Virtual schools: The first real fruits of a slow revolution?

History tells us that revolutions can be of two kinds–the violent type that tend to stay in the mind of history writers and their readers and the slow type that creep up on you while you were, metaphorically speaking, asleep. With regard to the much-hyped revolutionary potential of technology to transform schools, the technology optimists have increasingly been placed on the defensive–particularly since the advent of No Child Left Behind and its tendency to crowd out anything that does not have a direct bearing on test results–and now talk much more in terms of an extremely slow revolution that finally will occur when the next generation of teachers, born securely in the Internet Age, enter the profession. But we might not need to wait that long after all.

Computers are indeed beginning to transform education, albeit through a different door and one that we hardly suspected had existed prior to the dramatic growth of virtual schools: the opportunity for students to learn independently through the use of online courses.

Why virtual schooling? Although the number of students attending virtual schools looks fairly small right now–with 40 accredited schools serving 85,500 students enrolled in the 2002-03 school year–the numbers enrolled are expected to grow quickly to more than half a million students this academic year. While it is easy to dismiss the virtual school movement as involving a fringe group of students who see it as an offshoot of the home-schooling movement, the fact is that a majority of courses offered by virtual schools are used for supplemental purposes by brick-and-mortar high schools.

The explosion of virtual schooling is bringing into clearer relief the outlines of a different way of conceptualizing the uses of technology in K-12 education than the ones we all thought we were planning for in the 1990s. It is a vision of technology that gives individual students an alternative access to the curriculum, a view that diverges from the typical way we have thought about the use of computers in the classroom to date.

Rather than rotating an entire classroom of students through an exercise available on two or three computers, or presenting a web page or series of PowerPoint slides to the entire class via an LCD projector, we might be overlooking an essential ingredient that makes virtual schools different: their capacity to provide self-paced instruction. As the Florida Virtual School states in its motto, “Any time, any place, any path, any pace.” A fitting comparison could be made to the way ATM machines first were implemented–located inside banks and accessible only when the bank was open–and the subsequent “eureka” moment when it was realized that the greater value of ATMs lay in their ability to be located everywhere and made available 24-7.

One response to virtual schools could be the belief that they fill an important niche by providing access to hard-to-teach courses such as algebra and calculus. But this approach ignores the lessons these types of schools might offer for mainstream classrooms.

New findings gleaned from a study by the International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE) of 174 “stellar technology case studies” drawn from 28 countries validates what many ed-tech researchers have been saying for years: that the most productive uses of technology come when teachers enable students to become independent learners, not when technology merely is used as an electronic supplement to a textbook. While the study cannot be said to endorse virtual school courses per se, there are many elements to virtual courses that connect with this idea of putting students in charge of their own learning.

For example, the ISTE study confirms that what really matters is not the amount of hardware or software in schools but the extent to which computer technology opens up an opportunity to make learning “real” for students–such as through tracking an around-the-world yacht race, designing web pages for remote rural villages, developing an electronic newspaper, or interpreting satellite images. The common denominator to all of these approaches is that they do not duplicate or replace the traditional curriculum, but rather open up other channels to learning. In the same way that television can be either analog or digital, with digital offering a greater range of content–not only offering more channels, but making them available in different formats and languages, including interactive possibilities–technology can support and deepen students’ learning in ways that go well beyond what is possible within a traditional framework when used by creative teachers.

It’s worth raising the question whether virtual schools have a greater potential to build upon a student-centered rather than teacher-centered pedagogy. It is, of course, too early to speculate with regard to virtual schools as a whole, since the majority of these schools have only existed for two or three years. However, some examples from “outliers” might indicate what is possible within the virtual school framework.

For instance, Mindquest–a virtual-school program operated by the Bloomington, Minn., school district–restricts enrollment to students 17 or older and has developed its own interdisciplinary, inquiry-based courses. In a course entitled “Documenting Change,” students watch a documentary about a struggling farm family and then develop a documentary project of their own. This focus on authentic problem-solving activities is in line with the best practices contained in the ISTE report.

In many virtual schools, it is the more extensive support that can be offered online on an as-needed basis that provides the hallmark of the approach. Students attending the Florida Virtual School, for example, can request an extended-pace option. When external, vendor-supplied courses are used, students can be supported through the vendor as well as through their local school. Some programs offer virtual libraries or online counseling, and some have face-to-face support. In the Christa McAulliffe Academy, located in Washington state, students can select their own teacher-mentor and meet weekly with this person in an online classroom with other cohort members.

Of course, virtual schools and courses are not for everyone; there are some students who lack the self-discipline and basic technology skills that are necessary to benefit from this approach. But the same could be said of traditional classroom instruction, which–as many achievement statistics make clear–is also not for everyone. Clearly, an effective compromise would be to give every student the option of taking a course or even a module online wherever possible. This is no longer a utopian dream; with at least 14 states’ governors, legislatures, or education agencies already recognizing virtual schools, it is not impossible to think that the other two-thirds of the United States will come on board with this trend by the close of the decade.

It remains to be seen whether virtual schools and the courses they create will serve as the new crucible for the kind of qualitative, technology-driven change in education that many have felt is long overdue. If they are to serve the same kind of function as the ATM located outside the bank, they could benefit from being subject to the same kind of sophisticated evaluation that other interventions are now expected to undergo. One of these evaluations must include a study of whether students who have access to supplemental online courses do better than students without such access, and what kinds of students tend to do better and why.

But virtual schools offer a promising model for educators who are looking to plan for the next phase of technology investment. Some school leaders might decide that, instead of trying to make every teacher use technology well in every classroom, it makes more sense to organize if not a fully-featured virtual high school then at least some virtual supplements to hard-to-teach courses or concepts. Slowly a library of useful modules that students can use to develop their understanding of key concepts might grow in such a way that students can be asked to work independently first and then receive more individual attention for areas they have trouble fully understanding.

It’s not too difficult to imagine, given the rapid way virtual schools continue to expand, that one day in the near future every high school student will take at least one online course before graduating. We might also imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when the only students who are visiting the classroom are those who know exactly why they are there, what problem or concept they are trying to master, and why.

Laurence Peters is director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Technology in Education Consortium (MAR*TEC). If you live in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, or Washington, D.C., MAR*TEC is interested in collecting innovative uses of virtual school courses or any other practices that involve “anytime, anywhere learning.” Send an eMail message to with a sentence or two describing your innovation; be sure to mark the subject heading with VIRTUAL SCHOOL ARTICLE and the author will follow up.

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