The Internet is an AWESOME thing. Who would have thought that within the 20th century, a supertool could be created, a tool that allows us to talk to people in other states without the long distance charges, a tool that allows us to purchase products without having to go to the store, a tool that gets information about almost any topic without having to go to the library. The Internet is an amazing invention, one that opens the door to mind-boggling possibilities. The Internet RULES!
This assessment comes from a 15 year-old boy participating in an online discussion of the impact of the Internet on teenage life in America (Lenhart, Rainie, & Lewis, 2001). Although this teenager does not specifically mention school in his listing of awesome Internet applications, virtual education is likely to be among the most frequent usages of the "supertool" in the future. In fact, this alert young man already has the opportunity to take a wide selection of advanced placement and other core high school courses over the Internet.
For several years, the term "virtual" has been used for computer-based simulated real-time environments, such as virtual reality. Virtual learning has been used to describe instruction delivered remotely via technology. Now virtual schools or virtual high schools are the terms currently being used to describe secondary education organizations employing the Internet to deliver distance education. According to William R. Thomas, Director of Educational Technology for the Southern Regional Education Board, "virtual high schooling is no longer a marginal educational activity. It is rapidly becoming a mainstream component of secondary education in the United States. For example, there are now over 19,000 virtual high school students in the state of Florida. In 1998 there were fewer than 1,000" (personal communication, October 29, 2003).
Virtual schools can be a solution to inequities in educational opportunities that exist due to factors such as geographical location, school size, demographics of income and race/ethnicity, budgeting constraints, and substandard teachers. Computer-based instruction is now offering students in low-income schools, rural areas, and small towns the same preparation for college courses and career demands previously available only to learners in well-funded urban and suburban population center schools. Thomas predicts that within the next three or four years, most high school students in the United States will take all or part of their courses from the Internet.
Computer Use in Education
Just a few years ago, using computers in education primarily suggested a handful of teachers experimenting with email and web pages. In a relatively brief length of time, perceptions of computer-based education have changed from debates over the ability, or inability, of learning communities to be formed, to cautionary warnings that students will be deprived of needed educational opportunities if their classroom-based courses do not make use of the computer technology.
Internet-based education is an update of distance education. Distance education is defined by Verduin and Clark (as cited in Clark, 2001, p. 1) as "formal education in which a majority of instruction occurs while teacher and learner are separate." Computers, modems, and the Internet have replaced the instructional media of the post office and television. Over 85% of two-year and over 84% of four-year colleges in the United States were expected to offer online courseware in 2002 (CHEA, 1999). That this phenomenon has also influenced the K-12 classroom is suggested by the data depicted in Figure 1, which illustrates recent growth in Internet connectivity in public schools and classrooms.
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All available information points to the inevitability of more use of technology in education. As indicated so clearly in the Department of Commerce report alluded to earlier, dramatic change has been taking place almost unnoticed for some time. …