Virtual learning, barely a blip on the computer screen a decade ago, is fast becoming part of the educational mainstream. And much as in other areas of technological innovation, the rapid pace of change has left policymakers scrambling to catch up with the virtual reality.
From state-led programs to cyber charters and district-run online schools, virtual schooling poses policy questions ranging from funding to quality. Online learning is also prodding states to re-examine requirements that may not fit well with virtual environments, such as measuring student “seat time” in classrooms.
|Getting Up to Speed
|State Data Analysis
The Colorado legislature is expected to tighten the reins on online learning, for example, following a state audit that found oversight wanting. Kansas officials are also conducting an audit of that state’s online schools. Washington state recently issued new guidelines for its “alternative learning environment” programs, which include virtual schools. And Florida has totally revamped how it pays for the Florida Virtual School.
Some advocates of virtual schooling worry that certain states may overreach with measures that stifle innovation. At the same time, recognition seems to be growing about the need to take steps to better foster and monitor quality.
“We need to be careful that we don’t turn this into the wild, wild West,” says Elizabeth R. Pape, the president and chief executive officer of the Maynard, Mass.-based Virtual High School. “It’s gotten to the point where we have the acceptance, and we need to work on the credibility and validity.”
‘It’s a Continuum’
It’s hard to get an accurate read on how many students nationwide attend virtual schools.
Susan D. Patrick, the president and CEO of the North American Council for Online Learning, based in Washington, estimates precollegiate course enrollments—not individual students—at from 750,000 to 1 million, up from some 40,000 to 50,000 five years ago. The Florida Virtual School, launched a decade ago as a high school program in two districts, now serves about 45,000 individual students in grades 6-12—more than double the figure just two years ago. As of January, the Utah Electronic High School had 26,000 “active students.”
The number of states that have established virtual schools, education institutions through which instruction is delivered over the Internet, has increased slightly since 2004. The number of states with at least one cyber charter school has seen a more substantial increase.
*Click image to see the full chart.
SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2007
Meanwhile, more than 170 cyber charter schools now serve some 92,000 students, according to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which tracks and advocates charter schooling. Five years ago, in 2002, 89 schools served about 66,000 students, the group says.
Michigan recently became the first state to pass a law mandating that high school students take part in an “online learning experience” to graduate.
As of last September, 38 states either had state-led online-learning programs, significant policies regulating them, or both, according to the third annual “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning” report by Evergreen Consulting Associates, in Evergreen, Colo.
Most virtual schools tend to be at the high school level, though more are catering to middle- and even elementary-level students.
Virtual schools are typically either full-time programs or supplemental, offering individual courses that provide students with a chance to make up classes they failed or access to offerings, such as Advanced Placement physics or Chinese, for which schools might lack a sufficient number of students or a highly qualified instructor. Most state-led programs are part-time.
Experts say the lines are blurring, with some supplemental programs moving toward offering a full-time option and vice versa.
Another emerging practice, they say, is a hybrid model, courses that combine face-to-face time in the classroom with Internet-based instruction.
Indicators of Quality
Some of the most contentious policy debates have been driven by the advent of virtual charters, most of which have emerged since about 2000 as a subset of the charter sector. Charter schools are publicly financed but largely independent of the regular public system.
Ohio in 2005 imposed a moratorium on new cyber charters, until the state sets new standards. In Colorado, a charter school that is sponsored by a tiny rural district and is now the state’s largest online school was singled out in a December 2006 state audit as being especially rife with problems. The situation is expected to drive new standards for online schools in the state.
The number of half-credit courses successfully completed at the Florida Virtual School has skyrocketed in recent years. Funding for the school is based on the number of successfully completed courses, not the number of individual students enrolled. Students on average take two half-credit courses, the school reports.
*Click image to see the full chart.
SOURCE: Florida Virtual School, 2007
California and Pennsylvania are among the states that have moved toward greater state authority over online charters, says Todd M. Ziebarth, a senior analyst at the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Under a 2001 California law, any charter that provides “nonclassroom-based instruction” must be approved by the state board of education to get funding. The same year, Pennsylvania enacted a law saying only the state may approve cyber charters.
“We’ve seen this evolution in a number of places from having it be district-controlled or -authorized to gradually moving up to the state level,” Ziebarth says.
Critics of cyber charters, including teachers’ unions and school boards’ advocates in some states, have complained about questionable spending by some of those schools.
Critics also argue that cyber schools are cheaper to run and ought to receive substantially less funding than brick-and-mortar schools. Advocates of the virtual charters insist, though, that the costs aren’t necessarily lower, just different, and that the biggest single cost is the same as in regular schools: paying teachers.
Augenblick, Palaich, & Associates, a Denver-based consulting firm with expertise in school finance, concluded in an October 2006 report that the costs of virtual schools, excluding facilities and transportation, “are about the same as the operating costs of a regular brick-and-mortar school.”
‘The Critical Factor’
In an overview of state policies governing online learning, the 2006 “Keeping Pace” report by Evergreen Consulting suggests that some of those policies may not be a good fit. Certain policies, for instance, regulate online learning under traditional rules for distance-learning programs.
Some states have had trouble in recent years ensuring that full-time online students take standardized tests, the report notes. Ohio, for one, now mandates that if students miss spring state tests for two years in a row, schools must withdraw them from enrollment unless their families pay tuition.
Almost all states require that online courses meet state academic-content standards, the report says, but few have requirements specific to online needs.
Another tricky matter is what to do about students who wish to take courses across state lines. In most states, online teachers must be state-licensed, the report notes, and limited opportunities exist to teach across state boundaries, which it calls a “major policy barrier.”
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, recently threw its support behind the idea of permitting online teaching across state lines. “The critical factor should be that the person teaching is a licensed educator in the subject area,” says Barbara A. Stein, an educational technology expert for the union.
With states and localities increasingly weighing in on policy questions about online education, some organizations have begun to offer their own guidance.
The Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board issued two guides last year to highlight standards for high-quality online courses and teaching, for example, and another on cost guidelines for state virtual schools. The NEA, in collaboration with several leading groups that promote virtual learning, last fall issued a “Guide to Teaching Online Courses.”
As online learning pushes against new frontiers, states are “at different levels of crafting appropriate policies,” says John F. Watson, an expert on virtual schools and the founder of Evergreen Consulting.
“There’s no question,” he says, “that online programs are challenging education policy in all sorts of ways.”