Online learning can open the door to a vast array of expanded course selections, individualized attention for students, and the flexibility for students to move at their own pace—all factors that make virtual learning environments an attractive option for gifted students.
And as budget cuts threaten to drain funding from programs for the gifted, more schools—and students—may be looking to online education as a way to fill the gap in offerings, according to experts in gifted education.
“Parents are going to be searching for these opportunities more and more,” said Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, the director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill.
“Those parents want their kids to be able to take cool stuff that they’re not able to take in school, particularly in areas like math where there are opportunities for acceleration,” she said.
The Center for Talent Development operates an independent supplementary online program for gifted K-12 students called Gifted LearningLinks. For the 2010-11 school year, the school served about 1,500 students (this number does not include enrollments for August courses), up from 900 students five years ago.
Ms. Olszewski-Kubilius has found that different age groups of students have different goals for their experiences. The younger students tend to enroll in enrichment courses and focus on connecting with other gifted students throughout the country, for example.
“That’s not true for the high-school-age kid,” Ms. Olszewski-Kubilius said. “They’re busy and involved with a lot of things. They want a way to be able to do something independently without being part of a cohort.”
Striking a balance between connecting students and encouraging them to work collaboratively, on the one hand, and allowing them to move individually through courses at their own pace, on the other, is particularly important for gifted students, she argues.
But not all online programs, she emphasizes, are created equal.
“What [students] don’t like is online programs where they sit and read screen after screen on a computer,” she said. “That’s just as bad as a slow-paced face-to-face classroom situation.”
Instead, students need highly interactive and engaging curricula with consistent feedback from teachers about their performance, she explained.
“It works beautifully when it’s done well, but people are still trying to figure out what that means and what success looks like,” Ms. Olszewski-Kubilius said.
Steve Kossakoski is the chief executive officer of the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in Exeter, N.H.—that state’s first statewide online public high school that launched in January 2008, and has since grown to 11,500 course enrollments. Many of the students served by the school are high-achieving learners, he said.
About two-thirds of the student population attends VLACS for supplemental courses while also attending a public school.
Students at VLACS work on a competency-based model, as opposed to a time-based one. That means students progress through courses based on mastery of the material and are not bound by seat-time requirements.
That model is especially helpful for gifted students, who may be able to progress through a 16-week course in eight weeks, said Mr. Kossakoski.
“Time can be a real barrier in the traditional schools,” he said. “We can do things at any time, and it really helps when you can remove time as a barrier.”
The school also uses rolling enrollment, so students can join anytime during the school year, he said.
Having VLACS available to students in New Hampshire serves to “democratize” the curriculum, by helping provide the same opportunities for all students in the state regardless of funding differences between districts, Mr. Kossakoski said.
Teaching gifted students in an online environment can also reduce the social pressure that may come with accelerating elementary or middle school students into high-school-level courses, said Elizabeth R. Pape, the president and chief executive officer of the Virtual High School Global Consortium, a nonprofit organization based in Maynard, Mass., that provides online high school courses to more than 15,000 students around the globe.
The organization’s enrollment has more than doubled since the 2005-06 school year.
“You may not want your middle schoolers [in a classroom] with high schoolers for a variety of reasons,” she said, such as being in an environment with more socially and physically advanced peers, as well as the logistical challenges of traveling between two schools. “The great benefit of the [Virtual High School] model ... is it allows students to take [the course] within the comfort of their middle school environment.”
And whenever a younger student enrolls in a course intended for older age groups, the school and the teacher review the content to make sure it is age-appropriate, said Amy Michalowski, the director of curriculum and instruction for VHS.
The sense of connection that gifted students feel in an online classroom is one of the greatest benefits of virtual learning for them, said Raymond Ravaglia, the executive director of the Education Program for Gifted Youth at Stanford University.
“One of the canonical experiences for a gifted child is that they’re always the smartest kid in the class,” he said. The resulting sense of isolation can be assuaged at summer camps and special events designed for high-achieving students, but with virtual learning, those students can feel that sense of connection in their every day classroom, he said.
“What these kids really want is meaningful, substantive communication with each other,” said Mr. Ravaglia.
Number of U.S. students identified as gifted and talented
Number of states that require a program or service for gifted and talented students
Number of states that do not require general education teachers to have any training in working with gifted and talented students
Identified gifted students who are white
9% Asian/Pacific Islander
1% American Indian
Sources: National Association for Gifted Children; U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights
“There’s a real opportunity to take the students to new places. You want to get in there and individualize,” he said. “It’s not just about ... getting them through the content. It’s about getting them to really apply themselves and invest the kind of effort that is going to lead them to develop their talent.”
The EPGY Online High School, which has grown from 30 to 360 students in the past six years, employs a synchronous learning model, so all the students have the opportunity to communicate with their peers, as well as their teacher, in real time.
In addition, the curriculum for online gifted students needs to be “highly adaptive, so it’s constantly assessing and evaluating the student’s understanding,” Mr. Ravaglia said. “These kids have a lot of talent, a lot of ability, and they should be successful. When they’re not, you need to ask yourself what you are doing.”
Chris Thomas is the coordinator of the 170-student North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics Online program. The tuition-free program builds off NCSSM’s residential program for gifted North Carolina juniors and seniors with a high aptitude in science and math. Students in the online program complete several classes through NCSSM Online in addition to their full courseloads at their home schools. The NCSSM classes allow students to explore more advanced math and science topics, such as computational chemistry and genetics.
“A local school only has so many resources available for gifted students,” said Mr. Thomas. “This is more like a college course, where [instructors] expect the students to be more independent.”
In fact, it is that independence that can be the biggest challenge for students taking online courses from NCSSM Online, he said.
“Some students find out that they really needed a face-to-face environment with someone always reminding them [about assignments,]” he said. “The students [in this program] really have to be able to work on their own.”
But that doesn’t mean that students don’t receive help and guidance from online instructors, said Megan DeLaunay, a recent graduate of the program.
“I actually felt like I was getting more attention in the online classes,” she said. “It was like being in a real school.”
All students are required to attend a Web-based videoconference each week with their classmates and teacher to help keep them on track and build community among the students. Online students also attend one or two weekends per semester at the NCSSM campus for community-building and face-to-face lab activities.
“The friends I made in the online program are some of my best friends,” said Ms. DeLaunay, 17, who was doing research at the University of Richmond, in Virginia, before beginning her college career there this fall. “We’re just one big community of students.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as New Vistas Online for Gifted Students