An education in virtual schooling

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From working to shopping and paying our bills, the Internet seems to have  transformed virtually every aspect of modern life. Now it’s changing the way we  educate our children.

Thirty states plus the District of Columbia have full-time online schools.  And while those schools only educate about 200,000 students nationwide, that  number is growing by about 25 percent each year. Florida opened one of the first  online schools in 1997 and the Florida Virtual School is now the nation’s  largest. California alone has 16 virtual schools.

In 2006, Michigan became the first state to make completion of at least one  online class a high-school graduation requirement. Since then, Alabama and  Florida have followed. Reasons for attending a virtual school include physical  disabilities or medical conditions, bullying problems at school, living in  remote areas, or having caretaker or financial responsibilities at home.

Virtual schools also serve students whose careers in the arts or athletics  make traditional school attendance impossible.

Proponents argue that virtual schools can, ironically, provide a more  personalized education. Traditional education specifies the amount of time spent  at school. But over the course of a marking period or academic year, students  learn different amounts.

Virtual schools turn this calculus on its head by specifying the amount of  learning to be achieved. How time is spent reaching that level will vary, with students allowed to learn at their own pace.

There is also evidence that virtual schooling is more cost-effective. Virtual  schools need software known as learning management systems, but don’t have to  pay for transportation or maintain large facilities that include cafeterias,  libraries and gymnasiums.

Studies have pegged the cost of virtual schools everywhere from slightly less  to half the amount spent on traditional education. One study found that the  Florida Virtual School saved taxpayers about 17 percent compared to the state’s  traditional schools. Another found that Pennsylvania’s virtual schools cost  about 27 percent less.

It’s too early to definitively measure their academic performance, but the  U.S. Department of Education concluded that virtual-school students perform  moderately better than their traditional counterparts.

There are areas of concern. Very few American teacher- preparation programs  offer a curriculum for online teaching, although that is starting to change with  the growth of online education. The University of Central Florida has a teaching  internship program with the Florida Virtual School and Michigan State University  has a similar partnership with Michigan Virtual High School.

Professional development is another concern. Virtual schools present a set of  unique challenges such as understanding the psychology of online learning,  meeting the needs of students with disabilities and promoting parental  involvement.

Quality control can also present a challenge with students logging on from  one end of a state to the other.

Massachusetts has been slow to embrace virtual schooling. Although more than  200 state schools offer online courses, the Massachusetts Virtual Academy (MVA)  in Greenfield is the commonwealth’s only online school. MVA planned to educate  1,500 students in grades K-12, but was capped at 500 students by the state Board  of Education. The school is governed by the Greenfield school district even  though its students are from across Massachusetts. State regulations require 25  percent of a virtual school’s students to be from the district within which a  school is located, though Greenfield received a waiver from the requirement.

Unlike charter schools or the commonwealth’s school-choice program, under  which funding is deducted from the sending district and sent to the receiving  district or charter, virtual schools must bill the school districts from which  their students come. Leaders in the 115 sending districts became much more aware  of virtual schools last year when they (often unexpectedly) received the bill.

In May, the Board of Education voted to change course and place virtual  schools under the commonwealth’s charter school program, which will allow for  more state control. The change would require legislative approval.

It’s unlikely that virtual schools will supplant their traditional  counterparts any time soon. But attending bricks-and-mortar schools presents  difficult challenges for some students. And with state education leaders urging  a move away from “one-size-fits-all” education, virtual schools offer a  promising option.

Also seen Lowell Sun Online