Special Report

Virtual Approaches Vary

By Katie Ash — March 20, 2009 9 min read
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Though almost all states now offer online education options to their students, the number of opportunities available and the policies that guide the organization, management, and funding of such programs vary widely.

Certain states—including Florida, Georgia, and Michigan—have established state-led online education programs, while others allow virtual schools to operate as charter schools. Some states only provide access to online Advanced Placement courses; others allow students to enroll in full-time high school diploma programs.

And while experts agree that there are key components to a successful online education program, and similarities between the policies that facilitate those programs, the model legislation for each state regarding online education differs from place to place.

“States should be using online learning as one of their tools to increase educational opportunities and outcomes, they should provide adequate funding to do so, and they should make sure that students have the option to choose online courses,” says John F. Watson, the founder of Evergreen Consulting, an Evergreen, Colo.-based firm that puts out an annual report about state-level policy and practice for online education called “Keeping Pace.” “The specifics of how they get there can and will vary,” he says.

One important role states play in the success of virtual schools, says Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, is by setting up a sustainable funding model.

For example, in Florida, which enrolls 210,000 students in K-12 online education through both public and private providers—the highest number in the country—the funding “follows” the student. So if a student decides to take a class online, the state directs funding for that student for that particular class to the virtual school instead of his or her brick-and-mortar school, as long as the student successfully completes the course.

That is “the only [funding model] that truly makes sense,” says William R. Thomas, the director of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board’s Educational Technology Cooperative and the author of a 2008 report about funding for virtual schools.

“In most of our states today, virtual schools receive their core funding through an annual allotment” from the legislature, he says. “That’s a great way to start, but it becomes a disadvantage when states need to put a cap on the number of students” who can enroll in the program.

Of course, some educators and policymakers have serious concerns about the purpose and quality of state-sponsored virtual education.

“The criticisms that we have heard from policymakers [about online education] usually are around oversight, quality assurance, and funding,” says Kathy Christie, a chief of staff for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “Questions like: How will record-keeping happen? What’s the assurance that the programs are tied to state standards? Are the courses equivalent to the other courses that are offered? Do they meet industry standards? Are they being evaluated and are they treated with the same level of expectation [as traditional public school programs]?”

Douglas A. Levin, the deputy executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based National Association of State Boards of Education, doubts that online learning will have the lasting impact that some advocates predict.

“I do not buy the predictions of Christensen,” he says, referring to the book Disrupting Class by Clayton M. Christensen and others, which predicts that half of all high school classes will be taught online by 2019.

“There are very real policy considerations and constraints,” Levin says, that will impede that prediction from coming true.

For example, many states are concerned about the quality of online classes, he says. Since the advent of K-12 online learning, there have been some cases in which online course providers have not lived up to their promises or expectations, Levin says.

“That absolutely has happened,” he says.

In addition to a sustainable funding model, another important part of setting up a virtual school, proponents say, is for state legislators to strike the correct balance between strict oversight and accountability for student achievement, on the one side, and enough flexibility for schools to adapt to changes in technology and growth, on the other.

Especially in an environment in which school districts often have the option of contracting with third-party providers for course content and even teachers for online programs, accountability is an integral part of an effective online education program, says the SREB’s Thomas.

Georgia operates a virtual school to supplement the options at regular public schools by offering AP courses, credit-recovery courses, and a variety of electives. The state oversees the number of students enrolled in online courses, which courses are offered, and how many students pass those courses in the state-operated virtual school, among other data, Thomas says.

However, many experts in online education urge states not to adopt strict policies about how such education is delivered.

“Often, state regulations are very focused on attendance metrics and hours spent sitting in seats,” says Bror Saxberg, the chief learning officer for K12 Inc., a Herndon, Va.-based for-profit company that provides online curricula and academic services to 55,000 students in 21 states. “And many of those rules and regulations end up fitting not very well,” he says, with the online education model.

Allowing students to move at their own pace is one of the biggest advantages of online education, says Saxberg, and putting restrictions on how long students have to spend on each course could have unintended negative consequences for virtual schools and their students.

Pam Birtolo, the chief learning officer for the 64,000-student Florida Virtual School, believes that the student-centered learning that’s possible with virtual education is a large part of the reason her school has been so successful.

Cindy Knoblaugh, a 6th grade language arts teacher at the school, agrees that an online environment allows the teacher to more easily provide individualized instruction to each student and allows each student to move at his or her own pace.

“When you’re in [a traditional] classroom, and you have to keep everybody moving, sometimes you know there’s one kid that just didn’t get it. [With online education] I can totally focus on that one until he is there and you feel like you’re never leaving anyone behind,” she says. “It’s just so much easier to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks.”

One factor that makes that possible, says Patrick, the head of iNACOL, is the amount of data available in a virtual education environment.

“Because it’s all electronic, you can track how many times a student has e-mailed or communicated with a teacher, or how many times the parent has logged on,” she says. “You have access to much richer data on a daily basis than most traditional schools ever do.”

Another advantage of online education, says Thomas of the SREB, is equity of access.

“It’s where you live [that determines] whether you’re going to get a quality education or not and online learning is the only [option] that truly addresses that issue,” he says.

Through virtual education, districts can offer students courses—such as Mandarin Chinese—that may not generate enough interest to justify a class in a traditional school, he says. That way, students in rural, urban, and suburban environments have equal access to educational opportunities they would not receive otherwise.

At the same time, virtual schools could lead to savings for school districts and states, says Melinda Maddox, the director of technology initiatives for the Alabama Department of Education, which runs ACCESS, or Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide.

“In these economic times, this is really the most cost-effective way to offer all these different courses,” she argues.

But saving money shouldn’t be the sole motivation behind starting a virtual school, warns Thomas of the SREB, and officials should be prepared to pay to ensure quality.

“If you’re really going to create a quality course with all the whistles and bells that you need, and you don’t change any other [part] of your given model, the courses are going to cost at least as much and in many cases even more” than traditional courses, he says.

“What we did find was that once the course was developed, that same course can be taught by 50 teachers, 500 teachers, or 5,000 teachers,” he says. “And that’s your cost savings over time.”

Although the number of students taking part in virtual education is still a small fraction of the total number of students in the United States—a January 2009 report by the Needham, Mass.-based Sloan Consortium found that approximately 1.03 million out of the nation’s 48 million students, or about 2 percent, were enrolled in an online class during the 2007-08 school year—enrollments in virtual schools across the nation have risen over the past three to five years.

Bryan H. Setser, the executive director of the 25,000-student North Carolina Virtual Public School, which has an annual budget of $10 million, says his program has experienced 40 percent growth every semester since its founding in summer 2007. And over the past two years, the Georgia Virtual School—which has received $4 million for fiscal year 2009—reports over 200 percent growth in its enrollment, which is now about 9,000 students.

Besides keeping up with growing enrollments and an increased demand for highly qualified faculty, perhaps the biggest challenge virtual schools face, according to Terry M. Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University, is resistance from teachers’ unions and school districts to the spread of online education.

Ultimately, the benefits of online education and distance learning, as well as continuing technological breakthroughs and refinements, will overcome such political pressures, says Moe, who explores the subject in a forthcoming book, Liberating Learning, which he co-wrote with John E. Chubb, a senior executive vice president and chief development officer for New York City-based Edison Learning Inc.

Union officials, for their part, say Moe’s characterization of teacher unions as rigid in regard to online learning is simply not accurate.

“We support online learning and online classes,” says Andrea I. Prejean, a senior policy analyst with the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, “but we don’t support full-time online education programs.”

“Students benefit from having in-the-classroom experiences, especially for younger kids,” says Prejean. “We think it helps promote social development.”

Online education is a good way to supplement a student’s education, she says, but the traditional face-to-face classroom structure and the sense of community that’s built through it is a vital part of public education.


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