those accustomed to sitting in tidy rows in traditional schools, their note-taking skills at the ready, it may be hard to visualize the virtual classroom. Here’s how it works: A student logs onto and, using a password, clicks onto the physics page. Different steps allow the student to access new material, hand in assignments, take tests, and post discussion comments.

The course is arranged in modules, though each student works through them at a prearranged rate: accelerated, normal, or slow. The student also agrees to a target date for completion of each module, taking into account individual variables that a regular school might not, such as family vacations or busy times in other courses.

Then the work begins. A student reading material on the Web site may be directed to other online sources and, in some cases, actual textbooks. Vail’s course was converted to FHS’s new technological platform recently, so students now see continuous, or “streaming,” segments on their computer monitors. (Before the change, they received a videotape that previewed the four laws of physics and a CD-ROM software program that let them measure the movements of objects such as a bouncing ball.) After they’ve studied the appropriate material, students submit their assignments, which Vail reviews and returns, usually by the next day.

But how can kids do physics experiments on a computer? Well, they can’t, admits Vail. So every semester she sends each student a box of “equipment” for the off- line learning that takes up about 50 percent of the course’s time. “I call it Wal-Mart physics,” she says. The tools: a ruler, a stopwatch, pulleys, a Super Ball, and other gizmos.

Teaching the course is something of an experiment, too. Because there are no classroom lectures or discussion, teachers often educate reactively, responding only to what a student has submitted. And giving exams means directing students to one of FHS’s testing sites at various local schools or figuring out some other way to prevent cheating, such as assigning in-depth projects or essays.

But other aspects of online instruction differ very little from the way Vail used to do things. She still tracks student achievement and keeps parents updated; now she does it via e-mail. When someone is falling behind, she phones the student or the parents. If that student doesn’t respond within 14 days, he or she may be dropped from the course.

The fact that 25 percent of FHS students either choose to drop or are forced to drop classes worries critics, who also complain that digital education promises more than it delivers. “What I’m afraid of is that it is being looked at as a broad solution to the problems of secondary education. There are terrible dangers lurking within [that belief],” says Alan Warhaftig, a high school English teacher who is certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Critics complain that digital education promises more than it delivers. The online educator’s response, they say, just can’t match that of an attentive teacher in a standard classroom.

Warhaftig, who works at the Fairfax Magnet Center for the Visual Arts in Los Angeles, also argues that e-mails and phone calls are no substitutes for face- to-face interaction. “I teach American literature, and we’re at the very end of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man,” he says. “Every day, I’m looking at the eyes of the kids to see if there’s something I said that went past them.”

Although all FHS teachers carry pagers, the online educator’s response just can’t match that of an attentive teacher in a standard classroom. “You can’t get help in five seconds like you can in a traditional class,” says Ali Walker, who misses the human dimension of school. “I don’t think you get to know the teacher,” she explains. “It’s definitely impersonal.”

Kids aren’t the only ones who sometimes dislike the distance of the online setup. FHS teachers also do, especially those who live far from the school’s office. But conventional educators feel isolated, too, says Debra Chamberlin, an FHS teacher who used to work in a school that had 5,000 students and more than 200 teachers. “I was in a portable [classroom], and I ended the year not knowing most of my fellow teachers,” she says. “In a sense, I feel less isolated now. I at least feel connected.”

Whatever the drawbacks, FHS offers some students chances they otherwise might never get. Melissa Sutton, for example, was on track for a serious shot at becoming valedictorian at her school, Pine Castle Christian Academy, when her physics teacher quit just nine weeks into the semester. Sutton, along with about 10 fellow seniors, were stranded without a teacher in a science course they needed to graduate. When the school was unable to find a replacement, Vail agreed to end the students’ academic fiasco. They were lucky to get into FHS, too; others who try to sign up don’t always find a slot, even if, as recommended, they register in May for September courses.

Though Sutton was a reluctant online learner at first, she’s impressed with Vail, who put together a special “pace” chart for the Pine Castle kids to help them graduate on time. Vail also had each student take a test to size up his or her best learning style—a personal touch Sutton didn’t expect. The high schooler actually got to meet with Vail twice last fall because Pine Castle is only 10 miles from the FHS office. But most of Vail’s students won’t get to see her in person. “They’d be shocked at how old I am,” she quips.

Although FHS offers many benefits for students like Sutton, it is costly to run. The state legislature will most likely provide the same $6.17 million funding next year, but it may trim that amount to below $6 million after that, says principal Young. The school will cut some costs in the fall of 2002, when private schools start paying for courses they use. And, adds Young, “Our legislation basically charges us to go forth and market.”

FHS officials always knew they’d have to find sources of revenue. They hope that leasing courses to other states and school districts will pay off. Providing 40 students in West Virginia with an online course, for instance, will bring in about $35,000, a sum that includes the training of a West Virginia teacher to conduct the course. But FHS isn’t just waiting for requests— it is beefing up its marketing staff, sending representatives to conferences, and having them contact state departments of education.

FHS is prepared to adapt courses to the customer to some extent, administrators say. It takes work, though, to match FHS courses to other states’ standards. And the whole process of reaching out raises a serious question: How well will the classes work in the hands of other teachers who may not have the same skills, knowledge, and commitment as those who helped create the courses?

“That’s one of our biggest fears,” acknowledges Young. “We don’t consider a course to be successful if we can’t put in another teacher. “

While school leaders peddle the program elsewhere, Betty Vail is focused on making it work for her students in Florida.

On days she goes to the office, Vail looks crisp in gray pinstripes, but when she works from home, she dresses for comfort. “I’m a jeans kind of girl. It’s hard for me to get all prissy,” she says. The casual clothes shouldn’t deceive, though. Vail works hard—even without the distractions of class cutups and teachers’ lounge gossip. Indeed, she gets so absorbed at home that she sometimes sets the kitchen timer so she’ll take a break for tea every hour or so.

On a recent Thursday, she starts tackling about 75 student assignments that have built up in her online folder. A copy of Dream Weaver for Dummies, a technology manual, sits on her desk atop Fundamentals of Physics. Her pager buzzes several times over the next 15 minutes. One student has a technical problem: The girl can’t get her computer to read a CD-ROM. In about 10 minutes, Vail helps her figure out how to fix the problem.

Then a parent calls about a notice she received saying that her son was falling behind. Vail opens the student’s records on her computer screen and concludes that the boy mistakenly believed he had completed a certain assignment. “They’re teenagers; they forget,” she says encouragingly to the parent.

Vail, whose husband is an assistant principal at a nearby middle school, has plans to upgrade her home office now that her youngest son has bought a house and promised to remove his string art and other belongings.

She’ll be spending even more time at home now because FHS officials are replacing the cubicles at headquarters that had been reserved for Orlando-area teachers with more meeting rooms and computer labs. They’ll need the space to train cadres of out-of-state instructors to become online teachers.

In any case, Vail doesn’t know how long she’ll stay at FHS. The same urge to do something new that brought her there might take her somewhere else. She is sure of one thing, though: A conventional classroom will never feel the same. Says Vail, “I don’t know if I could ever go back.”


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