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

With student enrollment increasing rapidly, virtual schooling is experiencing some growing pains. From high dropout rates to concerns about academic rigor, virtual schooling is generating a litany of complaints and unintended student consequences.

Recently, for example, high-flying students at a suburban high school in North Carolina were shocked to discover that their class ranks had dropped unexpectedly, just in time for many major college application deadlines—and scholarship opportunities.

The culprit? Students dually enrolled at the traditional school and in online classes offered through the state’s virtual high school earned enough credit to move from the top of the junior to the top of the senior class.

Some parents and teachers expressed concern that courses offered by the school were more rigorous than those offered by the state and shouldn’t be given the same weight in calculating GPA.

School board members worried that without some parameters, students might take more than their fair share of online classes, eating through finite budgets more quickly than anticipated and potentially limiting opportunities for other students in the second semester.

Meanwhile, as eSchool News reports here, Colorado legislators are considering new rules to ensure online education providers keep students enrolled, hire qualified teachers, spend public money wisely, and maintain reasonable student-teacher ratios. And earlier this year, shareholders filed a class-action lawsuit in Virginia against K12 Inc., the nation’s largest operator of virtual public schools. The lawsuit alleges that K12 engaged in improper and deceptive business practices.

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

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Interestingly, K12 reportedly has several lobbyists active in North Carolina, which lifted the cap on charter schools during the last legislative session. The State Board of Education recently approved a number of charter school proposals and has as many as 70 new applications in the pipeline.

Whether blended with more traditional instructional methods as a dual enrollment opportunity, or offered via an online-only school, virtual learning is here to stay. The key for school officials is to think through how to manage this transformative new opportunity wisely and well.

Having smart policies in place that articulate the school board’s position or philosophy about online learning and provide guidance to students, staff, and parents represents a good starting point.

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:

How to engage parents online more effectively

Using QR codes for school communications

Five tips for digital communication in the new year

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.