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Thursday, March 24, 2005

How Far Have We Come with Virtual High Schools?

"Join a class composed of students from different states and countries chatting and learning together yet never leaving their homes! Virtual courses, virtual student lounges, virtual yearbooks, and virtual graduations; is this the education of the future?"

This is the lead question that begins a 1999 article by Glori Chaika titled "Virtual High Schools: The High Schools of the Future?" (see http://www.education-world.com/a_curr/curr119.shtml). Six years into the future, let's take stock of the respond to this question...

According to the National Center for Education Statistics' (NCES) recent report, "during the 2002–03 12-month school year, about one-third of public school districts (36 percent) had students in the district enrolled in distance education courses... representing an estimated 5,500 out of a total of 15,040 public school districts" (p. 4). In addition, "an estimated 8,200 public schools had students enrolled in distance education courses during the 2002–03 12-month school year... representing approximately9 percent of all public schools nationwide" (p. 5).

In the Chaika article, she states that some of the advantages of virtual learning included:
  1. It permits students in small, rural, or low-wealth school districts to take specialized courses that would ordinarily not be available to them.
  2. It provides home schooled students with instruction in subjects their parents might not be able to teach, such as foreign languages or computer skills.
  3. It meets the needs of school phobics, those in hospitals or recovering at home, dropouts who would like to get back in, expelled students, single parents, and students in other states or even other countries looking for nontraditional educational solutions.
  4. And, in an age when many of our schools are overcrowded or crumbling, cyber learning makes financial sense, too, because schools using distance learning do not need to modernize or build new buildings in order to provide quality cyber instruction.

The NCES report allows us to judging the success made in only the first of these four areas; my favourite topic in how virtual high schools can be used to service students in rural populations. The report tells us:

  • Although a greater proportion of large districts than medium or small districts had students enrolled in distance education courses, a greater proportion of schools in small districts had students enrolled in distance education courses than did schools in medium or large districts (15 vs. 6 percent for both medium and large districts). In other words, when small districts do offer distance education, they are more likely to involve a greater proportion of their schools. (p. 4)
  • A smaller proportion of districts with the lowest poverty concentration had students enrolled in distance education courses than did districts with higher concentrations of poverty (33 compared with 42 percent for both districts with medium or high poverty concentration). (p. 4)
  • The proportion of students enrolled in foreign language distance education courses was greater for small districts compared to medium or large districts (19 vs. 11 and 6 percent, respectively). Furthermore, the proportion of students enrolled in foreignlanguage distance education courses was greater for rural districts than for suburban or urban districts (22 vs. 10 and 5 percent, respectively). (p. 8)
  • The proportion of all distance education enrollments that are in Advanced Placement or college-level distance education courses is greater in rural districts compared to urban or suburban districts (27 vs. 4 and 11 percent, respectively). Additionally,suburban districts had a higher proportion (11 percent) of all distance education enrollments in Advanced Placement or college-level distance education courses than urban districts (4 percent). (p. 8)

While these strides give me a sense of optimism, they still indicate that only 15% of schools in small districts take advantage of opportunities provided by virtual high schools. More importantly, in my mind, was the fact that while almost dozen and a half states have sponsored state-wide virtual high schools, according to the NCES only 15% of small districts had students enrolled in courses offered by these virtual high schools (compared to 27% of students in medium and large districts). However, "a greater proportion of small districts than medium or large districts had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by another local school district, or schools in other districts, within their state (39 percent vs. 25 and 13 percent, respectively)" (p. 13).

This indicates that small districts are getting their virtual offerings more from schools in other districts or other school districts than they are having students enrolled in courses from the state-sponsored virtual high school. This trend strikes me as odd, the stated mission of most of these state-sponsored virtual high school programs. For example, the Illinois Virtual High School in its preliminary plan listed the first of its intended audiences as "learners who are underserved (poor, rural, urban) when local curriculum has run out" (see http://www2.imsa.edu/programs/ivhs/pdfs/prelimplan.pdf). This is common of many of these state-sponsored virtual high schools. [Note: that I am note singling out or picking on the Illinois Virtual High School, as this is common of most state-sponsored virtual high schools - and I knew where to find the document on their website.]

So why is it that small/rural school districts are not taking advantage of these opportunities, particularly considering that they are one of the primary target audiences of these state-sponsored virtual high schools? And with only 15% of schools in small/rural districts having students enrolled in virtual courses, is the opportunity really bing taken advantage of at all? Maybe for this small percentage of schools, but what about students in the other 85% of schools in small/rural districts? How can we begin to increase the opportunities that these students have?

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Blogger virtual-wicks said...

While I can't dispute the NCES numbers, I am not sure they represent the experience of Illinois.

While Illinois has a notable large district (Chicago Public Schools, 3rd largest district in the nation), and has a number of larger school districts in the Chicago suburban area and some of our other larger cities, for the most part, Illinois is made up of small school distrct. (28% of our school districts -- not schools, but districts are less than 500 students.

I think we are doing a good job of reaching all> schools in Illinois, not just rural schools and are enrollment data seems to back that up. (I can provide stats if people are interested.)

While we are doing well so far, we have a long way to go and I see two primary barriers when it comes for schools participating in IVHS:

1. Awareness / staff to provide support - It is hard to develeop awareness over such a diverse and large state and even when a school has heard of us, small schools often struggle with finding someone to take responsibility for their IVHS program. It isn't unusual for the principal to also be a coach for one of the athletic teams and so in order to penetrate these schools we have to make the case on how much this will help their schools and students.

2. Financial - The way IVHS is currently setup in Illinois, it is much less expensive for a school to participate in IVHS than to teach that course at its local school. (I am referring to the cost to the school itself, not the overall cost of the program, which is another issue entirely.) But despite the fact that these classes are a financial bargain, they still require new money. The school doesn't normally reduce its operating expenses by joining IVHS. Instead what it is doing is dramatically increasing their academic offerings to students. In talks I have given, I talk about this as "making the unaffordable possible". So even though the school nows is able to greatly enrich its academic offerings through IVHS, it still has to deal with how it is going to pay for these new services -- and when a school is already cash strapped, there are no easy answers.

9:34 AM  
Blogger MKB said...


In my own teaching with the Illinois Virtual High School, I can honestly say that over the past four (or is it five now) years I have had the sense that with the exception of a large pocket of students that we have from one urban school this year, the majority of students that I have personally interacted with have been from rural areas. It has been one of the best experiences for me, not being from or living in Illinois, it has really given me a chance to get to know different corners and holes of the state that I would never even normally look up.

Dealing with your second barrer, do any of the districts/schools pass the costs on to the student? Is this eve a possibility under the current funding arrangements for schools in Illinois?


12:20 PM  

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