Think of it like a virtual store. When you’re shopping for gifts on the Internet, you’re not actually IN a store, but the shopping experience equates that of shopping in a store. And when you complete the transaction, the resulting product you end up with is the same as if you had shopped in the physical store. It is a virtual experience.
Virtual school is the umbrella term that encompasses many different platforms and delivery methods. It is “virtual” because it involves some sort of physical place separation between a teacher and a student while the educational exchange is occurring.
Therefore, a virtual school exists wherever a teacher and a student are working collaboratively to enact student learning, where the teacher and student are not physically in the same location during the collaboration.
Parameters of a Virtual School Experience
Consistent definitions are still being hammered out among the experts (see sources), but for purposes of simplicity and clarity, two major parameters further define the virtual school experience: content delivery and whether the online learning is full- or part-time.
Educational content can be delivered either fully or partially online:
- Fully online – all content is delivered through the Internet or other teleconference method. Students and teachers spend no time together in the same location during content delivery.
- Blended online – part of the content is delivered through the Internet, but part is also offered in the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. Students and teachers spend some amount of time together in the same location during content delivery.
Do not confuse “virtual school” with “digital learning”. Digital learning refers to using technology in conjunction with digital content and instruction. Digital learning can take place in a traditional classroom as well as a virtual school. [Digital Learning Now!, an initiative of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, has defined 10 elements of high quality digital learning. Take a look to understand the difference between virtual school and digital learning.]
The second major parameter refers to whether online learning is full- or part-time.
- Full-time online learning means that all of a student’s coursework is delivered online.
- Part-time online learning indicates that one or more, but not all, of a student’s courses are taken online.
Again, the experts differ on where assessments fit into the virtual school experience. Suffice to say that assessments can either be taken exclusively online from a non-school location or students may travel to a brick-and-mortar school to take assessments.
Time, place, and pacing are other parameters than can be either flexible or rigid depending upon the way the virtual school is constructed.
And what about accreditation? AdvancEd has accredited 255 Digital Learning Institutions across the United States. The accreditation standards can be found here.
So What’s Happening in Alabama?
Alabama led the way in virtual school development when it launched the ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, & Students Statewide) distance learning program in 2005 for students in grades 9 through 12. The number of courses delivered during the 2012-2013 school year was 51,910. According to the Evergreen Group’s “Keeping Pace with K-12 Online & Blended Learning, 2013”, Alabama now has the third largest state virtual school in the country (p. 67).
The way it works is that a teacher is one place teaching content while students in classrooms in other places are tuned in through videoconferencing or other Internet connection techniques. It allows course content to reach students in districts that might not otherwise be able to fund or find teachers to teach a particular course. All textbooks and course materials are provided by the public school district in which the student is enrolled. ACCESS is now available for a fee to private school students in Alabama as well.
Here is a list of courses available to 9th through 12th graders for Fall 2013-Spring 2014:
Other Virtual School Offerings in Alabama
Baldwin County opened the Digital Renaissance Virtual School, the state’s first fully-online, full-time high school, for 9th, 10th and 11th graders at the beginning of this school year as a pilot program for 30 students. Applications are required. Classes are offered through ACCESS, and there are eligibility requirements for students to be considered for admission. Also, students are told to expect to “report to the Digital Renaissance Learning Center 2-3 times a week” for exams and physical education requirements. The ALSDE approved the pilot program in mid-August. School officials hope to expand the program to seniors in 2014-2015.
Florence High School has adopted a different model where online classes will be monitored and “taught” by Florence High School teachers, not ACCESS teachers. 100 students are participating in the Florence Virtual School. This is not a fully online, full-time program as Baldwin County’s is. Rather it appears to be a blended-online, part-time program where students still attend school to participate in classes not taken online, including electives and sports. 47 classes are being offered online for 2013-2014. There are eligibility requirements for this program.
Both superintendents stated they want to add it as an option for students, knowing that it won’t be a good fit for all, but may help keep some students on track.
Hoover High School began investigating the online high school model in late October, with current students being asked to complete a survey to share their thoughts on how this might suit their needs. Administrators mentioned Florence High School as a model they are considering in a post on their Engaged Learning Initiative blog.
State education officials continue to push for school districts to become more innovative in their delivery methods for public education in Alabama, and the move toward district-maintained virtual schools is happening quickly.
Staying on Top of The Virtual School Movement
School communities need to weigh in on these innovative proposals while keeping an open mind. Other states have much more experience with virtual schools of all kinds, with some having better outcomes than others. Thoughtful questioning of school district’s plans to move ahead with virtual schools should take place as these plans are being made, not after plans are implemented. No one has shared the cost of moving toward a virtual school, but Baldwin County, Florence and Hoover all have distributed digital hardware, e.g., iPads, MacBooks, to students prior to adding virtual school capabilities.
A graphic that bears consideration is one from the 2012 Keeping Pace report, asking what the educational goals of the community are and whether a blended online learning model is the right move to achieve those goals:
What Does the Future Hold for Alabama’s Students?
Online learning for public education students is here. And while Alabama currently does not have a charter school authorization law, these virtual school programs are functioning almost like charter schools. The Flexibility portion of the Alabama Accountability Act was touted as a way to allow school districts to become more innovative, and that certainly seems to be what is happening in this area.
Will fully online, full-time schools come to Alabama? Florida has a K-12 fully online, full-time virtual school created by the Florida state department of education that is recognized as its own district and educated 148,000 students last year. It is open to public, private and homeschooled students in Florida and outside of Florida as well. The graphic below, taken from the 2013 Keeping Pace report, shows where fully online schools are. Mississippi and Alabama are the island in the midst of sea change. How long can the people of Alabama resist?