Oct 12 2006

Why Virtual Schools Matter

Dr. Paige explains how virtual schools are reshaping K-12 education by breaking down barriers, measuring student progress and serving diverse needs.

Is your school district serving the digital generation? In 2001, 90 percent of school-age children used computers, and nearly three in four used the Internet to complete school assignments. These students have grown up with the Web, MP3s and instant messaging.

Is our education system fully prepared to meet their needs? The advent of what we commonly call “virtual schools” will help answer that question in the resounding affirmative.

Four years ago, I helped open a virtual middle school in the Houston Independent School District. Today, 17 states have virtual schools, and students in all 50 states—and internationally—benefit in some way from virtual education. Although still young in concept and implementation, virtual schools can expand educational opportunities and raise the quality of education.

Virtual schools are reshaping K-12 education in three exciting ways, whether as a supplement to or replacement for the traditional classroom curricula:

Breaking down barriers. Virtual education presents an opportunity to rethink how best to reorganize education. Until very recently, most policy-makers would have scoffed at the notion that a student in Montana could enroll in a Pennsylvania-based “cyber charter school” and receive instruction from a teacher in Florida. By leveraging technology and the Internet to eliminate boundaries of geography, virtual schools create new learning opportunities.

Virtual education also increases collaboration among students, teachers and parents through the use of electronic communications, such as e-mail and instant messaging.

Measuring student progress. Accountability for results is a major focus of the No Child Left Behind legislation. Virtual schools offer interesting new ways to measure subject-matter mastery. For example, Houston measures the effectiveness of its virtual school program by the students’ successful completion of all course segments before advancing to the next segment. Virtual schools’ assessments are continuous, online and provide for instant feedback. Naturally, virtual schools must also be held to the same quality standards as traditional schools.

Serving diverse needs. Students taking online classes come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have a broad range of academic needs. In every state, students are taking online advanced placement courses. Indeed, many students take virtual courses online for college preparation. Other students attend virtual school programs as an alternative to dropping out.

Students with special needs, including homebound students, can continue their education in a virtual environment. Students with behavioral issues might find virtual schools a productive alternative if they are suspended from traditional classrooms.

This year, the Department of Education is conducting the first national survey of online learning in K-12 education. This will help track the use of technology in our schools and examine the nation’s capacity for virtual education. The department will host a leadership summit in 2004 to share ideas about the future of virtual education.

Our concepts of education are changing. While our school year is based on an agricultural calendar and our model of education on the industrial age, we live in an information age where institutions, industries and systems are being rethought to fit the times. Virtual schools represent a renewal of our education system that will help give every member of the digital generation the skills needed for success in the 21st century.