Education Chat

The Ins and Outs of Virtual Schools

Bruce Friend, vice president and chief operations officer at the Florida Virtual School and two students from the school took questions on the practice and value of virtual learning.

The Ins and Outs of Virtual Schools

Sept. 8, 2005

Bruce Friend
, vice president and chief operations officer at the Florida Virtual School;
Morgan Cooney, student at the Florida Virtual School; and
Zachary Cooney, student at the Florida Virtual School.
Moderator: Kevin Bushweller, Assistant Managing Editor at Education Week

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s online chat about virtual schools, featuring guests from the Florida Virtual School. There are many philosophical and practical questions surrounding online schools, such as: How do online teachers test their students? How do students (or their home schools) pay for online courses offered by institutions such as the Florida Virtual School? Is online learning effective?

Let’s get the discussion started ...

Question from Radhika LAxman, Co-ordinator, Indian English Academy Kuwait:
How do children gain writing experience in a virtual school?

Morgan Cooney:
We have to write essays, reports, and everything you do in a regular school.

Question from Cynthia Hoffman, 5th grade class teacher, Summerfield School:
Given the vital importance of the personal daily contact and relationship between teacher and student, how will online courses address the student’s (and teacher’s!) needs for this contact and consistent communication so crucial in the learning process?

Bruce Friend:
Communication between the student, parent and teacher is vital the learning process. Successful teaching and learning is done with relationship are established; this is not unique to the traditional classroom. As both an online teacher and administrator, I have found that the communication that I had with my online students exceeded both in time and quality than that which I had in the traditional setting. Because of the flexibilitiy in time that the online class provides, I can communicate with my students any time of day that I choose and any day of the week. I am able to give them more individualized attention to their questions and needs. Outstanding online teaching and learning should be built upon a high degree of interaction between students and teachers. Quality online providers will have clearly defined communication expectations- everything from when teachers are available, turn around time on work submitted, to how often they must personally call students and parents.

Question from Cheryl B. Zimmer, Executive Director, School In The Park Private middle school:
Congratulations on your growth and success! What is the percentage breakdown of the 21000 students in 2004-2005 that used Florida Virtual School: Home Education? Public School? Private School? other? Thank you for expanding the Florida Classroom!

Bruce Friend:
Thank you Cheryl for your question. Our breakdown of students has been consistent for many years now. Our student population consists of 75% public school students, 20% home-educated students, and 5% private schooled students.

FLVS students average 1.5 courses per year with us, thus you can see that we truly are used in addition to students’ regular course load. Less than 4% of our population take a full-time course load (6 credits a year) with FLVS.

Question from Dr. Harvey Chiles, Education Dept. Chair, Southwestern Illinois College:
As a community college professor, I am very interested in the virtual interface between high schools and community colleges. How do you see that playing out in a virtual environment?

Bruce Friend:
I think there is tremendous opportunity for online high schools and community colleges to work together - especially in the form of dual enrollment. Via online courses, students who would not otherwise have access to such opportunities can now earn both high school and college credit regardless of where they live.

Question from Judy Jenkins, Teacher, Milford School:
How does one go about becoming trained for online instruction, and what courses seem to be in demand?

Bruce Friend:
Most virtual schools provide their own training to new online instructors. At the post-secondary level, we are beginning to see some colleges incorporate distance education awareness into their teacher preparation programs; however, programs specifically for preparing teachers to teach online are not commonplace. Most organizations train new online teachers via a face-to-face and online approach.

We have found that all of our courses have been in great demand - both elective and core courses. Foreign language, health and fitness, and social studies courses have routinely been the courses we receive the most requests for.

Question from Robert Clark, Assistant Principal, unemployed:
What group of individuals develops the online content? What standards are followed?

Bruce Friend:
Good question. Different online organizations have different policies on this. At Florida Virtual School, it our teachers, in conjunction with instructional designer and technical designers who develop our courses. We develop our courses to meet our state standards as well as national standards where such standards exist. All content is reviewed by educators both internal to FLVS and external experts, as well as by our students.

Question from Brian Mingin, Teacher, N/A:
I am currently seeking my Master’s degree online and am interested in knowing whether credentialed teachers living in another state are acceptable as teachers in another state’s virtual high/middle school environment?

Bruce Friend:
The answer to this would vary based on the policies of the virtual school program. As a public school in Florida, we only hire teachers who have a valid teaching certificate in Florida. We do have a program in which we serve students outside of our state on a tuition model. In this case we will accept teachers who have a valid certificate in another state; however, we will only assign Florida students to a Florida-certified educator.

Question from Chris Hart, Doctoral Candidate, College of Information, Florida State University:
For the students involved in the online chat I would be interested in finding out where you go to get answers to solve your information questions that may arise during your assignments. Do you use your local public library, a school library, the Florida Electronic Library, the Internet or some other resource?

Zachary Cooney:
Yes I use all of the above and the information from the lessons. The teachers are also a great resource.

Question from Ben Grainger, Student, Valley High School:
What are some of the disadvantages of Virtual High Schools? What do you miss the most?

Zachary Cooney:
Some disadvantages are that I do not get to see my friends as much and the fact that it is a little harder to stay on task.

Question from Julie Swartz, Director Curriculum and Technology, Maple Valley Schools:
What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of virtual education?

Morgan Cooney:
I believe that it is good that you can work at your own pace. For example, I like to work ahead of pace because I like to volunteer at Gatorland and the Central Florida Zoo. It lets me work ahead of pace so I have time to do things like this. I also think that the teachers are very helpful. One of the weaknesses is that it is challenging to stay foccused if you do not have good time managing skills.

Question from Ronnie Mordecai, indepent filmmaker:
How do students meet with each other for class discussions, projects, or review?

Zachary Cooney:
We can email each other and also call each other. There are clubs you you can join to make friends. We also have discussion groups.

Question from Heidi Schweizer, Marquette University:
What are the demographics of the students enrolled in Virtual Schools? Age? Race? SES? types of courses taken?

Bruce Friend:
Hi Heidi - Let me give you a quick breakdown on some of the data. We serve students in grades 6-12. The vast majority of our students are in grades 9-12 as we just recently started offering middle school courses. In 2004-05 we had over 33,000 course enrollments which came from over 22,000 students. The average number of courses taken is 1.5 per student per year. 75% of our population are students who are enolled in the public system. 20% are enrolled in a home-education program. 5% are enrolled in a private school. 31% of our general population are minority students. Interestingly, over 40% of our AP course enrollments are from minority students.

Question from Michelle Hoffman, Parent in Waubeka, WI:
My 16 year old daughter just enrolled in the public virtual school IQ Academies here in Wisconsin, having been in traditional public schools up until now. What advice would you give us, as she is just starting out, that will assist her in succeeding in this new experience?

Zachary Cooney:
Yes, I have been in public school up till now. You need to make a schedule and stick to it to be successful.

Question from Brenda Rose, Ph.D. student, U.Va.:
You say that the Florida Vitual School is “state-sponsored.” Is it then a public school under the regulations of the NCLB Act? If yes, please address how this differs from a homeschool which is not under any government mandate in regard to NCLB.

Bruce Friend:
We are set up as an independent school district in Florida for funding purposes. Our district boundaries however are the entire state. We are not the full-time school for the vast majority of our students as they maintain their full-time status with their local school district. As an educational option for students (and schools), we can actually assist school districts in providing educational choice as NCLB requires. We do adhere to the standards of a “highly qualified teacher” as put forth by NCLB.

Question from Dr. Ben Baab, Faculty, Axia College:
To Morgan and Zachary, Has your experience with the Florida Virtual School influenced your plans for pursuing higher education? What distance education opportunities would you seek in higher education?

Zachary Cooney:
No, I have always planned to go to college but based on this experience I may take online college courses.

Question from monagloff:
How can you insure that students are doing their own work?

Zachary Cooney:
Whether you are doing your own work is based on trust but your teachers are always in contact with your parents and yourself.

Question from Latina White, Teacher, Vernon High School:
Do you think online teaching is more difficult than teaching in a traditional classroom? What are the qualifications to teach with the Fl Virtual School? Is the pay competitive? Can teachers be located in the panhandle, if so how much traveling is involved?

Bruce Friend:
Each environment has its challenges. Online teachers deal with different “discipline” problems. Online teachers at FLVS also have less autonomy perhaps then they did when in the traditional classroom. Every comment, every assignment they grade, every commmunication with students and parents is logged and/or recorded.

FLVS hires only Florida-certified teachers and work out of their homes. We have a teaching staff of 250+, some who even live outside of Florida.

As with every school district in the state, pay and benefit competitiveness is in the eye of the beholder. We have a pay scale that is in the top 25% compared to other Florida districts. Whether our pay scale is attractive would depend on what district a teacher would transfer from - this would be no different than transferring from one district to another.

Question from Rachel Bean, student, North Shore Community College:
Could the students discuss some of their favorite styles of virtual learning (correspondence, online, real-time over the Internet)?

Zachary Cooney:
I like online because you can work at your own pace.

Question from Kevin Bushweller:
Classroom discussion can greatly contribute to learning. Other students can pose questions you’ve never thought of and each person’s opinion on a topic can contribute to your understanding of that topic. Do you feel like students in virtual schools are missing out on this type of learning?

Zachary Cooney:
No, because we have online discussions and chat rooms that let you read more in depth than you could in a regular classroom.

Question from Geoffrey Andrews, Asst Superintendent, Polaris JVSD:
What policies are most critical to have in place prior to launching into a virtual initiative (ie. teacher workloads and compensation, student expectations, union concerns, adminsitrative oversight, parental access and involvement, content alignment to standards, etc.)?

Bruce Friend:
Wow, you have hit upon issues that are all very important. I don’t know that I could say one is more important than another.

If you are just launching into a virtual initiative, perhaps the first decisions to make pertain to who is your audience? What student needs are you attempting to address with your online program? Once you identify who you will serve, it is important to build communication and partnerships with the local schools. Educate the counselors on how virtual learning can benefit students and even how it will help them do their job better by providing additional courses or resolving scheduling conflicts.

Question from Kevin Bushweller:
High schools are so much more than sitting in classrooms and taking tests. Extracurricular activities from sports to debate teams add a lot to a typical high school student’s experience. Are you able to take part in these types of activities when attending a virtual school?

Morgan Cooney:
There are many clubs available at Virtual school. My brother and I are in the Science Club. We also volunteer at the Central Florida Zoo and Gatorland. I also play tennis so you don’t have to only join clubs through school. You can join things on your own so you are not missing out.

Question from Dr. Harvey Chiles, Education Dept. Chair, Southwestern Illinois College:
What role do you see virtual education playing in the much needed redesign/revamping of the American High School experience?

Bruce Friend:
A very important role. Across the nation, even before NCLB, students and parents were demanding choice in who education is delivered to them. Choice does not mean that students un-enroll from their local school, but rather choices to supplement and enhance what is already available to the. Through virtual education, students have access to courses and teachers that they would not otherwise have access to. This is especially true for students in rural areas. We are also seeing the development of a blended approach whereby students who attend a campus still access course online during the regular school day.

Question from Cindy Cole, Teacher, Grace Episcopal School:
Since teachers are the people who actually prepare the lessons, grade the papers, and basically deal with the nuts and bolts of a virtual school, how do teachers feel about the situation? What are the pro’s and con’s?

Bruce Friend:
Flexibiilty in one’s schedule is a part of the job that our online teachers tell us that they must enjoy. Because “class is always open”, teachers are able to give more one-on-one time with students and are not bound by the clock or class period schedule. Our teachers are able to coordinate a schedule of communication and grading that works within many of their other personal and professional commitments.

With this is the challenge of an untraditional schedule which some teachers may not like. We require teachers to be available to students in the evening and weekends. For a teacher who desires a structure schedule of when they are available to students, our environment may be a challenge to their work schedule preferences.

Question from Kevin Bushweller:
How much interaction do you have with your teachers? Do they give you comprehensive feedback on your papers, exams, and other assignments? How do they give you this feedback? What if you have follow-up questions for them?

Zachary Cooney:
You can call your teachers anytime you want. They give you a schedule of their hours every week. They also give great feedback and in depth answers to what you could do better.

Question from Rachel Bean, Correspondence Student, North Shore Community College:
Do you need any special equipment such as a speaker, phone, or VoIP to participate in any of the classes?

Morgan Cooney:
No all we need is a computer and the phone to talk to our teachers.

Question from Ryan Bean, Editorial Assistant, EBSCO Publishing:
What different computer platforms do the students work on?

Bruce Friend:
Our courses are accessible via Mac or PC. Based on our student surveys, over 90% use a PC platform to do their online course.

Question from Sterling Lloyd, Education Week:
How did you first hear about the Florida Virtual School? Why did you decide to enroll?

Zachary Cooney:
My dad heard about it at a meeting and it gave me more time for other activities.

Question from Kathleen Weaver, Substitute teacher, Eugene/Springfield & Creswell School Districts:
I’m assuming this is something that has been used primarily with older students (since they can work on their own). Would this ever work with younger children?

Bruce Friend:
At FLVS, our courses are in grades 6-12, with most being in the 9-12 grade level. There are virtual programs designed specifically for the elementary grades. They typically rely heavily on parental oversight of the child interfacing with the content; hence may be more attractive to the home-school community at this point.

Question from Dr. Harvey Chiles, Education Dept. Chair, Southwestern Illinois College:
What advice would you give an educator K-16 who wants to work full time in the virtual education environment? Graduate degree in content area such as math, science? or a graduate degree in instructional technology, etc? or both.

I work with pre-professional teachers who are coming from traditional environments but must be equipped for virtual competition.

Bruce Friend:
My answer may seem rather simple - become the most outstanding classroom teacher that you can be first. Outstanding teaching is about communication and building relationship with students. This is not a trait unique to online teachers or traditional classroom teachers. Content knowledge is a must but many online teachers are not going to be developing online courses, merely teaching content that already exists for them. The most successful online teachers are those who have mastered the art of how to build relationships with students.

Question from Kevin Bushweller:
How prepared do you feel you are for college? Most college environments will require you to attend class and engage in discussion. Do you feel prepared for this type of educational environment?

Morgan Cooney:
I have been in public schools up until this point so I do feel prepared for class discusion.

Question from Kevin Bushweller:
Do you ever meet face-to-face with your teachers? Is yes, about how often? And what types of things do you discuss?

Zachary Cooney:
Some we never meet and others we meet during field trips and club meeting. It is not very often.

Question from Dr. John Quinn, Assistant Professor of Education, The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey:
I assume students receive this online instruction at home, is this correct or is there another model that virtual schools are using in certain neighborhoods?

Bruce Friend:
Our students access their courses from a variety of venues. Most of our students will tell you that they do most of their online coursework from their home. Some students actually access their online course from their geo-school either during the school day or before or after school. Some students do access from community centers or libraries.

Question from Frank R Howard, Director of ITResearch,Georgia Technical College System:
Please relate how the Virtual School has aided students in Rural areas.

Bruce Friend:
We provide courses to students in rural areas that they would not otherwise have. For example, there are rural districts that did not offer AP courses prior to FLVS making such courses available. We also offer a broad ranger of elective and honors courses that a small, rural school may not be able to offer.

Question from Londa Horton, Instructional Manager, Michigan Virtual High Schoool:
Given that online learners may be unique in terms of who attends and who comes to us virtually, what do you feel are vital criteria for success for an online learner?

Zachary Cooney:
I feel like the most important thing to do to be succesful is to have a schedule and stay on pace.

Question from Bill Heuer, Exec Committee, MHLA (Mass Home Learning Assoc):
What is the funding mechanism for the online courses and does it differ between public, private and homeschooled students?

Bruce Friend:
Funding for virtual schools varies from state to state. FLVS is funded through the state’s full-time enrollment funding formula. We receive a FTE dollars based upon the number of credits that students earn with us during the year. Unlike a traditional FTE model however, we only receive funding if the student successfully completed their online course (meaning that they earned a 1/2 or full credit). Funding is then based on student performance, not seat time.

Question from Sheila Boehning, adjunct faculty/licensed teacher K-8, various:
My questions pertain to teaching licenses because I am currently licensed to teach K-8. Can licensed teachers in one state teach online in a different state? Do they have to be licensed in both states? Also, do the states recognize online teaching as teaching experience that goes toward renewing a state teaching license?

Bruce Friend:
The answer to this depends on the rules and policies of the state DOE. Some states do recognize licenses held in other states, some do not. You would need to check on the policy of the state in which you are interested in working.

As public school, we only hire Florida-certified teachers. Other virtual schools may have different rules on who they will hire.

Question from Kevin Bushweller:
What do you do when you have technical problems with your computer? How often do such problems disrupt your learning?

Morgan Cooney:
I would just call my mom or dad if I had a technical problem because I am not very good with computers. If they can’t help out with the problem then you can call the FLVS technical support staff. However this does not happen often.

Question from Kevin Bushweller:
Lab work is extremely important to learning about the sciences. How do virtual physics, chemistry, and biology classes handle labs?

Morgan Cooney:
Every science class has experiments we can do with detailed instructions that can be done with household materials.

Question from Donna Moore, Executive Director, New City School:
How does your virtual school accomodate the needs of learning disabled students who may be dyslexic, or have special problems in mathematics?

Bruce Friend:
We do enroll students with both learning and physical disabilities. As a public school we must be prepared to make appropriate accomadations. For such students, the first thing we do is to work with the local school to make sure that placement in an online course is the best learning environment for the student based on their limitation. We have found great success with students who have attention-deficit, dyslexic students, etc. Student may find that the online environment provides them additional time or more teacher interaction or less “noise” in the classroom.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):

Thank you for joining us for this fascinating discussion about virtual schools. And we want to extend a special thanks to our guests from the Florida Virtual School.

This online chat is now over. A transcript of the discussion will be online at by the end of the day Friday.

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