Cyber Learning at Online High

By Andrew Trotter — January 24, 2001 19 min read
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All eyes are on Florida High School—one of the largest and most established online high schools—learning from its success or failure.

Like many teachers, Betty Vail lives for those “aha” moments when a student’s mind turns in a new direction or masters a tricky concept. For years, those epiphanies were captured in a student’s smile, a sigh of relief, or a subtle nod of the head. Nowadays, though, the Florida high school teacher is more likely to experience such moments over the phone or while reading a student’s e- mail.

A veteran of 31 years of teaching, Vail is taking part in a movement that could alter forever the nation’s concept of how education should be delivered. For the past three years, she has taught high school physics online for Florida High School, one of the largest and most established online high schools in the nation. Educators across the country are closely watching the school’s evolution in the hope of better understanding the potential pitfalls and benefits of using the World Wide Web to teach the high school curriculum. As for Vail—who now works from the quiet of her Winter Garden, Fla., home—her career is taking a fascinating turn at just the right time.

“I was looking for a challenge,” says Vail, 53. “And I always used a lot of technology.”

Founded in 1996 as a pilot project run jointly by the Orange County and Alachua County school districts, the Florida online high school was not the first of its kind—the Virtual High School run by the Hudson, N.Y., schools and the Concord Consortium was started a year earlier. But the Florida project, which involves 58 teachers and enrolls 2,500 students, is attracting the attention of other states and private entrepreneurs with plans for their own online high school programs.

William J. Bennett, a former cyber-skeptic turned online-learning advocate, says he is impressed with the way the Florida school has evolved. The former U.S. secretary of education unveiled plans in December for his own online education venture, called K12 Inc.

Beyond that, the Illinois Virtual High School, which opens for business this month, is offering four courses created by the Florida school and has sent its teachers to the Sunshine State to be trained. But educators who question the wisdom of conducting classes online are also scrutinizing this program.

“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, an English teacher at the Fairfax Magnet Center for the Visual Arts, a high school in Los Angeles. He is certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Still, the Florida program has strong support within the state. Although it was started by two local school districts, FHS has been financed almost entirely by the Florida legislature as a research and development project and a service to state residents. The school, headquartered in Orange County, has chosen a top-flight teaching staff, judging by the large number of teaching awards its faculty members have won—Vail, for instance, was Orange County’s teacher of the year in 1995. Technically, though, the teachers are on loan from 19 of the state’s school districts.

Florida students and parents, and school and state officials, agree that their online school is already delivering many benefits.

The school offers a menu of 56 courses, including 20 newly developed courses this year. Eight more courses will be offered in the 2001-02 school year. Classes are open to anyone eligible for high school in Florida—whether a public or private school student or a home schooler. Of the 2,500 students taking FHS courses, 70 percent are from public schools, 21 percent are home-schoolers, and 9 percent are from private schools. But private school students may have to pay for courses beginning next fall, FHS officials say. All of Florida’s 67 school districts have agreed to accept the school’s course credits.

Florida students and parents, and school and state officials, agree that their online school is already delivering many benefits, starting with the alternative it offers to a traditionally more rigid high school education. Students can resolve conflicts with class schedules, for example, by taking a course or two online. And FHS can provide courses that are unavailable locally, either because a small high school can’t find a specialized teacher or doesn’t have enough students to justify hiring one.

Compared with a conventional teacher who is tethered to fixed schedules and tight classroom quarters, Vail has an enviable degree of flexibility.

From her stucco bungalow in Winter Garden, a suburb on Orange County’s western fringe, she works at a small desk in a spare bedroom once occupied by her now grown-up children. When the weather is nice, she unrolls a 45-foot cable attached to her laptop computer in order to work at a table on her screened-in patio—with a view of her sago palms and chinaberry trees.

Vail can schedule tasks so she can run midday errands—as long as she has her electronic pager on for students to get in touch with her. Other FHS teachers take care of their young children at home.

On some days, Vail works as late as 5 a.m., then sleeps late in the morning. Her 90 students have permission to call her as late as 10 p.m.; one boy who works at an after-school job until that hour may call her as late as 11 p.m., and he does.

“We get a lot of assignments [e-mailed to the FHS Web site] at 1 a.m.,” says Felicia Ryerson, the school’s regional coordinator for school districts in central Florida.

As far removed as this life is from a regular classroom and the faces of students, Vail nonetheless feels she has a good handle on how her students are doing. Indeed, she believes her online physics course is as effective and demanding as the conventional course she once taught.

One of Vail’s physics students, Ali Walker, 18, is a dedicated gymnast who works out 25 to 30 hours a week all year and travels to gymnastic competitions around the country in the spring.

To meet her demanding athletic schedule, Walker, a senior at West Orange High School in Orlando, needed more flexibility than conventional classes could offer.

The prospect of taking a course that she could complete at her own pace, and after regular school hours, seemed a perfect fit.

But she didn’t want to forsake the traditional high school experience, either. “I wouldn’t want to do it with all my courses—I like seeing my friends, interacting with teachers,” she says.

She takes two conventional classes at school—Advanced Placement Calculus and AP English—before practicing gymnastics from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. And she does her online physics assignments at home whenever she can fit them in. “I have to use my time wisely,” she says.

Ginny Howell, 18, is also one of Vail’s students, but with an educational background that is far different from Walker’s.

Howell has been home-schooled since kindergarten—although, in high school, that has meant taking a menu of courses from local community colleges, a private school, and FHS. The online school, she says, “is different from anything I’ve done before.”

‘If you don’t like what you’re studying, don’t take it online.’

Ginny Howell,
18-year old home-schooled student,
Florida High School

“I find it to be effective—just the method itself is going to be sought out,” Howell predicts.

But she cautions that this revolutionary style of learning makes a good fit only for self-motivated learners: “If you don’t like what you’re studying, don’t take it online.”

Other students echo those sentiments. Walker says a friend who told her about the program was dropped from her online course “because she didn’t really do anything.”

About 25 percent of students are dropped from FHS courses after the 29-day no-fault withdrawal period has ended, school officials say. That’s better than the 50 percent national average for college online courses, according to FHS officials—who say guidance counselors try to steer away students who are poorly organized or weak independent learners. But the 25 percent drop rate still troubles critics of this form of learning.

In the case of home schoolers, FHS has proved to be valuable because parent-teachers often don’t have the knowledge to teach a certain subject—say, high school physics—to their children.

“It allows my kids to take classes I don’t necessarily want to teach or can’t teach,” says Marcie Krumbine, a Naples, Fla., home schooling parent who is the state chairman of the Florida Parent Educators’ Association.

Beyond that, says Krumbine, who has home-schooled her three teenagers since kindergarten, “it helps my kids to begin to develop relationships with teachers and learn to manage their time.”

Her children have studied Algebra 1, biology, an SAT- review course, American government, global studies, and Web design all online from FHS.

And, Krumbine says, it doesn’t hurt that the courses have all been free.

Yet learning online is not exactly cost free, points out Julie Young, the principal of FHS. As a practical matter, students are required to have a computer with Internet access at home, even if they are taking the online course through a school, she says.

Not everyone ends up in Betty Vail’s online physics class by choice, however.

Melissa Sutton, 17, a senior cheerleader at Pine Castle Christian Academy just outside Orlando, is one of about a dozen students at her school who had no other option.

Sutton, who is competing to be her school’s valedictorian, was taking a traditional physics course at Pine Castle, but the class was disbanded after the teacher quit nine weeks into the school year. The class of mostly seniors was stranded without a teacher in a science course they needed to graduate—a virtual academic nightmare for Sutton.

But in October, Vail agreed to add the academy students to her online-class roster. “I took on these students, made a special ‘pace’ chart for them because they are seniors,” Vail says. “They’re doing fine.”

Sutton, a reluctant online learner, is impressed with how Vail teaches physics without being in the classroom. She notes that Vail had each student, at the beginning of the course, take a test to size up his or her best learning style—a personal touch she didn’t expect from a teacher who is almost never seen and only rarely heard.

“I’ve been able to use that [learning-style test] in other classes,” says Sutton, who did meet Vail twice last fall when Vail visited her class, which is just 10 miles from the FHS office.

Most of Vail’s students, though, will never see the teacher in person. “They’ll be shocked at how old I am,” Vail chuckles.

What students do see is a Physics Web site accessible via the Web site. Students log in with their passwords and visit Web pages that Vail has set up to present new material, hand in assignments, administer quizzes and tests, and post discussion comments.

The course, like all courses offered by Florida High School, is arranged in modules that students complete at their own pace. At the beginning of the course, each student chooses whether to go at an accelerated, normal, or slow rate. The student also agrees to a target date for completion of each module. Those dates can reflect special circumstances, such as family vacations or illnesses.

Anyone who believes all learning [through FHS] is on-screen is mistaken.

But anyone who believes all learning is on-screen is mistaken, online teachers like to point out.

Physics requires laboratory work, for instance. Vail sends each student a box of “physics” equipment every semester so students can spend about 50 percent of their time learning off-line.

“I call it Wal-Mart physics,” she says, opening one such box to reveal a ruler, stopwatch, pulleys, a Super Ball, and a white plastic caliper along with a videotape and a CD-ROM disk.

The CD-ROM has video clips of objects in motion, such as a rolling or bouncing ball, and a software program that can make measurements on the screen in pixel units, the dots of light that make up a computer image. The videotape has four 12-minute clips, each presenting a law of physics, including its history and real-world application. After Vail’s course is converted later this year to FHS’s new technological platform, introduced just this month, the system will deliver these video segments as continuous or “streaming” video to students’ Web browsers.

Many quirks crop up in developing an online course. And, often, the process requires abandoning tried and true classroom activities that have been perfected over decades of teaching. “Some of the zingers in the traditional classroom didn’t transpose to the online classroom,” Vail says. For example, collecting data on falling objects requires a much different approach. But other aspects of instruction aren’t all that different: tracking student achievement and keeping parents informed of how their children are doing, for instance.

FHS has a student-information system that keeps track of students’ grades and progress on their individual pace charts, and parents are e-mailed progress reports, as are the regular schools when the students are taking FHS courses from a school site.

Parents can use their child’s password to examine his or her class work. When a student falls behind, the teacher phones the student and the parents. If a student fails to maintain contact with the teacher, a series of phone calls and letters ensues, and an unresponsive student may be dropped from the course after about 14 days.

Teachers use various methods to administer exams. In some courses, students travel to a testing center to take tests. In other cases, teachers assess students through the use of in-depth projects or essays that make cheating difficult.

Yet online learning involves definite tradeoffs, as students are the first to point out. West Orange High’s Ali Walker, for one, says: “I don’t think you get to know the teacher. It’s definitely impersonal.”

Skeptics say that very quality is one of online education’s biggest drawbacks.

Warhaftig, the Los Angeles English teacher, believes that e-mails and telephone calls can never substitute for face-to-face exchanges. “I teach American literature, and we’re at the very end of Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. Every day, I’m looking at the eyes of the kids to see if there’s something I said that went past them,” he says. “I’m also looking at how the kids are interacting.”

What’s more, Walker says, despite the pagers that all FHS teachers carry with them, the online teacher’s response just can’t match that of an attentive teacher in a conventional classroom. “You can’t get help in five seconds, like you can in a traditional class,” she says. Still, she adds, online teachers are “good at getting back to you” by phone or e-mail.

Another problem springs from the popularity of the FHS courses. Schools or individuals throughout Florida are not guaranteed enrollment slots in the online high school, even if, as recommended, they register in May for September courses. Slots open up as students drop courses or are dropped, but that makes planning hard. Home schoolers also complain about that aspect of the program.

Feelings of isolation can also be a problem for online teachers, some of those teachers concede. That is especially the case for those who live outside of easy commuting range of Orlando.

But teachers at conventional schools feel isolated, too, says Debra Chamberlin, an English teacher who came to FHS from a high school with 5,000 students and 209 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.”

Florida High School is playing an especially important role in serving the state’s rural schools.

Frostproof High School, a chunky edifice of taupe-colored brick that rises from among citrus groves 60 miles south of Orlando, turned to FHS to solve various scheduling conflicts, notably the competition between band classes and students’ jobs after school.

“Besides, [FHS is] technology-based, and we like to emphasize technology,” says David Lewis, the principal of Frostproof High, which enrolls 500 high school students and about the same number of middle schoolers.

At the school’s media center, seven students occupy the center cluster of a long line of computers against a wall. Among them, they are taking four FHS courses: English 4, English 2 Honors, AP Advanced Literature and Composition—and American Studies, which is a rigorous blend of literature and history that gives students credit for two courses.

Florida High School is playing an especially important role in serving the state’s rural schools.

The students are supervised by an AP English teacher who just earned her certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Frostproof’s teachers, too, have benefited from the addition of online education at their school.

“I’ve picked up several strategies and activities,” says Debbie Webber, the AP English teacher who supervises the online students. As a class supervisor, freed from the planning and grading responsibilities of a regular classroom, Webber was given a lighter load this past fall so she could finish earning certification from the national board.

Having a nationally recognized teacher like Webber was also a way for the school to get a good appraisal of the FHS course, says Donna Swindle, the school’s curriculum director. The school also made some good decisions, such as scheduling the online class for 6th period, just before the end of the school day, “so if they’re in the middle of something, they can keep going,” Swindle says.

Online courses should become a regular option for students, says Swindle: “It’s time we begin to loosen up a little.”

Beyond that, she says, having FHS on campus has made teachers think differently about teaching. “It’s helped the staff see that you don’t have to [educate] within a certain time frame,” she says, “or a particular way all the time.’

Although Florida High School’s initial mission was to serve students in the state, officials always knew it would have to find new sources of revenue. “Our legislation basically charges us to go forth and market,” Principal Young says.

The state legislature, which is giving the school $6.17 million this year and will probably provide the same amount next year, may trim its funding below $6 million after that, Young expects.

But new money should arrive when private schools start paying for courses in fall 2002. Determination of the fees will be one result of a study now under way.

FHS has also begun leasing its courses to other states and school districts, a move that was planned from the beginning. The leasing of an online course for 40 students in West Virginia, for instance, will bring in about $35,000, a cost that includes the training of a West Virginia teacher to conduct the course.

Other schools and states have been calling the Florida school, asking for course information, technical expertise, and teacher training. But FHS isn’t just waiting for requests—it is beefing up its marketing staff and sending representatives to education conferences and having them make contact with state departments of education.

Courses may be adapted to some extent to the customer, whether a state or a district, FHS administrators say. Training, too, will be tailored to the specific needs of FHS customers, but will be based on the knowledge and experience of the online school’s teachers.

Early this month, teachers from a charter school in Southern California and from the Illinois Virtual High School were in Orlando for three days of training before going “live” with FHS courses the following week.

But time must be spent matching up FHS courses, which were written for Florida’s state standards, to the standards in the state that imports the online coursework. FHS is counting on the quality and breadth of the Florida standards to make few changes necessary, but that is a potential problem.

The winding down of the initial development phase of the online courses, and the reaching outward to new markets in other states, will pose a new challenge: 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 created the courses?

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

On days she goes to the office, Betty Vail looks crisp in gray pinstripes. When she works from home, she dresses for comfort. “I’m a jeans kind of girl. It’s hard for me to get up all prissy,” she says.

Vail says she always worked hard as a teacher, but she has found she works harder as an online teacher—even without the distractions of class cut- ups and the gossip that permeates the teachers’ lounge. 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.

Vail says she always worked hard as a teacher, but she has found she works harder as an online teacher... A copy of DreamWeaver for Dummies sits on her desk atop Fundamentals of Physics.

On a recent Thursday, she starts tackling about 75 student assignments that have built up in her online folder. A copy of DreamWeaver for Dummies, a technology manual, sits on her desk atop Fundamentals of Physics. Her pager, which she always carries with her, 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 previous assignment. “They’re teenagers, they forget,” Vail 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 has promised to remove his string art and other belongings that were stored in the room.

She’ll be spending even more time at home after this winter, because at the Orlando headquarters, FHS plans to replace the cubicles reserved for Orlando-area teachers with more meeting rooms and computer labs to teach cadres of out-of-state teachers how to become online teachers of FHS courses.

Vail won’t predict how long she will stay at Florida High School. The same urge to do something new might take her somewhere else.

But she says she’s sure of one thing—a conventional classroom will never feel the same: “I don’t know if I could ever go back.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Cyber Learning at Online High


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