Beginning this month, high school students in Connecticut can enroll in free online courses through a pilot program called the Connecticut Virtual Learning Center.

The courses are aimed at students at risk of falling behind as well as those who are interested in electives not offered at their own schools. Each Connecticut high school will decide whether to give students credit for taking the courses.

The pilot program offers courses in basic subjects, taught by state-certified teachers, for students who need credits to graduate. It also offers other electives, such as Mandarin Chinese and “Shakespeare in Film,” through a partnership with an out-of-state virtual-schooling provider.

The idea is to allow students who have fallen behind to catch up online rather than in summer school and also to provide interesting electives that are not widely available.

“We want to use online courses to increase access to high-quality content, so that every student in Connecticut will have access to the courses they need, when they need them,” said Gov. M. Jodi Rell, the state’s first Republican woman chief executive.

The program is funded by an $850,000 state grant and is free of charge for Connecticut school districts and students.

The Connecticut Virtual Learning Center is offering 21 courses for its first semester, which begins Jan. 23.

Students can participate only if their local school district is enrolled in the program. Private school and home-schooled students cannot yet take courses.

Students will get help with time management from pacing charts that will tell them what work should be completed when.

Students will complete the same types of assignments as in face-to-face classes, but they will access course materials and submit work online, work at their own pace, and communicate with teachers online or by telephone and with other students via the internet, said Gretchen Hayden, director of business and partnership programs for the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, which runs the virtual learning center.

Eight “core curriculum” courses, including algebra, English, and earth science, have rolling enrollment from Jan. 23 to Feb. 25. (“Rolling enrollment” allows student-initiated, independent participation without a specified enrollment schedule such as by quarter or semester.) Another 13 courses, including art and the internet, music composition, and biotechnology, are offered through the Virtual High School, a Massachusetts-based program open to students worldwide. Those courses will be held from Jan. 23 to May 6, with enrollment on a first-come, first-served basis.

Vincent Mastaro, senior state associate for policy services at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said virtual schools are quickly becoming part of the landscape of American education.

“There are some school systems with very small high schools. That extremely limits what they can offer,” he said. “You can offer it online; it can be offered to so many students in so many schools.”

Florida established the first state-funded online learning program in 1997, and 29 other states also offered state-led online learning programs as of 2007, according to a recent report.

With the launch of its Virtual Learning Center, Connecticut becomes the 31st state to offer such a state-led program. Although many of the state’s students have been taking online classes through the Virtual High School for some time, this is Connecticut’s first effort to develop an online educational program funded entirely by the state and staffed by its own teachers.

Links:

Connecticut Virtual Learning Center

Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium

Virtual High School