Despite the escalating prevalence and support for eLearning programs across the country, virtual schools raise many policy and logistical questions that have yet to be answered sufficiently, said the editors of a recently released report on eLearning.

“Technology Counts 2002: E-Defining Education,” which reports the findings of Education Week’s fifth annual 50-state educational technology survey, finds more and more students are attending school without ever entering a traditional bricks-and-mortar classroom.

A total of 12 states have created online high schools and 25 states have laws that permit cyber charter schools, the report said. Approximately 30 cyber charter schools have emerged in a dozen of those states. In addition, 32 states have started some type of eLearning initiative.

An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 students will have enrolled in an online course by the end of this school year, according to “Virtual Schools: Trends and Issues,” a report released last fall by WestEd.

Oregon and South Dakota already administer their state tests online, and 10 additional states are looking into web-based assessment through pilot programs.

eLearning is big business, too.

The Florida Virtual High School, the nation’s largest, most prominent state-sponsored virtual school, serves 5,000 students. The school receives $6 million each year from the state, plus it earns extra revenue by selling its courses to schools in other states, such as West Virginia.

The Virtual High School, operated by a Massachusetts-based company, is a collaboration of 200 high schools in 28 states and 8 countries.

While eLearning initiatives are multiplying rapidly, Kevin Bushweller, the report’s project editor, cited some key points for educators to consider before they plunge into eLearning in their own districts:

• Is it even necessary? eLearning is best used to fill gaps in a school’s curriculum offerings and shouldn’t necessarily replace key courses, Bushweller said.

• Does the infrastructure exist already, or will it take a significant investment?

• What kind of access do students have to the internet?

• Are the courses aligned to state standards?

• Who should provide and design the courses—a company such as Apex Learning, or the school’s own teachers?

• Should students get the same credit for completing a virtual course as a traditional course?

• Which students are eligible to participate? Virtual schooling is not ideal for every student, as it requires self-motivation and parental guidance.

• How much training should teachers receive? Teachers can’t use the same tactics as in bricks-and-mortar classrooms and will need sufficient training to make the switch effectively to a virtual classroom.

• How will schools ensure high-quality curriculum? Courses can’t just be slapped together. Schools need to consider what’s lost when students and teachers don’t meet face to face and how they can compensate for this.

Virtual schools that haven’t worked through all the issues beforehand have faced serious repercussions. Prominent virtual schools in Ohio and Pennsylvania already have faced opposition from education groups and legal action that has brought unsolicited media attention.

According to a state audit, Ohio’s largest cyber charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (eCOT), ended last school year almost $4 million in debt.

School officials blamed the deficit on start-up costs, depreciation of equipment, and having to write off almost 400 computers the school was unable to collect from students who left eCOT before the year ended.

Besides erasing its deficit, the school must repay the Ohio Department of Education about $1.6 million as part of a settlement over a dispute involving its enrollment figures. The settlement resolves overpayments the department allegedly made to the school during the 2000-01 school year.

The state will deduct the money from eCOT’s regular state aid payments each month for three years. The annual repayment of about $550,000 represents 3 percent of eCOT’s yearly revenue of $16 million.

In addition to the school’s money problems, the Ohio Federation of Teachers has sued the state over its charter schools, arguing they violate both the Ohio Constitution and state law.

Pennsylvania’s largest internet-based charter school, Einstein Academy, just settled a lawsuit of its own. The school finally will receive $3.4 million that state officials withheld over questions about whether the school was operating legally.

The department has dropped its lawsuit, but the school now must ensure that it meets several conditions, including providing services to special education students, responding to parental complaints, and properly accounting for its billing and spending practices.

Einstein has struggled to deliver computers and textbooks to families on time since it opened in September, and its internet service provider terminated service to the school in March because it was owed nearly $80,000, leaving many students in the lurch.

School officials attributed their financial problems to the refusal of many bricks-and-mortar school districts to pay tuition bills to Einstein. They claimed these problems were aggravated by the state’s decision to withhold additional funding.

The “Technology Counts” report also cited the “Guide to Online High School Courses,” a draft report from a coalition of companies and education groups—including the National Education Association and National School Boards Association—that expresses concerns about eLearning becoming more popular in the lower grades.

Other findings of “Technology Counts” include:

• Nationwide, the student-to-computer ratio improved to 4.2 to 1, down from 4.9 to 1 in 2000. The number of student per internet-connected computer improved to nearly 7 to 1.

• Only 13 states have incentives in place to encourage teachers to use technology in the classroom.

Related links:
“Technology Counts 2002: E-Defining Education”

WestEd’s “Virtual Schools: Trends and Issues”

Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow

Einstein Academy Charter School