For Laura Malcolm, executive director of technology at Kaplan Virtual Education (KVE), Kaplan Higher Education's program for grades 6–12, the real purpose of an online middle and high school is to more effectively prepare students for college, and ultimately, the work world.
“Students must learn to communicate using all available tools, be it e-mail, the telephone or live sessions over the web,” says Malcolm. “This is how students learn today, and this is how people work today, so starting in either middle school or high school with online coursework prepares students for both college and the 21st-century workplace.”
Today, several thousand students are earning their high school degrees through KVE. Based in Hollywood, Fla., KVE consists of four schools: Kaplan College Preparatory School, a private school for college prep students in grades 6–12; Kaplan High School, a private, self-paced online high school for students in grades 9–12; Kaplan University High School, an online private high school geared to adults seeking a high school diploma who plan to attend college; and Kaplan Academy, a tuition-free online public high school currently available in seven states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Oregon and Washington.
Students in the program are expected to spend at least one hour on each class per day. The time may consist of synchronous class sessions with teachers, e-mail communication with teachers, homework or participation in threaded discussions groups. Teachers are required to schedule five hour-long sessions on core academic concepts for every class they teach during a typical 18-week semester.
Teachers and parents can track a student's progress using a dashboard that shows the last time the student logged into the system, homework assignments and due dates, and whether the student is keeping up with his or her schoolwork. Students also use a dashboard to keep track of assignments and all their grades in each specific subject.
“One skill the students really learn is how to budget their time,” says Malcolm. “We think the online tools prepare them very well for college.”
Malcolm's claims about student performance were supported by a recent U.S. Department of Education report which found that students who take all or part of their classwork online perform better on average than those who take similar courses in a traditional classroom. According to the study, more than 1 million K–12 students now take some or all of their coursework online.
Barbara Means, lead author of the DOE study and director of SRI International's Center for Technology in Learning in Menlo Park, Calif., points to several factors driving the growth of online learning at the K–12 level.
One is the desire among educators to make advanced placement and other specialized courses more available, especially to small and rural school districts that don't always have qualified teachers for advanced courses. Other drivers, Means says, are the home school movement, the need to prepare for a pandemic and students themselves.
“Students may have taken a driver's education course online or had an older sibling at college who took an online course,” she says. “The students just really appreciate the flexibility that online education offers.”
Kaplan's Technology Back-End
Damien Cooper, vice president for IT architecture at Kaplan, manages all the IT for Kaplan Virtual Education and Kaplan University, Kaplan Higher Education's post-secondary institution. Much like Kaplan University, KVE runs on a Microsoft SQL Server database that uses native MS SQL encryption to securely transfer data, says Cooper. Zimbra, the webmail system used by all of Kaplan's students, has built-in antivirus protection.
“We use strong passwords and password-recovery tools, and all personal student information is encrypted in the databases,” he says.
Cooper says server virtualization has been instrumental in helping Kaplan cut costs, reduce power and add applications. Roughly 26 percent of Kaplan's servers are virtual, running primarily on VMware. The school saves about 3,000 kilowatt hours per year for the 224 servers it has virtualized, plus an equivalent amount in cooling. Because as many as 10,000 students can use the online system concurrently, Kaplan opts not to virtualize its courseware application or SQL databases.
“We don't virtualize applications that have a major impact on throughput, such as the courseware or the databases,” says Cooper, who adds that Kaplan uses the virtual machines for standard business apps, such as the DNS and Exchange servers, and for its student portal.