Redefining School from Site to Service: Learning in and from K-12 Online Education

Article excerpt


Virtual schools began in the mid1990s based on a place-based school paradigm with elements like electronic classrooms, one teacher per class, and most learning activities occurring within the walled garden of the classroom. This article reviews steps that virtual schools have taken away from basing their programs on a traditional school template to show how they have moved toward a new model for schooling and then recommends further steps in the development of education as a lifespan service. It begins with an outline of what virtual schools research and practice have taught the education community about learning in virtual schools and learning from virtual schools about students, teachers, and courses, using concepts from the theory of social eoe volution (Soufolis, 2009).


Distance education for K-12 learners has a history of more than 100 years of innovation and problem solving, beginning with correspondence courses for rural students and continuing to the accelerated courses of the 1990s (Clark, 2002). Many virtual schools began with the mission of increasing students' access to courses that were not available in their traditional schools, resulting in a "bimodal" distribution of students taking advanced or remedial courses online (Dickson, 2005). Today's virtual schools have closed the achievement gap for a diverse range of students who succeed in courses that provide them the individual attention and time they need (Liu & Cavanaugh, in press; Keeler & Horney, 2007). We have learned that virtual schooling has the flexibility to fit many individual students and can reach most students with quality instruction through the technical infrastructure outlined in the 2010 National Broadband Plan (Federal Communications Commission, 2010) and proliferating low-cost mobile devices.

Reaching students with flexible courses and pathways through education is necessary for developing the next century's citizens. As a race, we have solved many pressing problems of providing basic needs, and now have a need maximize our resources and technologies, skills that require right-brain dominance: creativity and conceptual strength (Pink, 2006). These skills also emphasize interdisciplinarity and complex interpersonal interactions dependent on social emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1996), which is now assessed in several universities. These strengths can be developed using the powerful social tools and open timelines of online and blended education.


The best teachers are accomplished scholars and treat teaching as serious intellectual endeavors; they trust and expect more from students and create an environment for which diverse learners can explore, analyze, synthesize and ultimately construct meaning in their own ways; and they have developed a systematic program to assess their own efforts and make appropriate changes (Bain, 2004), all traits that are well-supported and expressed in online environments. Because interaction is the core of online learning, student-centeredness is an essential trait of effective online teachers and facilitators, along with other specific competencies including organization, knowledge of content, understanding of learning and data that informs instruction, and openness to innovative uses of communications technology and media (Beldarrain, 2006; Ferdig, Cavanaugh, DiPietro, Black, & Dawson, 2010; Means, Padilla, DeBarger, & Bakia, 2009). As online education increasingly merges with classroom-based education through blended programs, teachers will need a wider array of knowledge, skills and dispositions; fortunately, professional development and experience in one learning environment tend to strengthen a teacher's effectiveness in other environments (Lowes, 2010). Preparing teachers to teach in online and blended courses is complex and ideally it is integrated throughout our systems of teacher preparation and professional development through apprenticeships and coteaching (Ertmer & Ottenbreit-Leftwich, 2010). …