To counter the concerns that online instruction deprives students of close peer-to-peer interaction and other forms of socialization, a growing number of virtual-school programs are offering virtual “clubs” for participating students and organizing field trips that place students in the physical company of their online peers.

Julie Young, president and chief administrative officer of the Florida Virtual School (FVLS), a provider of supplemental and full-time virtual instruction to students in Florida and internationally, said many of the social activities that students take part in through her organization mirror those of the contemporary work force.

“Meeting online is a common occurrence in today’s workplace. By [participating in] virtual clubs, [students] can further develop their 21st-century communications skills and diversify their online learning experience with real-life collaboration and exercises,” Young said. FLVS launched the first of its seven virtual student clubs with about 50 students in 1998. The school chose a format that emulates its regular online classroom environment, which permits live chats, academic club-related content, and interactive whiteboard sessions in a secure online environment.

The FLVS Science Club is open to all students enrolled in courses at FLVS–not just science students. As a member of the FLVS Science Club, students participate in Earth Day activities, attend local science fairs, write articles about environmental issues, and participate in field trips and competitions. For the past five years, Science Club teams have competed at the Florida State Science Olympiad; last year, FLVS teams won second place in the bottle rockets competition and third place in the airplanes competition.

“What’s most amazing is that FLVS students do not meet face to face before any of the activities or competitions. All their preparations are completed virtually, and it’s not until the day of the competition that they actually sit down in the same room,” said Mary Mitchell, FLVS teacher and advisor to the Science Club. “Their ability to communicate and collaborate virtually has proven successful, because club teams have a consistent record of winning awards each year.”

She added, “People don’t always understand how we could participate in competitions successfully at state and national levels. We’ve had no problem with that.”

Mitchell noted that her students collaborate easily on projects and build structures at a distance, noting the parallel to the current-day work world.

“They send ideas around to each other and engineer the structure, then one or two will work together to build the airplane or bridge for the competition,” she said. “That is really the way that the real-life corporate world works today. A company’s engineers are scattered everywhere, and they collaborate virtually and get the work done.”

Mitchell also noted that some students probably would not have chosen to work together in a traditional school environment, because they would have based their opinion of each other on appearance, rather than what each student had to offer the team.

“It takes away all of those … stereotypes, and becomes based on what [students] have to offer each other,” Mitchell said of participation in the “virtual” club.

FLVS also offers a newspaper club, which collaborates online to produce two student newspapers a month; competitive computer science and Latin clubs, which offer students the opportunity to collaborate online and in person; and the FLVS Cyber Scholar Charter of the National English Honors Society, which will hold its first membership induction ceremony later this month.

While providers of other virtual schools might not offer the extensive extra-curricular activities of FLVS, all those interviewed by eSchool News said they offer some virtual clubs, regular meetings with teachers, and field trips intended to be educational and to bring students into the company of other students.

“Some would argue that virtual schools do not provide social outlets,” said Jeff Kwitowski, director of public relations for K12 Inc., a provider of supplemental and comprehensive statewide virtual schooling to several U.S. states. “We provide a number of them. Extra-curricular activities are built into our program. Some are designed by teachers for their students, but they’re usually open to students across the state, no matter where they live.”

Kwitowski said these include both online and face-to-face writing and math workshops, day-long student expos and education showcases, and trips to museums and historical sites in any given student area. He said students, teachers, parents, and volunteers all take part in the programs.

“This is a campus that is, in effect, statewide for some [students],” he said, addressing what he called the “myth” that students who participate in virtual schooling are isolated from their peers. Given the scope of teacher, parent, and volunteer participation, he said, “we feel that our statewide programs, in effect, work in much the same way as a traditional school board.”

Connections Academy is a provider of virtual schooling for 13 states, including one virtual public charter school recently added in Oregon. The Connections Academy principal for Oregon, Jim Thomas, said many of his students are working out of their home with their learning coach, often a parent or close relative, and are perceived as being isolated.

“In Oregon, community coordinators throughout the state work with students locally, in various areas, to set up a variety of social and academic activities,” Thomas said.

Though the Oregon Connections Academy program has just begun, administrators say official, statewide chess and Spanish-language clubs, as well as a student yearbook, are set to start before the semester’s end. In addition, community coordinators work throughout the state to organize clubs and activities on a local level.

One community coordinator, Kelly Steele, discussed with eSchool News her decision to place her daughter in the Connections Academy program, and her role as a community coordinator in the Portland area.

“Let’s just say that the social opportunities provided to my daughter in the one year we sent her to public middle school were not ones we wanted our sixth-grader to be taking advantage of,” Steele said.

Steele said that, as community coordinator, she makes use of her engineering background to promote math and science student activities in her area.

“We just had a huge field trip to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry; we set up paleontology labs for three different age groups,” she said. “We’ve got [the Smithsonian Institution’s] touring Lewis and Clark exhibit here for a few months. We’re going to make it there. I’m in talks with the Portland Opera, and they’re going to let us go to a dress rehearsal for free. … In the spring, I’m going to take them out to the full-scale model of Stonehenge out in the [Columbia River] Gorge.”

Steele said the academy’s students also take part in secure, password-protected message boards that are further regulated by monitors. Students also vote on, read, and discuss books in a book club that meets virtually every six weeks. She said that there are local and national Connections Academy newsletters for which students can write, and a program wherein students write letters for military troops overseas.

In addition to these academic endeavors, Steele also is working to organize more traditional social events for Portland-area Connections Academy students.

“We also started social gatherings once a month for sixth- through eighth-graders. We do skating, pizza parties. We’re having a dance this spring for the middle-school kids,” she said.

Steele noted that, as with traditional classroom-based education systems, a lot depends on the parents.

“We always considered the school as the base, and we add on to what it offers,” she said. “I am diversifying these little people.”

Links:

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

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

Connections Academy
http://www.connectionsacademy.com