Virtual schooling’s popularity challenges policy makers

While it might not be possible to think of every possibility in advance, school officials can learn from others who already have journeyed a bit farther down the online education road.

The San Diego Unified School District, for example, has simply applied many traditional school policies to the 600 students currently enrolled in its online education program.

San Diego averages online courses into students’ grade point averages just like traditional classes; the district does not distinguish between the two.

Students can start taking online high school classes after eighth grade and can move to the next grade level or graduate as soon as they earn enough credits. Students who want to access online high school courses while still in eighth grade currently have to request an exception, although the district is considering opening this up a bit more.

Thanks to the district’s multi-campus agreements, students enrolled online full-time may participate in sports and co-curricular activities at the schools they are assigned to based on their home addresses.

While students may take an entire course online, they must complete final exams and state tests at school with a proctor present. San Diego does not limit the number of courses or credits students may take online.

To ensure quality control, the district relies on the state to vet and approve online courses and providers.

“All of our providers must get their academically gifted courses approved by the universal credit system in our state,” says Daryl LaGace, chief information and technology officer. “This is a difficult and stringent process but has helped ensure the quality of the content.”

For more advice on school communications from award-winning columnist Nora Carr, see:

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Ultimately, as with most other things that matter in K-12 education, the quality of online learning is primarily determined by the knowledge, skills, and abilities of each individual teacher.

With online learning, accountability and advancement rests more on subject matter mastery than on seat hours, student age, instructional approaches, and so on.

“We highly encourage the blended model of instruction, where teachers have face time with most students where possible,” says LaGace. “Teachers use a variety of methods when working with the students, but the testing ultimately validates mastery of the subject.”

When students, faculty members, principals, parents, and community members know and understand the rules in advance, they’re less likely to cry foul later.

Because assumptions vary based on individual perceptions of online learning providers and the role of virtual schooling in K-12 education, school officials need to invest more time and effort communicating about these issues, not less.

In the absence of clear guidance, people will operate based on their own assumptions—assumptions that might not align with district beliefs, policies, and practices. Asking tough questions now will save heartache—and dollars—later.

Award-winning eSchool News columnist Nora Carr is the chief of staff for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools.

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