Virtual and Distance Education
in American Schools
The virtual school movement at the turn of the 21st century is in many ways an outgrowth of the independent study high school movement that began in the 1920s. Although it is a counterintuitive thought for many, it would appear that in 2001, independent study programs still enroll more students in K-12 courses via distance education than all of the technologybased methods combined. Over 30 regionally accredited colleges and universities provided high school courses via independent study in 2000–2001. Most offered a full curriculum, and at least seven had high school diploma programs. By 2001, at least five offered all essential courses in their high school diploma program online through a virtual school, as well as continuing their independent study options. The learning and support infrastructures of these virtual school efforts build directly upon the long experience of these schools in their independent study high school programs.
The role of independent study programs as the forerunner of virtual schools is nowhere more apparent than at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). The university began a supervised correspondence study program in 1929. The university's Independent Study High School won state accreditation for its diploma program in 1967 and regional accreditation through the North Central Association in 1978 (Young & McMahon, 1991). In spring 1996, the university was the first organization to obtain federal funding to build a virtual school through its CLASS Project. The university's Department of Distance Education used a $2.5 million proof of concept funding from the U. S. General Services Administration and a five-year, $17.5 million U. S. Department of Education Star Schools Program grant to develop custom software and build a complete Web-based high school curriculum. In 1999, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shifted its focus to a unique approach to attaining sustainability, building on its experience in