Students enrolled in Commonwealth Connections Academy, a cyber charter school based in Harrisburg, Pa., spend most of their days doing classwork on a home computer, devoid of up-close interactions with other students or teachers. But two or three times a week, a recreational vehicle converted into a science classroom parks in a different Pennsylvania neighborhood, and students from the school have a chance to get in-person lessons from their teachers and meet fellow students.
Equipped with computer workstations and microscopes, Internet connections, and interactive whiteboards both inside and outside the vehicle, the RV takes Commonwealth Connections’ lessons from cyberspace to face-to-face.
The goal is to add an element of socialization to the academy’s offerings. The school also offers a long list of online and in-person clubs, educational field trips, and statewide service projects.
“Socialization of students is education in itself,” said Jim Alex, a supervisor of community involvement at Commonwealth Connections Academy, which enrolls about 4,800 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
As online schools grow and mature, they’re seeking to satisfy parents and students whose first concern when considering a cyber school often is related to the social life for virtual students.
Many cyber schools regularly use social-networking tools in their online classes and are also moving to incorporate some face-to-face interaction into their classes. Those interactions often have an educational bent, such as field trips, but some are purely social—like proms and back-to-school picnics.
“Students realize they’re not isolated at their house,” said Shelley C. Dickey, a family-support coordinator for Agora Cyber Charter School, a 6,000-student K-12 school based in Wayne, Pa. “There’s a huge community out there.”
A jump forward in technology has, in part, fostered a new ability to promote socialization among cyber students. Commonwealth Connections’ mobile classroom, with its Internet access and interactive whiteboards, allows for such learning. The ubiquitous use of tools such as Skype, a free Web-based videoconferencing service, and webcams let students see their peers and their teachers, even in cyberspace. And the navigation of discussion boards, chat rooms, and blogs is all more intuitive and feels far more comfortable to today’s students.
Donna Britt, a 3rd grade elementary school teacher at Agora Cyber Charter School, said she often uses an online “room” powered by ed-tech company Elluminate, based in Pleasanton, Calif., which has audio capability and allows young online students to talk to their teachers, write on a virtual board, answer multiple-choice questions, post pictures, or view websites.
“These kids are very plugged in, and in the Elluminate room we’ll really connect to each other,” she said.
The online education company K12 Inc., based in Herndon, Va., which runs 39 public and private virtual schools across the country, has spent a significant amount of time mulling this issue, said Jeff Kwitowski, a company spokesman. Polling of parents often shows that socialization is a key concern, but Mr. Kwitowski said K12 sought ways to provide that socialization without the negatives that can erupt in a more traditional school environment.
For example, the company developed “The Big Think” as an alternative to Facebook, the popular social-networking site that causes angst for many brick-and-mortar schools over online bullying that can spill over from the site into school hallways. The Big Think is a closed social-networking site open only to K12 Inc., students and their parents, Mr. Kwitowski said, and it is closely monitored by school and company officials.
K12 commissioned an independent study of full-time online students to determine whether they were lacking in socialization. The May 2009 report by Interactive Educational Systems Design Inc., a marketing and research company based in New York City, studied the social skills of full-time online students in grades 2, 4, and 6 and compared them with those of students in traditional schools.
The findings showed that cyber students were rated significantly higher by both parents and students themselves in various areas of social skills, though teacher ratings for those students did not differ significantly from those for students in traditional public schools. Problem behaviors among online students, as rated by the parents, teachers, and students themselves, were either significantly lower or not significantly different when compared with national norms.
“We wanted to be able to provide some evidence that these students are socially skilled even though they’re learning in a nontraditional environment,” Mr. Kwitowski said.
Zachary McCreary, a senior at Agora, said he’s been attending online schools since 5th grade. Though he acknowledges his social experiences may differ from those of many students, he doesn’t feel those experiences are lacking or preventing him from developing social skills. His best friend is an online classmate who lives about 30 minutes away. And his girlfriend is someone he met at his previous cyber school; last year, he took her to Agora’s prom, which he helped plan.
Online courses and schools are now incorporating a long list of experiences and tools that increase a student’s social interaction with peers and teachers. Those socialization experiences can take place both online and in person. Experts say tactics that encourage socialization leave online students more invested in their studies, help them learn from one another, and boost student retention.
Skype: The free video-calling tool lets students talk with each other and their teachers in real time.
Virtual Classrooms: Some companies have created online classrooms that allow students and teachers to interact, hear each other’s voices, work on material on a virtual whiteboard, and ask and answer questions in real time.
Extracurricular Activities: Many online schools have after-school clubs—devoted to everything from robotics to poetry—that play to students’ interests. The clubs may meet only online, or both online and in person if students live in the same area.
Blogs, Wikis, Discussion Boards: Such online tools allow students to make comments or ask questions about classmates’ work and respond to one another in a discussion format. They also allow students to work together on projects and share their work with others.
Synchronous Lessons: These are scheduled online lessons in which students and teachers interact as a class in real time. (In asynchronous classes, by contrast, students log on for coursework at times of their own choosing.)
School-Sponsored Social-Networking Sites: Such sites often mimic the interface of popular sites like Facebook, but are typically limited to the students attending the same school or a network of schools. They’re monitored more closely by school leaders than a public social network would be.
Teacher Home Visits: Some online schools now cluster students into “homerooms” based on geography. That way a homeroom teacher can visit each student and establish an in-person relationship at the start of the school year.
Regional Field Trips: Many online schools now have a large number of academic field trips each month. The trips, though often optional, can help students form friendships with their peers and closer ties to their teachers, while pushing their learning experiences from cyberspace to the physical world.
Graduations, Proms, and Other Social Activities: Some online schools are now meeting the demand many of their students have to experience the hallowed social and ceremonial aspects of a brick-and-mortar school.
Classrooms in the Community: This approach can include a mobile classroom that travels from neighborhood to neighborhood, or a computer lab established in a building in which students are permitted to “drop in” to do their work several times a week.
Sports: Some online schools are organizing their own club teams in sports such as ultimate Frisbee. Others are helping to guide students if they seek to participate in local public school sports teams.
—Michelle R. Davis
Mr. McCreary is also part of the school’s student-ambassador program, which this school year launched a student “cyber cafe” three days a week solely for socializing. He said that when he first enrolled at a cyber school, he was “pretty shy.” But he said now he doesn’t mind taking charge of projects or expressing his opinions in online classes or speaking out in face-to-face situations.
“I didn’t like to be the center of attention or to be that leader, but that’s changed,” Mr. McCreary said. “Once you get that initial confidence [online], it’s going to carry over into the physical world.”
‘Pros and Cons’
But parents and educators still need to think carefully about the social implications for full-time online schooling, said Kathleen M. Minke, the president of the Bethesda, Md.-based National Association of School Psychologists and a professor in the school psychology program at the University of Delaware. The quality of the online program is a factor in socialization, as is the type of student enrolling, she said. For a student already lacking in socialization in a traditional school setting, online education could be even more isolating. And for low-achieving students taking online classes, Ms. Minke said, families may not be as involved as they need to be to ensure their children are “academically progressing and to monitor their social development.”
From a larger, societal perspective, she said, online students may not be exposed to the diverse viewpoints or communities they might see in a regular school.
“For some kids, school is a place they can identify with some adult role models they don’t see in their day-to-day lives, which may be chaotic, stressed, and confused,” she said. “I’d worry that [online students] might not have the diversity of positive adult role models.”
Parents and students need to be realistic about the extent of socialization cyber schools can provide, said Barbara J. Dreyer, the president and chief executive officer of Baltimore-based Connections Academy, which serves about 20,000 online students across the country.
Ms. Dreyer said she believes the issue gets too much attention, though, from educators in the cyber school world. She said there’s a “crisis of achievement” in schools, and socialization should not be the focus for educators. Still, she said, socialization is a real and legitimate concern for parents and students.
“Kids are not going to perform academically if they’re not happy,” she said. “People yearn for friends. That’s a normal part of any kid’s life.”
Connections Academy schools feature a long list of clubs and field trips, graduation ceremonies, collaborative activities, and “synchronous” lessons—ones that occur in real time.
But “every parent has to make a decision on trade-offs. We don’t have a football team,” Ms. Dreyer said. “If that’s a big deal, you need … to say, with these pros and cons, where does it come down when it comes to our student?”
Increasing Peer Interaction
Adding a layer of socialization to cyber school can make the difference in a student’s experience. Megan B. Henry, the head of school for the Arizona Virtual Academy, a K-12 school with 4,500 students, said she had been looking for ways to improve retention and kept hearing from parents that students wanted more peer interaction.
So every Monday, her school schedules grade-level “assemblies” online to recognize students for good work and talk about upcoming events. The school also holds social outings throughout the state—everything from pancake breakfasts to ultimate Frisbee competitions.
“This gives them the opportunity to collaborate on their work or mingle and become more invested in the educational process,” said Ms. Henry, who was speaking by cellphone as she sat outside a movie theater in North Phoenix where 180 of her students had gathered to watch the film “Megamind.”
But the school has taken collaboration one step further, partnering with YMCAs statewide to create drop-in classrooms outfitted with computers where students can do their work for up to five days a week. If students go to the classrooms three days a week or more, they get a free membership in the Y, Ms. Henry said.
Agora Cyber Charter School is also seeking to improve socialization to boost student retention, said its head of school, Sharon E. Williams. This school year, Ms. Williams instituted a program that groups students with a homeroom teacher geographically. Each student gets a home visit, and outings are organized based on geography.
Ms. Williams said she’s seen a huge jump in attendance at those activities by students who had not participated in similar events the previous year.
“We want to build a student-student relationship as well as a relationship with a teacher,” she said.
Some proponents of online schooling argue that with social interaction closely monitored and somewhat limited, some of the negatives associated with socialization in more-traditional schools can be eliminated. Mr. Alex, of Commonwealth Connections Academy, cited the 40 field trips a month his school schedules for all ages of students.
“Because they’re only together once or twice a month, they’re only getting the good side,” he said. “They’re there for a common purpose, not just for hanging out.”
Others say that’s not necessarily the case. With groups of students in any setting, they say, behavior must be monitored and modeled appropriately.
“You’d think in a cyber school there wouldn’t be any drama,” Ms. Dickey said, “but we’ve got every component.”
But a cyber school allows students to get to “know” each other online before they meet in person. They connect online and become friends. If they’re living fairly close geographically, many get together, Ms. Dickey said.
For shy students who have trouble meeting new people, having online interactions first can help get them over the hurdle of an actual encounter.
And for students with physical disabilities, a cyber school setting can help other students get to know them without focusing on what is “different” about them, Ms. Dreyer said.
“For our medically fragile kids, we hear frequently from families who say their student ends up more socialized [through cyber school] because they had been very isolated,” she said. “When they finally meet the other kids, those kids tend to be more open to them.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Cyber Students Taught the Value of Social Skills