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Distance Learning Grows Up

False enthusiasm aside, virtual schools are starting to make an impact across the country.

It's blind to race, sex and even acne. And it's a place where popular and unpopular, gifted and at-risk, wealthy and poor take courses together as well as share stories and relate to each other's woes and wonders.

It's distance education, and it's gaining momentum.

"It's anytime and anywhere learning," says Marion Ginopolis, who wrote online instruction for teachers at Michigan Virtual High School.

"Our job is to prepare our children for their future, not our past-for their world, not our comfort zone." -Ian Jukes, creator of TechWorks, K-8 technology framework

"It has no biases."

When Ginopolis first started teaching online courses, students weren't concerned about peer pressure--what they wore or said, as they would in a typical classroom. So the somewhat anonymous students tended to be more honest and more thoughtful in their responses to questions or activities online. When Ginopolis, now director of Michigan Gates Project--LEADing the Future, which provides leadership development, brought the students together in person, the head cheerleader, football star, class clown and shy student realized they had bonded online and likely would not have done so in a traditional school.

Distance education reaps success. Students are passing courses, most of which are aligned with state academic standards, doing well on standardized tests, and are graduating high school when they might not have otherwise, experts say.

Distance education has various definitions, but, in general, it is formal education in which most instruction occurs while teacher and student are separate, according to a report published in October 2001, "Virtual Schools: Trends & Issues." Virtual schools, which are a form of distance education, are educational organizations which offer K-12 courses through Internet- or Web-based methods, according to the report.

Some experts say distance education, which offers core curriculum as well as advanced courses, such as AP Calculus AB, is growing at a steady pace because it fills needs. Some students are more comfortable learning behind an anonymous computer screen; some need flexibility to focus on academics after a sport season is over; some don't have access to high-level courses in their traditional schools; some students are home-schooled, using online courses to supplement learning.

"It's a surprise to some people how rapidly this phenomenon has taken root," says Andrew Zucker, associate director for the Center for Online Professional Education at the Education Development Center. "In 1996, there was no state-based virtual high schools."

Now, up to 100,000 students use distance education programs. More than half the states have created state virtual schools to coordinate, gather information and deliver courses, or serve as a broker for districts to assess course quality and get the best prices, according to Dianne Griffin of Southern Regional Education Board in Georgia.

Many for-profit companies, such as Apex Learning and, have provided "starter" courses for new virtual schools. Blackboard Inc. licenses its software platform to such programs as Alaska Online, new this year, as does eClassroom, the K-12 division of eCollege. Web development software companies, such as Macromedia, have allowed districts to create their own courses.

"I think political leaders and the public both want more alternatives to conventional public education," Zucker adds. "And we see that increase in home-schooling and the charter movement. And we see it now with this virtual schooling."

While it was once predicted to be all the rage by now, distance education still conjures up questions. "It's a learning environment that is color blind and it is even gender blind," says Allan Jordan chairman of the board of directors for North American Council for Online Learning, which sprouted a year ago.

"But what happens is that everywhere I go people ask me questions: How does it work? What are you doing with it? There is a lot of interest but very little information," adds Jordan, who is also principal at Cumberland County Schools Web Academy in Fayetteville, N.C., which initially assisted struggling students, but now serves all kinds of learners.

And the staggering economy doesn't help in terms of starting programs. Tuition can vary, but $300 per semester was the most reported price as of 2001, according to the Virtual Schools report. And many experts who started online programs moaned about initial technological glitches: firewall problems, students forgetting passwords, and outright failure to create Web sites before students started taking courses.

Sprouting schools

While it could cost up to $120,000 to purchase an online course, unless district leaders create their own curriculum, this barrier hasn't stopped distance education from sprouting in such places as Pennsylvania and Arizona, where 10 new virtual schools cater to any K-12 child with a computer and Internet connection. And more students are showing interest in established programs in Washington, Michigan, Kansas and Florida, experts say.

The nagging digital divide still remains. Despite offering computer labs and libraries for students, not every child can take advantage of it, says Lynne Schrum, professor and chair of the department of teaching and learning at the University of Utah and former ISTE president. "I think there are still some who absolutely tout this as the saving grace of education. But my feeling is that most thoughtful people recognize that nothing is going to be a saving grace. ...

I think we know it makes a difference in certain circumstances for certain students, and it's a great tool to add to the arsenal of what we think of school or learning," she says.

Janette Racicot, president of Racicot & Associates, says more educators feel pressured to offer distance education even though it takes additional time, energy and money on top of traditional school work. "They don't seem to be doing it because they really want to, but because they have to," Racicot says.

No Child Left Behind brings with it almost as many questions as requirements, but some of them can be answered with online instruction--by offering high-quality instruction, an alternative for failing schools, and providing students with different learning styles.

"Part of it is how we make schools fit the kids instead of making kids fit the school. And this does meet that," says Mickey Revenaugh, vice president for partnerships and outreach for Connections Academy. Connections Academy is a private operator of K-8 virtual public schools in Wisconsin and Colorado and just this year in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Arizona. "Our goal is creating an environment where the schools fit the needs of the individual students," Revenaugh says.

Changing faces of distance education

Experts talk about three kinds of distance education models: synchronous, asynchronous and a blend of the two. Synchronous is where teacher and students meet together online for instruction. Asynchronous is where content is posted online. Students read on a screen what a teacher would normally say in class, and they get assigned activities.

Students and teacher write and send messages to each other. A teacher could also set up an online discussion where students can instant message each other.

In the U.S., distance education dates back to the 1970s or earlier when satellite or microwave delivered courses, mainly to rural schools that could not afford some high-level courses, such as foreign languages. Then in 1991, Schrum wrote a primer for administrators on distance education. In 1995, when the Web came to schools, virtual high schools started popping up.

The Virtual High School, based in Maynard, Mass., is a consortium of high schools that offer network-based courses for students in participating schools. Each school contributes at least one teacher who teaches a VHS course online. A site coordinator also handles administrative matters and supervises local students enrolled in VHS. The students, from 11 countries, have taken courses such as Modern Classics, Living Authors; Photographic Vision; and Pre-Engineering and Design.

VHS worked on course development, along with National Education Association and other organizations, to create the first standards of online distance education, "Guide to Online High School Courses." It defines curriculum, assessment, instructional, technical and infrastructure standards for online courses.

VHS students undergo a five-hour orientation to understand how an online course works. More than 85 percent of students complete their courses, says CEO Elizabeth Pape. "Virtual High School's greatest value is to the smaller school, which would never have the staff to offer the range of courses we could offer," including an International Baccalaureate degree program, Pape says. "I think online education is one of the greatest means to develop 21st century learning skills in our kids."

The necessary ingredients

Distance education is not for every student nor every teacher. Students need to be dedicated, self-motivated and self-sufficient to keep on top of projects. They also must be adept with the written language, being that most online courses are text-based.

While teachers are not present to ensure students are working, usually a parent or mentor at the school building in the district keeps students on track and answers questions.

Whereas distance education is in K-12 schools, it is mostly popular among high school students who are mature enough to handle the independence distance education offers.

Teachers who might be teachers of the year in classrooms are not necessarily so fabulous online. Most schools offer several days or weeks of initial training. Teachers must be dedicated to working nearly 24-7, answering student e-mails on weekends and late at night, as well as keeping courses exciting and interesting. Teachers are taught how to probe students, asking key questions in such a way to make students understand a concept across wires and screens.

At Michigan Virtual High School, online instructor and trainer Barbara Fardell says communication is everything. "The more communication a student has with a mentor, the greater the guarantee that the student will finish a course," Fardell says. "The biggest challenge is helping our teachers understand how important it is to communicate with our students."

Parents of home-schoolers enrolled in the Basehor-Linwood Virtual Charter School in Kansas--a statewide K-12 program that is connected to the Basehor-Linwood district--are required to sign a contract, taking responsibility as the primary educator. "If the parents are working full-time and not able to be part of the active process, it won't be successful," says Assistant Director Nicole Williams. The teachers, who also work in the traditional school, replicate what they do daily in their own classroom--giving them a sense of ownership. And, she says, that "gives parents in the home direction and guidelines of what needs to be done daily in seventh-grade math."

Improvements come in many forms

In the last five years, distance education has gained momentum. Curriculum is better, teachers are more prepared, and technology has improved. Most programs have high-quality, certified teachers, as well as courses that meet state standards for benchmarks. Experts say students are doing well on standardized tests and some are graduating high school, when they would not have done so without distance education.

Distance education is not perfect. Less rigorous content that provides easy access and easy grades for children who need courses, either to make up a credit or due to class scheduling conflicts, for example, does exist, Jordan says. But he adds, "the exact same thing occurs in traditional schools, too."

"If quality results are not produced, if they are not created and maintained, the medium will suffer from that," Jordan says. District leaders should ask how online and traditional programs compare. "Are we getting better as a program from year to year? And are we comparable with our outcomes in traditional education? The answers should be yes."

An evaluation of The Virtual High School, published in November 2000, showed that VHS students spent less time on common assignments and projects than face-to-face students, and there was less student-to-student interaction and group work in VHS. In a highly graphic course, students and teacher were unable to simultaneously view and discuss student products. And in a hands-on course, teachers could not inspect products, which inhibited their assessment. Such instances may be attributed to some teachers' limited skills to conduct collaborative and highly interactive courses online.

Since those early years of online education, VHS has refined its professional development model, increasing teachers' abilities to facilitate online collaboration. And as online tools have been more effective in using graphics in online courses, VHS teachers have become more adept in using more graphics in their courses, Pape says.

What the future holds

Most experts agree that online learning will never replace in-person learning. But it's a tool. "There is no justification for not offering it," Jordan says. "Why not provide many high-quality options for students? The more I provide, the better chances that students will get to sources that I can't provide or they will find an instructional model that works for them."

And others believe that K-12 online learning is good preparation for higher education or the working world, which both tend to involve some type of distance education learning.

"I think it has the capability and the potential to be tremendous," Racicot says. "The thing about our kids is that they live online. The thing is that administrators and whoever handles the budget need to understand more. ... They need to have some insight as far as how people learn. They have to know how to be engaging and interesting so students stick with it and learn."

Florida Virtual School

Opened in 1996-97, the program, funded on a per-pupil, full-time equivalent basis, is a complement to Florida public schools. And because the state is implementing stricter class-size limits, online alternatives could get more popular at overcrowded schools, says Executive Director Julie Young.

The school started as two separate ideas from two districts: Alachua County, which is rural and could not offer many high-level courses, and Orange County Public Schools, where classrooms are overcrowded. Both wanted alternatives. The school is funded by the state Department of Education.

Now, about 160 instructional staff members, most of whom are part-time, help teach 20,000 students in 21 states. Enrollment has almost doubled every year, Young says. And about 5 percent of students take their entire schooling with FVS. Tuition for out-of-state students is $750 for a non-AP full credit course, and $800 for an AP full-credit course.

Young and other educators created their own curriculum for the school, balancing curriculum and mastering standards. "They were the most rich, robust, hands-on exciting courses we could offer," Young says.

Teachers, whose starting salary with a bachelor's degree is $37,900, set up office hours and communicate with students and parents via e-mail, telephone and live chats. Teachers also use whiteboards so students can watch a teacher go through a math problem, for instance, step-by-step.

But the changing face of technology continues to be a challenge, Young says, as technology "changes faster than schools are accustomed to changing."

"You have to commit to remaining state of the art," she says.

The program's success is evident in grateful e-mails or comments from parents and students, who struggled in traditional school or failed in gaining one last credit before graduating. And AP test results are in line with the national average, Young says. "We're very pleased with those test results."

Michigan Virtual High School

The high school grew out of the Michigan Virtual University in 2000, to supplement the curriculum, particularly with AP courses, in 87 districts. Now, it offers about 100 courses, including math, science and a FLEX90 program, which allows students to complete online courses in 90 days. The popular program is most helpful for students who have scheduling conflicts, such as band in the same period as American Government, if a student is homebound due to illness, or if a student needs remediation.

The high school also has great potential to help migrant students who move around a lot. The state allows students to take up to two online courses per semester without losing state aid.

Last year, 7,000 students in grades 9-12 took online classes, and Ron Stefanski, director of business and partner development for Michigan Virtual University, expects "it to grow significantly from there." Schools provide on-site mentors to ensure students stay on task. All instructors, who are certified in the courses they teach, undergo a seven-week online training course.

The school is looking to seep into middle school programs as well. "We will see a sophistication of resources explode over the years," Stefanski predicts.

Christa McAuliffe Academy in Yakima, Wash.

Opened in 1995, this private school is for students who need more help or need to progress faster than they could in a traditional classroom. K-12 student cohorts meet weekly with their mentor, or teacher, in an online virtual classroom and take online mastery-based learning curricula. Three diagnostic tests a year assess where students need help.

The school bears the name of the teacher-turned-astronaut who perished in the Challenger shuttle explosion, as an example of strength. "We want to let kids know that they have a lot more potential than many of them realize," says Glen Blomgren, the academy's CEO. "We want them to stretch and grow."

In the past year, the curriculum has improved. Elluminate's vClass software helps students feel more connected and allows two-way audio communication between students and mentors and the administrative office. Whiteboards are also used as both teacher and student can write out problems.

This fall, about 400 students from 38 states and 15 foreign countries are enrolled, and Blomgren says that number should grow to thousands of students in the next three years. The academy operates 225 days a year at $250/month for a full-time student.

Blomgren adds that human contact for such students is comparable to those in traditional classrooms because students are focused on instruction three hours every day, without disruptions from other students or changing classes. Students use remaining time to volunteer in the community or get involved with religious activities.

Angela Pascopella,, is features editor.