Virtual high schools, in which students complete courses over the internet without ever meeting the teacher or stepping inside a building, are cropping up all across the country. Despite the increasing popularity of these cyber-schools, skeptics caution that their success so far is merely anecdotal.

From Florida, to Kentucky, to Alaska, the number of states and districts operating web-based public schools is increasing.

“Michigan is looking at it, Illinois is looking at it, New Mexico—it’s happening all over the country,” said Justin McMorrow, general manager of K-12 education at eCollege.com, a company that has helped 150 universities deliver web-based courses. eCollege.com has just begun to work with the K-12 market as well.

“Schools, districts, and states are seeing the ability to provide new and additional curriculum in a way they’ve never seen before,” he said.

Virtual schools offer solutions to a number of problems in K-12 education, their proponents say, including access to rare classes, remedial work for the academically at-risk, overcoming scheduling conflicts, and drawing home-schoolers back into public education. Although the virtual school phenomenon embraces technology and broadens the kinds of courses a student can take, critics say it is trendy and not supported by research.

“There’s a real hazard that this will be a fad and policy makers will be keeping up with the Joneses, rather than looking at the real hard evidence,” said William L. Rukeyser, coordinator of Learning in the Real World, a nonprofit group in Woodland, Calif., that is skeptical of the benefits of technology in schools.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal reasons for people to be cautious of adopting this” approach widely, he said. “There’s the assumption that if something works well in one place, it will work well everywhere.”

Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that students who might benefit the most from virtual schooling are those who are most isolated, Rukeyser said, either through poverty or geography.

“You shouldn’t think this is the best way to go [everywhere] since it works so well in isolated parts of Maine,” he said. “If we are talking about suburban Maryland and they are talking about creating a virtual classroom, then it’s a much, much more debatable issue.”

However, Rukeyser also said “there’s a lot of circumstances where distance education is better than no education at all.”

‘Any time, any place, any path, any pace’

Driving the proliferation of these virtual schools, in part, is the push for education reform, which recognizes that not all children are best served in a traditional classroom environment. As a result, several state education departments are eyeing virtual high schools as a means of reaching more students.

One such state is Kentucky. The Kentucky Virtual High School (KVHS), which launched in late January, lets students at Kentucky’s 1,400 public high schools take courses not offered by their local school.

Kentucky has 176 school districts with many small schools scattered across the largely rural state. “Many high schools cannot offer the curriculum they would like to because of their size,” said Linda Pittenger, project director for KVHS. “The purpose [of the virtual school] was to provide equitable access to advance coursework that you would not see in regular schools.”

For example, KVHS offers ocean-ography as an elective—not a common school subject in land-locked Kentucky.

eCollege.com provides KVHS with its software, web site, design support, and help desk. eCollege.com’s McMorrow said the company is involved in discussions with five other states to begin building their statewide virtual high schools as well.

Officials in Louisiana, meanwhile, are working with another online course developer, Blackboard Inc., to create a virtual high school that will launch this fall.

“We’re just in the pilot stage,” said Chris O’Neal, director of educational technology at the Louisiana Department of Education. “We’re treading cautiously, but we think it’s going to turn out fine since we’ve had such an enormous response from teachers and parents.”

Currently, teachers are busy developing assignments and compiling video clips, audio clips, and data files for the 13 web-based courses that will be offered through the Louisiana Virtual Classroom.

“There’s a limit of 20 students per course, and I believe every course is full for the fall,” O’Neal said.

In Florida, lawmakers are considering a bill that would make one of the nation’s first virtual high schools a statewide initiative rather than a local one. The Florida High School (FHS) began in 1997 by offering classes to Orange County students entirely online. Now, students across the state can take classes at FHS, but the school is still run by the Orange County school board.

The legislation would “serve the interest of all the districts in the state of Florida,” said Julie Young, the school’s principal. FHS already meets the interests of the entire state, but making it a state-run institution would ensure that it remains objective, she said.

Young attributes the rapid growth in enrollment at FHS—from 170 students during the 1997-98 school year to 1,400 students this year, with a projected enrollment of 5,000 students in September—to advantages that are unique to the online environment.

“Traditional schools have a lot of distractions,” she said, such as getting a class settled down and fire drills, not to mention teenage hormones and goofing around. “Those are things our teachers are not dealing with. It’s very educationally focused.”

Another advantage of virtual schools is that students can learn at their own pace, Young said. “Research shows that many kids drop out of school just because they’re bored,” she said. “Our motto is, ‘Any time, any place, any path, any pace.'”

A third advantage that many students benefit from is the anonymity of the internet.

“When kids get in an online course, they don’t get labels placed on them,” Kentucky’s Pittenger said. “Everyone starts out on a neutral playing field. You have an opportunity to have a new start.” There is also less peer pressure, so shy kids aren’t discouraged from asking questions.

Accreditation and other hurdles

Ironically, the same force that is driving the phenomenon of virtual high schools might prove to be its greatest challenge. The education reform movement champions high standards and accountability, and not enough is known about virtual schools for them to pass the most basic test of accountability for K-12 schools—accreditation.

So far, no state-run virtual schools are accredited, which means the schools can’t award course credits or diplomas. Instead, they must depend on local school districts to enroll students and administer credits and diplomas.

“We’re not actually a high school. We don’t grant credits,” Pittenger said of KVHS. “The only way a student can enroll in a virtual high school is through their local public school.”

“We work cooperatively with the [local] schools,” Young said. Students must enroll with their local area high school to take web-based classes. Once the student completes the online course, he or she receives credit from the local school that approved the enrollment.

Since the virtual school concept is relatively new, not many schools have tested their states’ accreditation rules. Most virtual schools are intended to supplement a student’s in-class learning, not replace it. But FHS, which hopes to have a full high school curriculum in place by fall of 2001, is seeking accreditation in Florida and aims to become a full-fledged, diploma-granting institution.

The process could be difficult. “There are certain rules that are required to be accredited as a proper school, such as having a library and a media specialist,” Young said. “We don’t have a place to check out books.”

Julie Duffield of the Distance Learning Resource Network said of accreditation, “I think it’s the biggest issue facing these schools. You’re moving from old modes to new modes of doing things, and these regulations were formed before [virtual schools] were heard of.”

Two recent developments are encouraging to supporters of accreditation for virtual high schools. In March of last year, Jones International University became the first fully online institution (K-12 or higher ed) to receive approval from one of the six regional associations for accrediting U.S. schools.

The second development was the release in January of a year-long study by a group of professors from the University of Illinois, who concluded that online courses can be of high quality if constructed and taught with care.

But even if virtual high schools can prove they supply as rigorous an education as any bricks-and-mortar school, there is still the issue of socialization.

“The only con we have found so far is the lack of face-to-face contact,” Young said. “We’ve come to grips with the fact that we can’t be all things to all students.”

Despite the fact that students and teachers don’t see each other, they do directly communicate.

“It’s not an isolated experience. Students are engaged with the curriculum and with other students taking the course,” eCollege.com’s McMorrow said. Students and teachers interact with each other through the telephone, journals, eMail messages, and live online chats. Teachers also schedule phone appointments or use a digital camera to post video or audio files on the web.

Funding also an issue

Funding also poses a serious challenge to the virtual school concept. In fact, “our biggest obstacle right now is that we don’t have a clear funding model,” Young said.

Seat time is the traditional way that schools get funding from the state, explained Bruce Friend, assistant principal at FHS. “We don’t fit that model,” he said.

“The seat-time rule is kind of a barrier,” Pittenger agreed. “It doesn’t work when you’re trying to promote this ‘any place, any pace’ kind of learning.”

To overcome this obstacle, many virtual schools—KVHS included—charge a fee for their courses to cover their operating expenses. Depending on the circumstances, either the student or the school district pays for the student to take the course.

But funding isn’t just an issue for the virtual school. Some educators fear the proliferation of virtual schools will drain funding from brick-and-mortar schools, which are beginning to see their students opt for online courses over traditional schooling.

“Some schools have asked us not to advertise to their students,” Young said, because they’re worried their funding will follow the student. “We want to find out how to do this without cutting into their funding. We need to find or develop a funding model that is a win-win situation for all parties involved.”

Most virtual high schools downplay the threat they pose to brick-and-mortar schools, claiming they are not intended to replace traditional schools, but merely supplement them.

“We don’t want to compete with our local public schools,” Pittenger said. “We are just a service to enhance regular courses.”

“Our intent is to take a traditional class and enhance it,” said Kathi Baldwin, educational technologist at Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, which operates a virtual school called Pathways to Learning. “If we can’t make a class better, then what’s the point. Not every subject is well suited for web-based instruction.”

eCollege.com

http://www.ecollege.com

Learning in the Real World

http://realworld.org

Kentucky Virtual High School

http://www.kvhs.org

The Louisiana Virtual Classroom

http://www.lcet.doe.state.la.us/distance

Blackboard.com

http://www.blackboard.com

The Florida High School

http://www.fhs.net

Distance Learning Resource Network

http://www.wested.org/tie/dlrn

Pathways to Learning

http://www.seeuonline.org