Florida's Virtual School was created in 1997. It offers more than 110 courses with nearly 260,000 students now taking advantage of its services. It was created in response to the outcry for an alternative for students in need of credit recovery, taking a class again due to failing the course or other extenuating circumstances, and those that wanted to learn at a pace accelerated beyond that of their classroom. Twenty-eight states have now followed Florida's lead in creating their own virtual schools to service K-12 students in their states. In other states school districts, sometimes combining with others, are building their own virtual courses.
The demand for courses for credit offered over the Internet has accelerate so quickly, many for-profit private companies have entered the market to develop curriculum, train teachers to teach the courses through cyberspace and provide evaluation of progress of the students as they complete the course. This of course comes with a fee per student signed up for the course, averaging between $300 to $400 per participant. The challenge has come in determining the effectiveness of e-learning. Is it more effective than classroom face-to-face instruction? Do students retain more knowledge by these methods, a majority of which focus on self-paced learning?
A recent survey of K-12 administrators was completed by Education Week, an education trade magazine. The results found that only 16 percent of respondents stated their districts had measured the performance of students taking online courses to those in "brick-and-mortar" classrooms. Administrator's indicated the difficulty of this measuring "apples-to-apples" due to the fact that many students taking these online courses were students that struggled academically in the traditional school setting.
Effectiveness of virtual schools promises to be easier to measure in a blended learning atmosphere now being experimented with. The 178 San Francisco Flex Academy is one such attempt at this education innovation. During a school day at Flex, its population of grades nine through 12 students spend about half their day in an open room littered with personal study stations supplied with laptops. Here students work through lessons from mathematics to English that are supplied by K12 Inc. The other half the day is spent with teachers who deliver face-to-face instruction. Results of the online lessons are immediately available to the teachers, allowing teachers to use these results to group students according to the understanding of the concepts they are studying.
Michigan became the first state require students to take an online class as part of their graduation requirements. This began with the class entering eighth grade in 2006. Alabama and Florida have followed Michigan's lead with West Virginia strongly endorsing the option. These states recognize that companies are hiring employees that they know have the ability to be life-long learners. Much of this continuing education will be delivered through these virtual courses due to ease and increased accessibility.
Multiple challenges face cyber-learning. How do we ensure the student is taking the test himself online? How do we ensure the content and delivery of these internet based courses is as/more effective than those in a traditional "brick-and-mortar" classroom setting? New educational innovations must be utilized to capture the next generations interests, inspiring them to successfully navigate the road of life-long learning that lays before them.
Editor's note: Steve Patchin is the director of the Center for Pre-College Outreach at Michigan Technological University.