Shaping E-Learning Policy: Virtual Education Is Growing Swiftly, and along with It, Debates Surrounding Teacher Quality and Jurisdiction, Funding, Accreditation, Assessment, Unions, and More

Article excerpt

Cody Millin is nine-and-a-half years old and looks like a typical fourth-grader, but he's in sixth grade and has no trouble doing the work of a typical middle school student. He does all of his learning from home and likes working independently. He says, "I'd get bored waiting for others to finish an assignment. I like to do my work and move on to the next thing." Like most homeschoolers, Cody works at a desk in his house, where his mother is his learning coach. Unlike most such pupils, however, Cody is part of a public charter school that's licensed by the state of Pennsylvania.

Nick Dull is enrolled in a single online class. This tenth-grader spends most of his day in a traditional classroom but chose to learn geometry online because of a scheduling conflict. After he leaves Pine View High School in Sarasota, Florida each day, he heads home and logs onto his virtual class. His online teacher is available via e-mail; his classmates, who may be in other schools, states, or countries, are available through collaborative workspaces, e-mail, and Web conferencing.

These students are part of an increasing number of learners taking advantage of the current upsurge in e-learning options. Contributing to this growth are a variety of factors, including federal legislation, better technology capacity in homes and schools, a growing recognition of e-learning's cost effectiveness and ability to reduce dropout rates, and also recent significant improvements to online content and infrastructure (see "Content and Platform Toolbox," page 30).

According to Tim Stroud, executive director of the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), "In the last half year, there has been a major change; public schools are discovering that online learning has a place in their systems. Parents and students want the flexibility, and districts find that it saves them money on textbooks, which can go online, and personnel, through hiring retired and part-time teachers."

E-Learning Defined

Also known as online learning, virtual learning, and distance learning, e-learning relies on the Internet as a way to deliver instruction to students. For this article, we define "virtual schools" as Internet-delivered comprehensive instruction primarily for students in the earlier grades, and "virtual courses" as accredited, individual classes provided to students who are still also in traditional secondary education settings. Hybrid models are beginning to emerge as well.

At this juncture, virtual schools primarily provide alternatives for homeschooled students; rural, ill, or incarcerated students; and for children who are actors, athletes, or models. Parents are the primary educators, and teachers serve as their support system. Parents grade daily work and log in the results online. Students submit major assignments via e-mail or traditional mail, and teachers review and provide feedback. Parents and teachers communicate about the student's progress via phone and e-mail.

Virtual courses, on the other hand, don't supplant the brick-and-mortar school but extend and expand its offerings. They provide enrichment, acceleration, or credit recovery and can also address students' scheduling needs or learning styles. For schools faced with a shortage of qualified teachers or too few students interested in taking a particular course, e-learning is a cost-effective option. Courses follow a standard scope and sequence. For an example of a virtual course outline, see "Online Course Outline" at www.techlearning.com/vhscourseoutline.

In both virtual schools and virtual courses, students work at their own pace and meet assignment deadlines. A combination of quizzes, tests, projects, and portfolio submissions are used to evaluate student performance, and students are also required to take standardized tests.

States, regions, districts, schools, and both commercial and nonprofit companies offer various forms of e-learning (see "A Sampling of Virtual Learning Providers," page 34). …