Tim Daniels and Ray Sobers of Achievement House Charter School in Pennsylvania say cyberschools offer students self-paced instruction and courses that may not be offered in their local districts.

Online Alternative: A Closer Look at Cyberschool

Online education offers self-paced instruction for fast and slow learners and students who find the social aspects of brick-and-mortar schools challenging.

School districts find that online education offers self-paced instruction for fast and slow learners and students who find the social aspects of traditional brick-and-mortar schools too challenging.

By Larry Stevens

Many K–12 school districts are discovering what colleges and universities have known for several years: Physical presence isn't a prerequisite for educational success.

School districts find that online education offers self-paced instruction for fast and slow learners and students who find the social aspects of traditional brick-and-mortar schools too challenging.

By Larry Stevens

Many K–12 school districts are discovering what colleges and universities have known for several years: Physical presence isn't a prerequisite for educational success.

School districts find that online education offers self-paced instruction for fast and slow learners and students who find the social aspects of traditional brick-and-mortar schools too challenging.

Many K–12 school districts are discovering what colleges and universities have known for several years: Physical presence isn't a prerequisite for educational success.

That's why cyberschools (or fully online schools) are increasingly being offered to students as an alternative to a traditional brick-and-mortar education.

Ray Sobers, director of technology at Achievement House Charter School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., says online education offers distinct advantages.

“Students can have accelerated instruction,” he explains. “Their learning isn't constricted via default assignment to their district high school. And they can avoid many of the social problems, such as bullying or common classroom peer pressures, that sometimes undermine their success in traditional schools.”

Achievement House, which accepts students from seventh to 12th grade, uses technology to replicate the traditional classroom experience on a notebook computer at the students' homes.

Students attend classes in real time, and attendance is taken. Classes are led by state-certified teachers who use webcams so students can see and hear the teacher, view the blackboard and the teacher's computer screen, and benefit from any teaching tools that might be in the classroom. Teachers can e-mail ahead of time any content students need for instruction.

During class, Achievement House students can ask questions verbally or by text directly to the teacher or to the entire class. The teacher can call on students, and students can indicate to the teacher that they are leaving momentarily if they need a break. And unlike brick-and-mortar schools, students can take advantage of a classroom session replay. If they are ever unable to make it to a class, they can always review it on the school's website.

Three Options

There are a number of cyberschool models, all requiring different technologies on the student side, on the classroom side and in the data center. Most experts agree that there are three primary options for classes: the synchronous model, which replicates the live classroom experience; the asynchronous approach, in which students work at their own pace, with teachers available to monitor progress and explain difficult concepts; and the offline model, in which most of the material is provided in actual textbooks with online teachers acting as advisers.

Many cyberschools offer a combination of the three approaches. “The advantage of cyberschools is that both the curriculum and the delivery method – synchronous, asynchronous or offline – can be optimized for each student,” says Jeffrey Kwitowski, head of public relations at K12 Inc., a leading provider of K–12 online programs.

Another difference among cyberschools is how they handle infrastructure. They can maintain large data centers to support the school's activities, or they can minimize their data center requirements by using a web portal to access the virtual classroom environment and manage student records.

75%
Public school districts that offer online or blended courses

Source: The Sloan Consortium

Regardless of the method used, experts agree that the acceptance and popularity of cyberschools is growing. Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN), says school districts are increasingly offering virtual classes as part of a hybrid educational system. “Cyberschooling is a disruptive technology in the same way that the iPod disrupted the music business and Amazon.com disrupted the retail book industry,” says Krueger.

According to Krueger, cyberschools were developed to meet certain needs created by a market failure. He says while traditional schools are successful for most students, many schools have a hard time addressing the needs of students who learn more quickly or slowly, who want to take courses that are less in demand (such as Chinese), or who have trouble dealing with the nonacademic aspects of a traditional school (such as catching an early-morning bus or interacting with their peers).

Tech Tools

The primary technologies for cyberschools are notebook computers and broadband Internet. Achievement House provides each student with a loaner notebook and technical support. Most software problems can be resolved remotely. If not, the student can return the computer in a postage-free envelope and get a replacement. The school also reimburses the student for broadband Internet, which is required for attendance. Most students also use a headset with a microphone.

The school has partnered with an online classroom provider that handles the transmission of lessons as well as student records and reports. Sobers says the portal lets the school concentrate on teaching rather than administrative or bandwidth issues.

Elkhart Cyber School (ECS), which is free for Kansas residents but requires tuition for out-of-state students, takes a different path from Achievement House. Elkhart's classes are all asynchronous, which gives students flexibility both in when they take classes and the pace at which they do the coursework, says Sherri Hurn, Elkhart's director.

“Students can take classes where and when they want to,” Hurn says. “If they want to work days and take classes at night, or if the family is traveling and they want to take the classes at a relative's house or at the library, they can do that.”

Like Achievement House, ECS uses a third-party educational portal. Students simply log in to gain access to their lessons, to see their grades or to read e-mail from their instructors.

Classes are prerecorded, but ECS provides a great deal of live teacher-student and teacher-parent interaction. Teachers monitor students' progress and have regular conversations with them via e-mail and live chat. In addition, teachers regularly communicate with students and parents by telephone.

“In most cases, the teacher has more communication with parents in this method than they do at brick-and-mortar schools,” Hurn says.

Mixed Model

Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School differs from Achievement House and ECS in that it uses a mixed model, offering both synchronous and asynchronous classes.

“We believe a combination of modes provides the most robust learning experience,” says Brian Laquinta, the school's director of technology.

Photo: Cristian Baitg/Getty Images

The synchronous mode uses a combination of audio and electronic whiteboard displays, which are broadcast over the web so students can hear the teacher and see what's on the board. Currently, there is no webcam, so students don't see the teacher, but the school is considering adding that feature. Each student is outfitted with a digital tablet and pen, which teachers can use to replicate the experience of going up to the board in a traditional school. The asynchronous courses are created by the school.

To support its students, the school has 22 help-desk technicians. Unlike other cyberschools that partner with educational portal firms, Pennsylvania Cyber maintains its own data center to support its programs. Its Microsoft Windows Server environment has HP blade servers, large storage arrays and a backup generator.

“Since we're handling our own infrastructure, we realize we have a responsibility for keeping all the technology on the student side and at the backend up and running all the time,” Laquinta says.

Look Before You Leap

While there are advantages to having cyberschools available for students who can benefit from them, they are not for everyone.

“Not all students are ideal candidates for cyberschools,” says Tim Daniels, CEO of Achievement House. “Some need teachers constantly looking over their shoulders. But we handle this with mentors.”

The mentors are in-house staff who are specially trained to have close relationships with the students and parents, Daniels says. They know everything about their academic situation. They know how many classes they missed, how many assignments were late and the grades they received on each test.

“There are definitely some characteristics that we look for before we'll accept a student,” says ECS's Hurn. “For example, they have to be motivated and self-disciplined. And they need strong parental support.”

Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School also requires parental involvement. In fact, before a student is accepted, a parent or guardian must sign a contract promising to be home during the school day.

As technology improves and becomes even more affordable, cyberschools may soon become mainstream. While not ideal for all students, for those who have unmet needs at their local district, cyberschools are now a well-accepted alternative.

CyberTech

Some of the leading technologies used in cyberschools:

Electronic whiteboards, such as Panasonic's Panaboard or the 3M Digital Board, let teachers and students transmit images from whiteboards. This allows cyberschools to replicate the blackboard experience.

Digital tablets and pens simulate the experience of going up to the board.

Webcams, like those from Logitech and HP, let students see the classroom in synchronous cyberclasses. In some cases, cyberschools use webcams to allow teachers to see the students.

Remote access software, such as pcAnywhere from Symantec, lets help-desk technicians solve some problems on students' notebooks remotely.

Headphones and microphones from manufacturers such as Labtec and Micro Innovations let teachers and students hear and speak to each other comfortably.

<p>Bill Cramer</p>
Apr 05 2010

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