This thriving statewide school mixes avatars with kindergarten curricula to stay current and reach all corners of Pennsylvania.
When Emily Eyer was in kindergarten, her parents pulled her out of public school because she developed an attitude problem. The following year, they enrolled her in the first grade at the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber), an eight-year-old online public school based in Midland, Pa.
“Her attitude has changed completely,” says her mother, Debbie Eyer, of Cheswick, Pa. “I feel it’s important to have control over what my children are exposed to and what influences them.”
Emily, now 10, starts her school day at 8:30 in the morning. She walks into her living room, turns on the computer, logs on to the school’s website and attends live, virtual classes in math, English, science and social studies. Each class is 50 minutes long with 30-minute breaks in between. She enjoys the cyberschool so much, her mother says Emily plans on attending until she graduates from high school.
Today, more than 8,000 K–12 students attend PA Cyber for various reasons, from behavioral issues or chronic illness to careers that require flexible school schedules, such as acting or athletics. As the largest online school in the state, it is a role model for traditional K–12 schools that want to expand their course offerings and accommodate students with diverse needs, as well as expose them to a new world of opportunities. Yet, on the way to its success, PA Cyber had to overcome misconceptions and connectivity issues and find ways to incorporate today’s latest tech innovations, such as avatars and social networking.
Going Live Back in 1998, Nick Trombetta was superintendent of the K–12 Midland (Pa.) School District. When the district’s only high school closed because of dwindling enrollment, Trombetta searched for educational alternatives for families living in the small community. After the district conducted public forums for one year, a teacher suggested establishing a cyberschool.
“We originally planned on educating 50 students,” says Trombetta, PA Cyber’s founder and CEO. “We have since doubled in size almost every two years.”
Each student receives roughly $1,500 worth of hardware and software from the state. That includes a notebook computer, printer/fax, headphone, microphone and Wacom digitizer pad with a stylus pen. Every quarter, the school also reimburses parents for the cost of Internet access.
The National Network of Digital Schools (NNDS) in Beaver, Pa., manages the school’s technical operations. This nonprofit organization offers standards-based K–12 curricula and technical assistance to online schools nationwide. Early on, PA Cyber offered only asynchronous classes, where students logged on to the school’s website, read their assignments and e-mailed their homework to teachers, who then graded it and e-mailed it back.
“We thought the vast majority would want the flexibility of anytime, nonscheduled learning in the asynchronous method,” Trombetta says. “But it’s pretty much a 60/40 split, with 60 percent wanting live courses at a scheduled time. That was a surprise to us.”
In 2004, the school delivered its first live class. Since then, it has introduced other ways to learn. Students can download lessons onto their MP3 players or simulation programs to a DVD. Since live classes are archived, they can also replay them for quick reference or as a refresher course.
But online schools aren’t for everyone. Trombetta says 8 to 12 percent of new students experience difficulty adjusting. He points to those with unrealistic expectations, who think online schools are easier than traditional schools, as the students who often don’t succeed in a cyberclassroom. Although the school offers a team of seven professionals who help students transition to online learning and monitor their progress, a handful of students still leave, returning to a traditional classroom setting.
“Charter schools are considered to be laboratories,” Trombetta says. “The trial-and-error method is basically encouraged so you can come up with a better model. We think we’ve got the best model out there.”
Solving Connectivity Issues
Another issue PA Cyber faced was that not all schools are technologically equipped to deliver 24x7 learning.
The heart of any cyberschool is connectivity, says Brett Geibel, senior vice president at NNDS, which created PA Cyber’s infrastructure. He says the online school started with a single cable modem or local broadband connection.
“It was just bad news,” he says, explaining that the school now uses between 75 and 100 cable modems that deliver 100 megabits of connectivity. “It was very slow, and we’ve made multiple upgrades over the years to make it a carrier-class service.”
Planning for student capacity was also tricky because students log on at different times. He says building a scalable infrastructure was critical. So NNDS installed blade server technology, along with a large chassis that could house additional servers, enabling the school to quickly expand.
As the school’s enrollment grew, so did the number of NNDS employees. Nearly 50 more techies were hired to handle the school’s day-to-day operations. For example, the company created a help desk for students, as well as reporting software — with Microsoft’s SharePoint as its interface — that grabs student information from various databases and deposits it into a central location.
However, the company’s biggest product is Lincoln Interactive, an online curriculum that includes 3D simulations to reinforce standardized content. Little Lincoln, online content aimed at kindergartners, will be piloted in September and will feature all forms of multimedia, such as audio and video streams.
“Our new kindergarten initiative is remarkable,” says Geibel. “I believe it will be the most multimedia-rich kindergarten curriculum in the nation.”
Likewise, the school will soon pilot a virtual lobby. Students will create their own avatar, or online character, to socialize with each other as they enter rooms within the virtual lobby, such as the music room or game room, explains Andrew Oberg, PA Cyber’s director.
“We may even have a letterman’s club, enabling students to earn the right for a letterman’s jacket,” he says.
Establishing an online school requires an open mind, not only for parents and students, but also for technology administrators.
The most successful cyberschools take full advantage of digital learning opportunities, including social networking websites that allow students to exchange ideas collaboratively, says Don Knezek, CEO at the International Society for Technology in Education, based in Washington, D.C.
“Tightly locked-down networks that don’t allow penetration of firewalls to get to creative resources make it very difficult to effectively engage students in cyberlearning environments,” he says, adding that opening up a network to social networking sites is considered blasphemy by many techies.
Despite the technological advances PA Cyber has made, cyberschools are still evolving, Knezek says. While some schools falsely perceive cost as a barrier to entry, he says the real issues they need to focus on involve mastering fairly sophisticated technologies, securing adequate bandwidth and appropriately wiring classrooms for connectivity.
All K–12 schools need to build in a cybercomponent, Knezek adds: “A school that doesn’t make use of cyberschooling to bring the variety and richness of curriculum offerings to their students in some way is really shortchanging them.”
According to Andrew Oberg, director, PA Cyber, the school:
- Spends an average of $8,000 per student
- Increased its budget from $3.5 million in 2000 to $80 million in 2008
- Graduated more seniors (more than 700) in 2008 than any other Pennsylvania public school
- Employs 92 virtual teachers, approximately 50 teacher facilitators for self-paced learning and more than 300 support staff
- Offers a gifted program for students in grades 3–12
- Enrolls students from 478 of the 501 public school districts in the state