Enrollments in virtual schools have continued to grow nationwide, with some online schools seeing their numbers double from year to year. But that success presents a new array of challenges, particularly in the area of quality control.
Administrators at virtual schools, and the students and districts that tap into their offerings, worry that the increased demand for online education—which can allow students to dig into topics that especially interest them or take classes not offered at their own schools—may take a toll on the quality of the programs.
In response to that concern, the industry is gearing up to police itself, with groups working to establish national standards for online education to improve the quality of the teaching and courses offered by such schools.
The growth of cyber education “sends up a cautionary note,” says Elizabeth R. Pape, the president and chief executive officer of the Maynard, Mass.-based Virtual High School Global Consortium. “What’s to maintain the quality? We’re at that stage where we need to start to have nationally accepted standards around online-course design and teacher skills to maintain that quality, and we must require online providers to show the public how they’re meeting those standards.”
Standards for Teaching, Curriculum
Though virtual schools are largely still considered a pioneering force in education, some have been around for more than a decade. That longevity has allowed educators to determine some of the best ways to educate students online, says Bruce Friend, the vice president of the North American Council for Online Learning, or NACOL, based in Washington.
His group is developing national criteria on teacher quality and course content for cyber schools; it is expected to release those guidelines this summer. “There’s now enough experience that we can look at what the best practices are in K-12 online learning and try and promote those,” Friend says.
Credentials and Training: Make sure teachers for virtual schools are certified, just as regular public school teachers are. Check whether teachers have received special training on how to teach online classes.
Course Quality: Online courses should be aligned with appropriate state standards and have a variety of assessment options. Students should be tested regularly throughout a course.
Course Creation: Make sure you have examined all possible options. You may want to develop your own district virtual school or enroll students in a for-profit or nonprofit online school. Keep in mind that online course development can be very labor-intensive.
Financial Concerns: Be aware that virtual schools can divert money from the district’s bottom line. When a student takes an online course from a virtual school not run by the district, a portion of the money a district receives to educate that student is likely to go to the online school.
Feedback on Quality: Once a virtual school program is in place, seek feedback from students and parents. Their comments will help determine if courses are of high quality and meet students’ needs. If the district purchases courses from an outside virtual school, such feedback can help the district decide whether it wants to continue paying for students to take courses from that school.
NACOL is examining, for instance, the type of specialized training a teacher receives before becoming an online teacher. “You can’t just plunk a classroom teacher into the online world and expect them to be successful,” Friend says. “It’s different than a traditional classroom.”
The guidelines will also provide recommendations on matters such as professional development for online teachers and methods of engaging parents in the learning process.
When it comes to course content, the council will likely recommend that courses be aligned with appropriate state standards and contain a variety of assessment options, Friend says.
Many of the standards will be based on guidelines released in 2006 by the Southern Regional Education Board, says William R. Thomas, the director of educational technology for the Atlanta-based SREB. “You want to set a benchmark, and you want to be clear on what constitutes quality,” Thomas says.
Connie Radtke, the program leader for online learning at the Appleton eSchool, a charter school run by the Appleton Area School District in Appleton, Wis., emphasizes that finding high-quality online courses is key for any school district. Because creation of courses is so labor-intensive, Radtke’s virtual school rarely develops its own; instead, it buys courses from more established cyber schools.
Her staff members, Radtke says, look closely at the courses they plan to use to ensure they are of good quality. But schools and districts planning to use the services of other virtual schools don’t always do that.
“They hire a vendor, and courses could be good or not good,” Radtke says.
Last year, for example, a state audit of online charter schools in Colorado found that the schools had little accountability and were rife with problems, including a lack of licensed and qualified teachers, incomplete background checks on employees, and inadequate student documentation. Despite those problems, enrollment in those programs is increasing rapidly.
Besides doing a rigorous evaluation before purchasing a course, Radtke says, her virtual school asks students for their assessments of new courses.
Many of the virtual programs already show how their courses meet state standards and that their teachers are certified. Students attending cyber charter schools, for example, must take state tests and meet state standards, Friend says.
Kristie Clements, the program manager/principal for the Georgia Virtual School, argues that, in some ways, cyber schools have more accountability built into them than brick-and-mortar schools.
“In the online world, everything is transparent and can be seen at any time: all the e-mails, when you graded, how you graded, did you update the gradebook in a timely fashion?” she says.
As of last September, 38 states either had some form of their own virtual schools or had policies in place to regulate online learning, or both, according to a report by Evergreen Consulting Associates, in Evergreen, Colo.
Clements saw her school’s enrollment double from last year to this year, with the number of course segments the school taught rising from 2,000 to 4,061. She says the school could easily ramp up in teacher capacity and curriculum offerings to handle many more students—and students are clamoring for the slots.
But the state of Georgia, which provides its funding, has not budgeted more money to handle the growth.
“We’re going to be turning kids away,” Clements says.
Michelle R. Davis is a contributing writer for Education Week.