Contrary to popular belief, online education does not cost less than traditional schooling, according to virtual school leaders who revealed myths and barriers surrounding eLearning at a May 29 forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

The forum, called “Exploring Virtual Schools,” was the first in a series of events to be hosted by ED’s newly created Office of Innovation and Improvement, which oversees 25 discretionary grant programs and aims to help school administrators identify innovative strategies and overcome barriers to accomplishing the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

“Lawmakers in a lot of states think this can be done on the cheap,” said Charles Zogby, senior vice president of education and policy for K12 Inc., which runs virtual schools in seven states. Before joining K12, Zogby served as education commissioner for Pennsylvania, which was a pioneer of the virtual charter school movement.

“We operate at a cost 20 to 35 percent lower than a traditional school, but we have costs that traditional schools do not have,” Zogby said of K12. For example, to complete the state assessment in Pennsylvania, he said, K12 had to rent 40 sites and hire staff to oversee the exam.

Zogby also cited a KPMG study of Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools that found there is a correlation between cost and quality of education.

This fact is echoed in the “Colorado Online Education Programs Study,” released May 12 by the Colorado Department of Education.

“Reports from online programs across the country, as well as those within Colorado, consistently indicate that the cost per student of a high-quality online learning program is the same as or greater than the per-student cost of physical school education,” said the study, which examined virtual school programs nationwide.

Typically, 85 percent of education budgets are spent on staffing, so the savings that come from eliminating school buildings is miniscule and often is less than the cost of developing eLearning curriculum, the study said.

“Physical schools do not pay for course development except through the purchase of textbooks and other commercially generated course materials; these purchases do not represent a substantial cost on a per-pupil basis. Since cyber schools often purchase computers for every student, hardware costs are also substantial,” the study said.

The Colorado study adds that statewide programs are more cost-effective than ones run by individual school districts. Also, virtual schools can save money by simplifying their course design and adjusting student-per-teacher ratios, the study says, although it warns, “Such cost-reduction strategies are not in keeping with best practices for achieving successful student learning.”

At the forum, Julie Young, chief executive of the Florida Virtual School (FLVS)—one of the nation’s first statewide, state-run virtual schools—said her school has successfully reduced costs by employing a combination of full-time and part-time staff.

Other myths

“Not all virtual schools are the same,” said Raymond Rose, vice president of the Concord Consortium, which started the Virtual High School (VHS) in 1997 with a five-year Technology Innovation Challenge Grant.

For instance, VHS offers more than 100 different courses to participating schools through a co-op model; schools join with the expectation that at least one of their teachers will teach an online course, Rose explained.

The goals differ. Some virtual schools offer a high school diploma, while others merely supplement traditional classrooms, he said. Some assume that students are home-based, while others expect students to be part of a physical school.

Here are other facts about virtual schools that often are misunderstood, according to forum participants:

Not all education is done online. In the early grades of a K12-run virtual school, which starts in kindergarten, 20 percent of the work is done online and the other 80 percent is done offline, supervised by an adult. The curriculum even includes field trips. “Kids in this model are very socialized. Again, it’s a mix of online and offline,” Zogby said.

Students do not need to be advanced computer users. When a student enrolls in a K12 virtual school, the United Parcel Service literally delivers 90 pounds of supplies and resources to the student’s home, including a computer, printer, and subsidized internet connection. “For a large chunk of our families and kids, this is the first time they’ve had internet access and a computer in the home,” Zogby said.

Virtual education is not the same as home schooling. “Predominantly, students are coming from public schools,” Zogby said. Early figures showed that 20 percent of K12’s students were home schooled, but those numbers are dropping, he added.

Virtual education is not easier. Young said school guidance counselors have called FLVS to see if a student can complete a course like American history over spring break, but in fact courses are much longer and more involved than what can be accomplished in a week.

Virtual schools can accommodate special-needs students. “Any school should have a special-needs policy,” Rose said.

Some panelists said their schools have accommodated deaf and autistic students. Virtual schools easily can accommodate individualized education plans as required by law, they said, because they generally offer individualized instruction anyway.

However, Zogby said that in states where the virtual schools were not welcome, some special-needs students had trouble accessing services that normally would be available to them in a traditional school setting.

Virtual schools can meet the scientifically based research requirements of NCLB. For instance, FLVS conducts a yearly study of its school, as well as a more rigorous evaluation every three years, even though the results are hard to measure because most students only take one or two courses, Young said. Regardless of measurement challenges, however, if an FLVS student does not master the content in a particular course, the student does not earn the credit.

Attending virtual schools can help prepare students for virtual environments that are rapidly becoming commonplace at work and in higher education, Young said. Students learn how to cope with telecommuting, conference calling, and internet skills early.

“We also need to look at other places [such as professional development and supplemental services] where we can use eLearning to meet the goals and challenges of No Child Left Behind,” said John Bailey, director of ED’s office of educational technology, who moderated the forum.

Links:

ED’s Office of Innovation and Improvement
http://www.ed.gov/offices/OII

“Colorado Online Education Programs Study”
http://www.cde.state.co.us/edtech/download/osc-finalreport.pdf

K12 Inc.
http://www.k12.com

Florida Virtual School
http://www.flvs.net

Virtual High School Inc.
http://www.govhs.org