Are Virtual Schools the Answer To our School Budget Problems?


I recently ran across a study by Ambient Insight that predicts that by 2015, preK-12 academic institutions such as your local public school districts will be spending nearly $5 billion on self-paced electronic learning tools.  They also projected that enrollment in physical classrooms would decline by 4.2% during this same time period. They say that this is largely due to state-run virtual schools targeting not just rural students who may not have the full range of course offerings that urban schools have, but that now all schools are looking to provide core curriculum and credit recovery as a way to cut costs.  (Their full report can be found at: http://wwwambientinsight.com/reports/elearning.aspx in case you are interested.)

Shortly afterwards, I also found an article from the New York Times from the beginning of the year that talked about Florida Virtual Schools (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/18/education/18classrooms.htm).  The point of this article was that Florida Virtual Schools (http://www.flvs.net) is providing some school districts such as Miami-Dade a way to use virtual computer labs to teach courses while getting around the state-mandated class-size restrictions.  By putting up to 35-40 students in a lab, they can teach the same class with the use of a facilitator that would otherwise be capped at 25 students in a traditional high-school class with an instructor.

Now I for one like the concept of self-paced learning.  In fact, back in the stone ages when I went to high school (pre-calculator days) several of my classmates and I did a several advanced science classes as self-paced learning.  Of course it was different then.  We did not do it on-line with computers.  Rather, we had traditional textbooks.  We were given tests by the proctoring teachers at the end of each chapter and we held weekly labs either after school or on a Saturday morning.  My main point however as that there was no traditional lecture.  For us, it was a way to take additional advanced science classes when such classes were not offered during the regular day school program.  And yes, these courses did count toward our official transcripts.

While I liked the self-paced classes, I suppose they are not for everyone.  You have to be really focused and committed to such a learning model.  I believe that combined with increased use of on-line collaboration tools, that on-line courses could increase the actual learning of students because they allow students to take a more active role in their education and their future.  Also the virtual environment gives them more flexibility to pursue personal interests that may lead eventually to careers.

On the other hand, many people have argued that the role of public education is not just educating our next generation, but also just as importantly to provide custodial care for children while both parents (or even single parents) are working (See Therese Mageau in The Journal, Feb 2011).  It would not be realistic to expect (on several levels) students to be home alone and to sit in front of a computer all day to take their classes.  The custodial aspect is needed in today’s world.  Thus the concept of virtual schools in which students still attend a physical building but take classes in a large lab type environment in which a facilitator acts more as a custodial guardian while students work on their classes on individual computers.  Within a lab, you could even have each student working on a different class or be at a different pace within the same class since the facilitator is just there to monitor the class and resolve any computer issues, not to lecture or actually teach the material.

While the above approach might work for the advanced studies students in high schools, especially in those cases in which a student wants to take a class for which there are not enough students in their school to justify a teacher for that topic, it may not be the best approach for core curriculum classes.  In these cases, the virtual class could still be used, but modified to include a qualified teacher as the facilitator who can combine some actual lecturing with individual problem solving and personal one-on-one help to augment the computer-based training classes provided. A single instructor could even teach multiple classes by using telepresence technology with facilitators at the remote locations.

A lot of parents don’t agree with the virtual school method and believe that they are sending their children to a school where they can be taught by a physical teacher standing in front of the room.  However, the economics of public education today puts that model in jeopardy as funds are cut every year and districts struggle to find new ways to meet class-size restrictions.  Creative solutions such as virtual schools may be part of that solution.  In addition to Florida Virtual Schools, which was founded in 1997, many local school districts, such as Orange County Public Schools are beginning to explore virtual school options even within their districts.  Each district may have a slightly different twist on how they implement their virtual school, but I have seen a growing interest in providing at least some courses via a virtual school model.

I believe that no education model will last forever.  Just like the one-room schoolhouse gave way to larger multi-grade school buildings and eventually separate elementary, middle, and high schools, virtual schools may just be the next step in the evolutionary path of how we educate the next generation.  It may take several different attempts with different models to find one that works best or it may just continue to be a local decision.  The one thing I’m sure of though is that change will occur.

(Disclaimer: The views in this blog are strictly my own and those of the articles referenced and not necessarily the views of Orange County Public Schools where I currently work.)

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