Nearly a decade after the first virtual-school programs offering online-only instruction began to emerge, virtual schooling no longer can be considered a fringe activity. Recent developments have confirmed online learning’s place in the education mainstream.

Michigan, for instance, soon could become the first state in the nation to require students to have some sort of online learning experience before graduating from high school. And the latest survey of online learning trends in higher education says nearly two-thirds of all colleges and universities that deliver face-to-face instruction now offer online courses. Even the concerns that virtual schooling deprives students of the chance for socialization are being silenced, as most virtual-school programs also provide online “clubs” and other social experiences for students.

Michigan floats online learning requirement

A pioneering proposal now before the Michigan state legislature would make Michigan the first state in the country to require students to experience some sort of online instruction before they graduate from high school.

Advocates for virtual instruction say that if the plan is approved, Michigan likely will set a precedent for other states to follow.

The online learning mandate is part of larger piece of legislation designed to ratchet up high school graduation requirements across the state. Until now, Michigan students have been required only to take a civics course to graduate. The new proposal would require math, science, and a foreign language in addition to some form of online instruction.

The idea for the virtual-learning requirement came from a report produced by former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins in September, who recommended that every school in the state adopt some form of eLearning as a means of extending course options and providing new ways to engage struggling students.

Susan Patrick, executive director of the North American Council for Online Learning and former head of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, called Michigan’s proposal “a bold plan” to foster a culture of lifelong learning and more readily prepare students for the challenges of an increasingly global economy.

She added, “I think the recommendation is terrific–and I think you are going to see more states following suit.”

There already is strong support for online instruction in Michigan. At the Michigan Virtual University, enrollment in its Michigan Virtual High School program has grown from 100 students in 1999, the program’s first year, to 5,959 students during the 2004-05 school year, according to a story in the Detroit Free Press.

The state’s online learning proposal is “probably one of the most forward-thinking educational strategies I’ve seen in a long time,” said Jamey Fitzpatrick, president of the nonprofit Michigan Virtual University. “It’s very exciting to see our policy makers engaged in the debate.”

Even if the measure doesn’t pass, he said, the fact that lawmakers were at least willing to entertain the idea proves that virtual instruction is growing in importance.

The new graduation requirements were ratified by the state board of education in December, and they awaited approval by the state legislature at press time. One item of concern is whether Michigan’s schools have the necessary infrastructure to support the online learning requirement.

But flexibility written into the plan’s requirement could ease lawmakers’ concerns. The measure says students can fulfill the mandate by having at least one “online learning experience.” This could include enrolling in an online course through the Michigan Virtual High School program, or simply taking an online test-preparation course or using electronic career-development software.

Survey: Online education is ‘growing by degrees’

In another sign of how far online instruction has come, nearly two-thirds of all colleges and universities that deliver face-to-face instruction now also offer online courses, and last year’s enrollment in these online courses was up nearly 20 percent over 2003 figures, according to a recent survey.

“Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005,” released last fall, is the third in a series of annual surveys on virtual instruction sponsored by the nonprofit Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. If the survey’s findings are any indication, its authors say, the breadth of online college courses soon could rival traditional brick-and-mortar offerings.

“Colleges and universities are starting to understand that online courses help increase enrollment and improve diversity without the need for additional classrooms,” said Frank Mayadas, program director for the Sloan Foundation. “They also help address professors’ needs for workplace flexibility, among other issues challenging academia.”

The group’s research found that online enrollment increased from 1.98 million students in 2003 to 2.35 million students in 2004. While this growth rate of 18.7 percent was actually down 4.7 percentage points from last year’s survey, three out of four schools said they expected their online enrollments to continue to increase.

About 63 percent of all institutions that offer face-to-face undergraduate courses also offer undergraduate courses online, the study found–and 65 percent of institutions that offer face-to-face master’s-level courses offer master’s-level courses online. The analysis did not address the number of courses that institutions offer in face-to-face versus online modes, but only whether they offer courses in both modes.

Only 19 percent of schools offer full undergraduate degree programs in both face-to-face and online formats. But doctoral and master’s programs have online penetration rates of 38 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

A majority of chief academic officers agree that online education is critical to their long-term strategy. That number has increased from 49 percent in 2003, the first year of the study, to 56 percent in 2005.

The survey also showed that core faculty members teach the majority of online courses at 65 percent of schools offering these courses. This finding dispels the notion that the move toward online education will cost jobs for core faculty, researchers said.

Virtual schools offer clubs, field trips

One of the main concerns about virtual schooling–especially at the K-12 level–is that it deprives students of close peer-to-peer interaction and other forms of socialization. To counter these concerns and dispel the perception that virtual schooling results in isolated instruction, 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.

The Florida Virtual School (FVLS), for instance, launched the first of its seven virtual student clubs with about 50 students in 1998.

The FLVS Science Club is open to all students enrolled in courses at FLVS, not just science students. Members 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 club advisor. “Their ability to communicate and collaborate virtually has proven successful, because club teams have a consistent record of winning awards each year.”

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.