Twelve states now have their own virtual education institutions— state-sponsored schools that provide some or all of their instruction over the Internet, according to Education Week’s 2002 survey of state technology coordinators. Much has been made of the potential of these so-called cyber schools to redefine how we think about teaching and learning in the digital age. At the same time, though, concerns abound about the consequences of an educational style that forgoes face-to-face contact and personal interaction in favor of the potentially isolating world of cyberspace.
As part of its focus on e-learning, this year’s edition of Technology Counts set out to get more of an insider’s view of cyber school, especially from the perspective of students. With the permission of the Florida Virtual School, the largest and most well-established state-financed virtual high school in the nation, the Education Week research team analyzed the latest and previously unpublished course-evaluation data collected from FLVS, as the school is known. The survey data in this article, as well as the accompanying comments of FLVS students, are gleaned from 2,387 course-evaluation surveys filled out by the school’s students between Sept. 1, 2001 and Feb. 12, 2002.
But first, to put the survey data and student comments in their proper context, it’s worth understanding how this school got started, how much it has grown, and what types of students it attracts.
Founded in 1997, the Florida Virtual School grew out of two counties’ efforts to create an online-learning project with “Break the Mold” grants from the state. A year later, with a $1.3 million appropriation from the state of Florida, the high school opened its doors—or more appropriately, its Web portals—to the public.
In 2000, FLVS was established as an independent education entity by the state, giving it a status comparable to that of any other Florida school district. Then, in 2001, it became the first virtual school to be accredited by the Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation, or CITA. That organization of six regional accreditation institutions in the United States has developed standards for national, international, and distance education programs.
The Florida school has grown from a staff of four teachers and three courses in 1997 to 44 teachers and 60 courses this school year for students in grades 9-12. Courses range from art and business technology to Latin, algebra, and Advanced Placement calculus. The virtual high school also offers a preparation course for the statewide standardized assessment. However, FLVS is not yet a diploma-granting institution.
As it is, the school enrolls about 5,000 students, who take an average of 1.6 courses each. For the 2001-02 school year, FLVS has more than 8,200 course enrollments. About half the students, 55 percent, also attend regular public high schools within the state, while 37 percent are drawn from the more than 41,000 students on the statewide roster of home schoolers. A small percentage are from private schools or out-of- state schools. Fifty-seven percent of the students are girls.
Meanwhile, FLVS has experienced an increase in racial diversity—with 21 percent minority enrollment (including14 percent African-American or Hispanic) in 2001-02compared with 8 percent minority enrollment just a fewyears earlier.
‘Any Time … Any Pace’
Improvements in outreach efforts have helped reach more minority youngsters and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, says Sharon Johnston, the school’s director of curriculum and instruction. The Florida Virtual School offers a special preregistration period to encourage the participation of minority students, rural students, and students in schools identified as low-performing by the state.
Recently, too, the school has been more aggressive in promoting e-learning opportunities through visits to schools and more communication with school counselors. Indeed, 44 percent of FLVS students say they found out about the online program from school counselors.
But Johnston thinks regular schools also need to pickup more of the responsibility for telling students what FLVS has to offer. “Some just haven’t done it,” she says. For instance, according to a 2001 survey of 28 of the 67Florida districts affiliated with the online school—including the high-minority Miami-Dade County and Broward County school systems—none of the districts indicated that they had any strategies to encourage minority enrollment in the virtual school.
But while equity concerns around access to e-learning remain for some groups of students, survey results show that online learning is not the exclusive domain of students who are already sophisticated technology users. While most students participating in online courses through FLVS describe themselves as coming to the school with a great deal of computer knowledge and proficiency with computers and the Internet, 31 percent report little or no previous experience with computers, and 27 percent report no previous experience with the Internet.
“It’s refreshing that these students are coming to technology because of their needs,” says Johnston,“ even though they may not have the technical skills going in.”
Indeed, students flock to the school for a variety of reasons that reflect their individual needs.
According to the course-evaluation data, the largest percentage of students, 42 percent, report in 2001-02that they enrolled in FLVS to take an extra course or a course not offered by their regular high schools. At the same time, 21 percent say online courses help them balance academic and extra curricular activities.
As one student puts it, “I travel all over all the time for tournaments, and I’m glad I can do my work from any computer at any time.”
This is what Johnston calls the “families in motion” phenomenon, in which students involved in athletics, the arts, and other activities are attracted to learning “anytime, any place, any path, any pace”—the FLVS motto.
As one student explains, “I am dual-enrolled in a community college where this [FLVS] class is not available .FLVS beats the alternative of commuting to my home high school every day.”
Says another student: “I wouldn’t be able to do FLVS if there was a schedule, because I have 7th period, plus rehearsals after school.”
But there have been challenges, too. The school encountered trouble when it noticed that large numbers of students who were in “any pace” courses were not completing them. To address that problem, the school modified its “any pace” pledge by adopting three timeframes—accelerated, standard, and extended time—for students to complete courses.
Students in standard-paced courses are on a nine-month schedule; however, students can take advantage of an accelerated, six-month schedule if they feel comfortable with the course material or can opt for an extended, yearlong schedule if they think they need more time. As it is, each course has a trial period of 28 days, during which time students can commit to or drop courses. Some youngsters understand that the virtual school isn’t a shortcut, but others do not, Johnston says.
One online student acknowledges that “although the material covered is the same, because you aren’t in a classroom there is more work that is done in the online classes.”
Another student adds that since e-classes don’t happen in a traditional school setting, “some people think I must sleep all day.”
Comparing Courses, Addressing Problems
In their course evaluations for 2001-02, students were asked to compare their online-course experience against that of courses they’ve taken in their regular brick-and-mortar high schools. Thirty-nine percent report that their virtual courses are harder or much harder than regular high school courses. One student explains that not having “a teacher right there helping you” sometimes makes it harder, but the courses themselves,“ even if they weren’t online, would be hard because of the difficult content.”
Still, 23 percent of students describe the online courses as easier or much easier than courses at regular schools. One student says, “It’s easy—everything is open book.” Another student notes: “I know all the information. Here I am required to do mindless work in addition to knowing content to get my A. SoI can basically do the work at the pace I want and in the end get credit for stuff I already know.” Another29 percent say both kinds of classes have about the same level of difficulty. For instance, one student says, “the difficulty level of the courses is equal, but you have more time [online] to think about what you are doing.” Another comments, “If someone thought they would take a course so they could do what they wanted to and because it was easier than regular school, they would definitely fail.”
Although most Florida Virtual School students attend public high schools in the state, just 3 percent of students report that they depend entirely on school computers for access to e-learning. Most of their study time occurs on home computers.
Hence, it’s probably not surprising that most students access their courses after school, in the evenings, late at night, or on the weekends. As one student points out, “I can sit in my pajamas and do my work.” Or, as another says, “The annoying kids that disrupt class are not bothering me online.”
Still, students see drawbacks, too. “There are distractions at home,” says one student. Some students describe television as something that can take their attention away from schoolwork when they access courses at home. That’s one reason why school officials say parental supervision of e-learning is important.
As is the case with courses in regular schools, the FLVS students report quite a range for the hours they spend on their online classes. Forty percent report spending two to four hours a week on each online course; 49 percent spend five to 10 or more than 10 hours per week. Just 11 percent of students report spending two hours or less on their online courses each week. In their course evaluations for 2001-02, almost all the school’s students,95 percent, say it is relatively easy to access the material for their classes.
That’s not to say problems don’t crop up. For instance,72 percent of the students report that they sometimes have technical difficulties that interfere with their ability to complete work for their online courses. Fifty-seven percent say technical problems are resolved within 24 hours, and 63 percent report that questions related to course content or assignments are usually resolved within 24 hours. FLVS officials say the technical problems students encounter are usually related to causes such as forgetting computer passwords or having problems accessing their e-mail accounts.
‘You Can Move On’
Many FLVS students note the importance of self-motivation, responsibility, and time-management skills to succeed in online courses. “You have to be independent to learn like this,” says one teenager
Another points out that taking the online courses“ will be good preparation for college, since I must work independently.” Another student says: “I like it. It’s all up to me. I don’t always have to have an authority bugging me.”
But as many students make clear, online learning is not suited to everyone. Some students acknowledge they need more structure. A world history course-taker admits, “I like it, but it’s not my way of learning; because I’m lazy, I get disoriented.”
Asked to compare online learning with the regular classroom, another student observes, “Sometimes it’s harder because I can’t raise my hand and ask for a better explanation.”
A 9th grade math student points out that “this is a good program, but I think it should only be offered to older people, because when you are a first-year algebra[student and] … you don’t have a teacher on your back and helping you out, it is extremely hard.” Indeed, the views of one student highlight why this type of learning could be a medium better suited for highly motivated youngsters than for average students. That student says: “I like being able to work ahead and finish early because in a traditional high school, you have to wait until everyone understands the material before you are allowed to move on, whereas in online classes, you can move on whenever you feel like it.”
In their evaluations, students were asked to rate the quality of their online courses by comparing them with those offered in regular high schools. Fifty-eight percent rate the quality of online courses better or much better than regular high school courses, while 27 percent say the quality of a FLVS course is about the same as a traditional high school class.
The school’s executive director, Julie Young, considers those findings heartening. “At first,” she says, “our biggest challenge was getting people to take [e-learning]seriously” and recognize that it could be a rigorous learning environment. “Now,” she says, “we find some saying it is too hard.”
Other aspects of online learning continue to raise concern, however.
Although 85 percent of the students describe communication with their online teachers as great or good, only 39 percent describe communication with other students as great or good. In fact, most describe student-to-student communication as only fair or poor. As one student notes: “I have never talked to other students in the class. I’m not even sure how to do that!”
‘We Will Overcome These Challenges’
Young says school officials were initially very concerned about the lack of face-to-face communication that is an inherent drawback of online learning.
But she believes there are advantages as well as disadvantages to the medium, just as with regular classrooms. For example, some students report that they are too afraid of embarrassing themselves to participate in regular classroom discussions. In an online school, that face-to-face fear doesn’t exist.
Yet, at the same time, critics of online learning say itis just those face-to-face interactions that help students overcome their fears and mature into adults.
E-learning initiatives, Young says, need to stay focused on “finding the balance” between the virtual and physical world.
In fact, FLVS officials say they expect communication to improve.
Johnston, the director of curriculum and instruction, believes it is mostly a technology issue, rather than a fundamental weakness of the virtual school approach. “I think as affordable technology options are catching up,” she says, “we will overcome these challenges.”
For example, the virtual school is designing a “synchronous chat” feature that will allow students enrolled in courses to have more direct contact with one another. What’s more, a few school clubs have been started, including a FLVS student newspaper, and the school sponsors some field trips each year.
As it is, though, school officials identify keeping up with the growing demand for online courses as perhaps the greatest challenge for the school. Enrollment in the school doubles almost every year. And “every year we have students on waiting lists,” says Johnston.
Plus, demand is growing from outside Florida’s borders. For example, the school has a partnership with the state of Maryland to develop English-as-a-second-language courses, as well as a partnership with West Virginia, a state that has mandated that students have access to foreign-language courses.
High school senior Jenni Haygood thinks e-learning is transforming the future of education. A full-time virtual schooler, Haygood says she left her public high school two years ago because the large class sizes and lack of motivation among her peers were “a real shocker.”
Even though critics of e-learning extol the virtues of face-to-face learning, Haygood says of her regular high school experience, “I was just a number.”
On the other hand, she says online learning “is a very personal form of education. The teachers are really motivated, they e-mail you and call you, they pursue you and encourage contact. It may seem like you are another name on a page because they don’t see your face, but that’s not the way it is.”
After Haygood finishes high school in May she plans to go to Valencia Community College in Orlando, and then transfer to one of Florida’s universities. In the meantime, she is helping FLVS start a student government. One of the first issues on the agenda: improving socialization among students.
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2002 edition of Education Week