One way to distinguish between the wide variety of virtual schools and online-learning programs available is by the type of entity that oversees their operation and control. That source of authority can determine how many students can enroll, where those students come from, and what resources are available for teaching and learning.
Most virtual schools or online programs are operated by a university or college, through a district, by a consortium of stakeholders, through a state entity, by a for-profit company, or as charter schools.
Figuring out the advantages and challenges of each form of operational control depends largely on what state the school or program is located in, observers of the field say. Different states generally have different laws regarding how schools—virtual as well as brick-and-mortar—may be governed.
Starting in the States
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One of the best-known forms of online learning is through state-led virtual programs, said Bryan Setser, the chief executive officer of the North Carolina Virtual Public School, which serves about 40,000 students across the state.
Thirty-five states currently operate state-sponsored virtual schools. Being run through the state allows a virtual school program to recruit students from all districts, receive support from entities such as the state department of education, the state school board, and the governor’s office, and quickly establish a trusted name and reputation, said Mr. Setser.
“It brings together a lot of stakeholders across the education sector and gives you a lot of organizational validity and credibility,” he said. “The other thing is it establishes for you a base of funding and support that is usually ongoing and recurring.”
Because state-led virtual schools are so embedded in state-level bureaucracy, however, they often lack the agility and nimbleness that district- or school-level virtual programs may enjoy, Mr. Setser added.
“You can’t react with the type of pace or innovation that you could with [other models],” he said.
Also, the vast majority of state-led virtual schools are funded through an appropriations model, which online-learning advocates say does not provide a sustainable path to future growth. (“Lack of Sustainable Funding a Challenge for Online Ed.,” this issue.)
The Local Approach
• Virtual High School Global Consortium, 13,000
Source: Education Week
Virtual charter schools and district-level virtual programs can often be operated more flexibly than state-led programs, but their reach and scope are largely determined by the laws in each state.
“In the 25 states that allow online-learning programs to be managed through charter schools, some of them have geographic boundaries,” said Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, based in Vienna, Va.
In California, for example, charter schools can only serve a certain number of contiguous school districts, rather than the whole state, she said.
Still, “a benefit to charter models for online programs is that they are scalable with a funding model that follows the student, except in a few cases where prohibitive state policies create artificial enrollment caps that limit student choice,” Ms. Patrick said.
Higher Ed.'s Role
Operating a K-12 virtual school program though a higher education institution may be a natural fit, since colleges already have the resources and structure in place to provide student services, said Marcel Kielkucki, the coordinator of the High School Distance Learning program at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“Community colleges do partnerships [with K-12] for many other things, ” such as career and technical education, he pointed out. The High School Distance Learning program, for one, is helpful for rural districts in the state that may not have the resources to provide a vast array of courses to a small number of students, he said.
“Because of the sheer volume of what we can purchase, we try to work with small districts,” Mr. Kielkucki said.
Securing funding to keep the program going, however, can be challenging, he said. “There are limited resources that everyone’s looking for at the moment,” he said, and some educators may perceive the program as taking resources away from local districts.
A virtual school program operated through a consortium of stakeholders can create a community of pooled resources, including a wealth of online teachers with instructional knowledge, said Liz Pape, the president and chief executive officer of the Virtual High School Global Consortium, based in Maynard, Mass.
The consortium’s 660 member schools work together to provide professional development and create courses, and the Virtual High School itself is funded primarily through member schools, Ms. Pape said.
At the same time, having so many stakeholders forces the school to continually re-evaluate practices and make sure all consortium members are satisfied with the Virtual High School, Ms. Pape said, which can cause conflict because of competing priorities.
Even so, taking into consideration the viewpoints of a multitude of members spurs the Virtual High School to provide high-quality curricula and instruction while keeping expenses low for member schools, she said.
“It’s a challenge that we’ve been able to successfully meet,” she said, “but it’s a challenge that always remains that we must constantly be attending to.”
Assessing Vendor Value
Vendor-led virtual school programs vary widely, and some for-profit providers, such as the Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., contract with school districts to provide services through district-level programs, virtual charter schools, or state-led online programs, in addition to operating private virtual schools.
K12, for instance, serves about 70,000 students.
Similarly, Apex Learning, a for-profit online-curriculum provider based in Seattle, partners with districts to supply online-learning options in addition to operating its own virtual school. Apex Learning serves about 207,000 students.
Working with a private vendor can be beneficial in both public and private school settings, said Mary Gifford, K12 Inc.’s senior regional vice president of the central region for K12 Inc.
Ms. Gifford has helped set up virtual charter schools, district-led online-learning programs, and state-level virtual school operations.
“We have so many schools operating in such diverse environments that we kind of have a little bit of experience doing any odd configuration that you can throw at us,” she said of her company.
As a result, “we know how to recruit kids, we know how to recruit teachers, and we have the ability to align curriculum in different states”—processes that can take years to iron out when starting from scratch, she said.
“Another advantage of being with a vendor is that we can leverage resources,” said Ms. Gifford, such as partnering with service providers from the private sector.
And because online-learning vendors work with numerous schools, teachers, and students, they can often scale up easily, from just a few students taking a handful of online courses to thousands of online students taking full-time virtual-course loads, she said.
However, educators, students, and parents should do research into how private, vendor-operated virtual schools are run before enrolling in the classes, said Mr. Setser, from the North Carolina Public Virtual School.
Were teaching and learning first, and they’re profit-first, and that’s a major difference, he said. The operational controls that I’m governed by—like a good teacher-to-student ratio, alignment to policies, and proven best practices—they’re not.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as E-Learning in All Shapes and Sizes