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Stephanie Watson Virtual High Schools and Online Learning Options Simpson College November 14, 2011




Time for a new model In a time of back to the basics education driven by standardized testing and cuts in school budgets and resources, it may seem counterintuitive to think of adding more course options and more technology to current academic menus. In spite of these facts, the number of K-12 students taking online courses is on the rise (Davis, 2009, para. 1). In 2008 Massachusetts based researchers Sloan Consortium estimated that more than 1 million students were taking classes online, a 47 percent increase(?) from the previous school year (Davis, 2009, para. 2). Seventyfive percent of the polled districts offering an online component also had at least one student taking a class completely online, and two out of three school districts surveyed expect their online-course enrollments to climb (Davis, 2009, para. 3). No doubt those numbers have risen even higher since the date of that poll. Statistics like these prove that schools are looking for a new model for the classroom—one that can “serve both students and teachers” by shifting our focus “from the three R’s to an education system that builds skills in the three C’s: content, collaboration, and community” (Pape, 2005, p. 12). By offering online courses and virtual schools, educators can “focus on building students’ literacy skills so they can ask questions, define inquiry, research multiple sources, authenticate sources of information, process and synthesize data and information, draw conclusions, and develop action plans based on their newfound knowledge [. . .] while filtering the vast quantity of information they receive and determining what is authentic, useful, and of value” (Pape, 2005, p. 12). High schools are and should offer online courses not only because it increases the number of classes a school can offer, but also because it prepares students to thrive in a global economy where collaborating, communicating, and connecting through digital forms is essential.



Models of K-12 online education While the model for virtual high schools can vary as much as the student populations they strive to serve, today most virtual high schools are state or district funded and designed to meet an individual state or district’s needs. Virtual high school programs often include a combination of college courses offered to high school students online and high school level courses offered to meet a variety of needs. Podoll and Randle (2005) give the example of South Dakota's Rapid City Academy, an alternative high school program for South Dakota’s Rapid City Area Schools. This virtual high school is funded by the Rapid City Area School district and is almost devoted entirely to providing a largely at-risk student population with flexible learning options—a population they noticed needing special attention in their district, although each district can specialize course offerings as they see fit for their student body. At Rapid City Academy, students dealing with teenage parenthood, high absentee rates, low socioeconomic status, and medical and/or personal challenges that impact their ability to succeed in the traditional classroom setting are able to obtain their high school diploma despite difficult circumstances (para. 1). The academy is also able to use the online learning forum to differentiate instruction for these students through instructional methods such as smaller studentteacher ratios, individualized learning plans, strategy-based learning, flexible schedules, and independent and group-led classes” (para. 1). Other online course options allow students who wish to graduate early, remediate classes to catch up with their original graduating class, or simply take additional course work in an area in which they are interested. “But not all participants fit the archetype of the typical high school-aged learner” Podoll and Randle say. One non-traditional student was able to return and complete his high school diploma after more than 50 years—a feat that would probably be unfathomable for an adult that age in the traditional



classroom setting (Podoll and Randle, 2005, para. 3). Another emerging trend in online education is nonprofit virtual cooperatives such as The Virtual High School (VHS) that serves 250 high schools nationally and abroad. Out of the three opt-in models VHS offers, the most popular option is one of give and take: for every teacher the school “donates” the school receives 25 spots for students per semester in any of the 425 courses currently offered (VHS, 2011). The teachers at this school are licensed employees of the state in which their home school resides, and they design their own innovative courses with the help of VHS mentors and instructional technology experts (VHS, 2011). Other options include a Student Only membership with options beginning at 10 students per semester and individual student enrollment based on an application process and individual tuition fee (VHS, 2011). For students involved in VHS this means that they now have access to instruction that is not otherwise available to them and interaction with students they probably would have never had the chance to meet had they not taken these courses. Hudson High School’s principal John Stapefeld, for example, says that offering online coursework ‘broadens curriculum in a way beyond what we’d normally be able to offer” (Trotter, 2002, para. 8). Andrew Trotter reported in his 2002 interview with Stapefeld that this small Massachusetts town has been able to offer students a learning experience unimaginable before: “One student, for example, is taking a media studies course online from a teacher in Malaysia. Another is studying technology and multimedia from a teacher in Georgia. A third is taking honors American studies from a teacher in Clinton, Mass. Classmates enroll from throughout the nation, and some from as far away as Asia, Europe, and South America.” Hudson High School is a great example of a growing number of high schools that are looking to



e-learning and virtual classrooms as a way “to poke holes in traditional classroom and curriculum boxes and let new information, perspectives, and options pour in” (Trotter, 2002, para. 7). Important to note, however, is that neither Rapid City Academy nor Hudson High are looking to replace regular core curriculum classes. Their hope is to supplement those classes in a way that allows schools to differentiate curriculum for diverse learners and offer additional ways for students to build digital literacy skills. Meeting the needs of a diverse student body Educational psychology has been telling us for a long time now that a one-size-fits-all model for education does not meet the needs of a diverse student body. Yet, one of the foremost frustrations teachers voice today is the difficulty they face in providing the right kind of instruction to students with varying needs. Recent studies suggest that online education may be just one of the answers our schools need to address this problem. Michelle Davis’s 2009 Education Week article on web-based classrooms reports that, "survey results indicate that online learning is meeting a wide range of student needs from remedial to accelerated instruction [. . .] It provides the ability to offer coursework that is otherwise unavailable at a child's school, which we find to be especially significant in rural counties" (para. 4). Not only are schools now providing more options, though, they are providing them and seeing students excel. Podoll and Randle (2005) offer an interesting look at qualified research on instructor and student experiences with online course. They write that while studying the Rapid Area Academy’s online programs the Illinois Online Network found that “asynchronous discussions in an online course allowed the learner time to think and reflect on presented content material.” It was reported that the students seemed more engaged in learning when they were given more time to consider responses and students’ learning seemed deeper because they were having to discuss and be



active participants in the learning processes rather than passively receive facts. Because of this “88 percent of academy instructors identified reflective learning, student engagement, and student-centered instruction as advantages of online instruction.” In addition to positive instructor observations, student feedback regarding their experiences taking online courses indicated that they actually did feel a personal connectedness to the instructor through the use of e-mail, threaded discussions, and journaling. Students also noted enjoying learning to use new forms of technology (Podoll and Randle, 2005, para. 7-8). Concerns Despite findings such as these, many educators still say the idea of online course work for middle and high schools raises some questions in their mind. The two of the most common concerns deal with what happens to “real” teachers when learning goes online and the isolated environment of online learning might limit students’ opportunities to build speaking, listening, and social skills. In response to the latter concern, it should be reiterated that none of the programs surveyed for this paper were attempting to replace or take students away from the core curriculum their schools were offering—programs that do so should raise serious concerns. Students do need to engage in conversations with each other and with teachers face-to-face in real time. Virtual learning, at least at this point in time, seems to be an attempt to very practically supplement our high school course offerings and our students’ global experiences in a way that the traditional classroom has not been able to do on its own. Our students need both sets of communication skills. In response to the former question, educators should be reassured by the fact that real teachers are teaching these courses. No one is being pushed out of a job. In fact, over 85 percent of VHS teachers hold master’s degrees in education, 19 percent of VHS teachers hold master’s degrees plus additional credits, or doctorate degrees, and VHS teachers have an



average of 16 years of teaching experience (VHS, 2011). Of those with over 10 years of teaching experience, almost fifty percent of those individuals have been educators for more than 20 years (VHS, 2011). It is interesting that teachers for the most part have been spared the technology transition that those in the private sector had to adjust to quite a while ago. Real teachers will not be losing any jobs because schools offer online courses, but if schools are going to offer the online options our students need, they will have to start evolving with the system. Other concerns about offering online courses in K-12 include technical difficulties such as limited access to the Internet, computer failures, time management, and access to resources. Housekeeping issues like these are valid concerns, but should be tackled as kinks to work out in providing the options our students need, not roadblocks keep us from moving into the future. Schools will need to reallocate resources to keep computers and systems updated, but they should be doing this anyway. Denying our students the chance to use the technology they need to be familiar with when they graduate because we cannot find a way to work the kinks out a system that could be better is a poor excuse for providing inadequate education. Many proponents of offering online course work would say should be the biggest concern for educators is the standardization and accountability of these courses. While this topic goes beyond the scope of this paper, it seems to be the most recent thought on online educators’ minds as online courses surely warrant being held to the same standards we hold our traditional classrooms. Concluding thoughts Our students are growing up in a world unfettered by time and local. They have the ability to, and often are, connected globally every waking moment of their day. The truth is, no one’s job is restricted to his or her cubical anymore–the 21st century workplace is one with global connections. If our schools are going to prepare our students for their future, they should be



striving to prepare students to communicate, collaborate, and connect in a global economy. It is imperative that we ensure they can start building those skills before leaving our classrooms. At the same time, our schools are struggling to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse students population. Imagine a school being able to offer and additional 425 courses—that’s the possibility to meet 425 different students’ individual needs. While there are still kinks to be worked out, the educational model is shifting whether we like it or not. The question is: will you be moving with it?

From Rose, I agree with Kerri A fascinating topic well developed. All criteria met. Cerri’s comment about needing clarification holds for me also. On a personal note: it certainly is not a time saver for T’s! Grade = 48/50.



References Davis, M. R. (2009). Web-Based Classes Booming in Schools. Education Week 28(19), n. p. Retrieved from /login.aspx? direct=true&AuthType=ip,url,uid,cookie&db=aph&AN=36386801&site=ehostlive&scop e=site Pape, Liz (2005). High School on the Web: What you need to know about offering online courses. American School Board Journal 192(7), 12-16. Retrieved from LHVybCx1aWQsY29va2llJnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#db=f5h&A N=17307710 Podoll, S., & Randle, D. (2005). BUILDING A VIRTUAL HIGH SCHOOL ‌CLICK BY CLICK. T H E Journal 33(2), 14-19. Retrieved from Type=ip,url,uid,cookie&db=aph&AN=18404151&site=ehostlive&scope=site Trotter, A. (2002). E-Learning Goes to School. Education Week 21(35) n. p. Retrieved from



direct=true&AuthType=ip,url,uid,cookie&db=aph&AN=6953208&site=ehostlive &scope=site Virtual High School (2011). Membership. Retrieved from

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