States Virtually Carried Away Over Online High Schools
At least six states—Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Utah— have launched online “virtual high schools” that offer complete online courses to students in school or at home.
A few other states, including California, Michigan, Illinois, and West Virginia, are not far behind. And several regional education agencies and consortia, and local school districts, are also offering or preparing to offer their own online courses.
Representatives from all of those groups, and others who are exploring the possibility, were comparing notes last week at a two-day symposium here.
The 156 attendees included state policymakers, education officials, and local school officials and teachers from 38 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Canada, according to Karen Middleton, the director of the Center for Internet Technology in Education, or CITE, which sponsored the invitation-only event.
Many attendees said they’re interested in helping small or isolated schools offer advanced and foreign-language courses that they could not otherwise justify economically or could not offer at all because of a shortage of teachers. A few educators from urban districts said they were looking for new ways to educate low-performing students.
Generally, teachers of these online courses instruct a roster of about 20 students who can be anywhere in the state, as long as they have a computer with access to the Internet. Student work is passed back and forth online, along with frequent discussions by e-mail or online “chat,” the use of animation and other software features, and extensive “webliographies” that provide further resources.
Gov. Paul E. Patton of Kentucky, who opened the symposium, said the state has invested in developing the Kentucky Virtual High School to catch up with other states in academic performance.
“You have to make the learning process more efficient—you can’t just have more time in the classroom and more classrooms,” he said.
But many participants agreed that the concept of the virtual high school is fraught with difficult and potentially explosive issues of state policy and politics, curriculum and pedagogy, management, funding, and technology.
Gene Wilhoit, Kentucky’s commissioner of education, said in his main address that virtual high schools became politically possible in his state only because the top leadership was willing to part with the widely held notions that children must learn in a school setting, that course credit should be based only on traditional “Carnegie units,” and that the state funding formula for schools must be based on children’s “seat time” in class.
Kentucky’s virtual high school is offering 11 Advanced Placement courses this school year—its first full year of operation—to home schoolers and regular students alike.
But Kentucky requires that all participating students first be registered, as a formality, with a local school to take the state’s online courses; that way, the school receives state per-pupil funding for the students and ensures the district’s political support, Mr. Wilhoit said.
Many participants here said the quality of online courses and their conformity to state academic standards would be critical to the long-term success of the concept. Unless online course are perceived as being at least as good as courses in the traditional classrooms, they will not be supported by the public, many here agreed.
So far, the states that have started virtual high schools have generally bought courses from commercial providers, who see growing state involvement as a boost to their industry.
In fact, CITE is a division of eCollege.com, a private company that sells Web-based services and pedagogical expertise to mount online courses, predominantly for colleges and universities and corporations. Another sponsor was APEX Online Learning, a company that sells online AP courses to schools.
But state officials do not necessarily want to remain tied to any particular vendors, and are pursuing development of their own courses, too.