Who's Researching Virtual Schools: A Case for Instructional Technologists

By Barbour, Michael K. | Distance Learning, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Who's Researching Virtual Schools: A Case for Instructional Technologists


Barbour, Michael K., Distance Learning


Over the past 11 years, virtual schooling has gone from isolated experiments to a reliable alternative to a brick and mortar education. However, during this time, little research has been conducted into how these learning opportunities are and should be provided to their adolescent audiences. Even more troubling is that very few of these researchers are from the field of instructional technology. In this article, I discuss those who have been involved in this early research and then make a case for the value that instructional technologists can bring to this emerging field.

Over the past decade, there has been tremendous growth in the research conducted into Web-based learning at the K-12 level. In recent years, the topic of virtual high schools has been the focus of much of this research. A number of individuals are researching in the area of virtual schooling. However, classifying these individuals into groups is not an easy task. There are practicing teachers, university faculty, and private researchers. They have been educated in a variety of programs from teacher education, to instructional technology, to educational administration, to adult education. They have come from a variety of backgrounds: the classroom, administration, the academy, private business, and research foundations.

The easiest approach to describing the kinds of people who are researching in the area of virtual high schools today is to describe some of these individuals and the work that they have been involved with, along with a discussion of the background of these individuals. While this discussion will endeavor to address as many individuals as are known to the author, including some of the theses and dissertations completed over the past 5 or 6 years, there are probably individual researchers who have been overlooked. Finally, this article will attempt to make a case that instructional technologists are well positioned to have an impact on this emerging field.

VIRTUAL SCHOOL RESEARCHERS

At present, probably the best known virtual schooling researcher is Tom Clark of TA Consulting, a small research and evaluation firm in Illinois. Clark is best known for his Virtual Schools: Status and Trends and Virtual High Schools: State of the States published in 2001 and 2000 respectively, along with his 2003 chapter "Virtual and Distance Education in American Schools" in the Handbook of Distance Education. Clark is primarily involved in evaluations and policy analyses with organizations such as the Illinois Virtual High School, WestEd Regional Technology in Education Consortium, and the North American Council on Online Learning. Clark's recent book, Virtual Schools: Planning for Success (Berge & Clark, 2005), is a good example of the policy slant of his work.

Two other long-standing researchers of virtual schooling are Andrew Zucker and Robert Kozma of SRI International. These two individuals led the team of researchers who conducted the external evaluations of the Virtual High School (VHS) project. Beginning in the 1997-98 school year, Zucker, Kozma, and their team began investigating all aspects of the federally funded VHS Project, including evaluating the implementation of the project, to assessing the quality of the online courses, to describing how teaching and learning occurred. In annual reports during the first three years, a report at the end of five years, and a separate report on the quality of VHS courses, these researchers produced more than 300 pages of publicly available data, interpretation, conclusions, and instruments dealing with one of the largest virtual school initiatives in North America. Their overall conclusions were summarized in a book published in 2003, titled The Virtual High School: Teaching Generation V.

Another researcher from a nonprofit research foundation is Robert Blomeyer of the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL). Blomeyer began his work on technology in K-12 environments in the early 1980s with his work as a designer/developer on the PLATO system, an interest that continued as a faculty member at a number of postsecondary institutions. …

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