Cyberschool

There were no chalk-covered blackboards, no raised hands, no carefully aligned

rows of desks and no longing glances out the window during Catherine Roberts'

recent creative writing class. In fact, there wasn't a classroom at all,

and Roberts never met her teacher in person.

Roberts was a self-described "guinea pig" for the Kentucky Virtual High

School, the nation's second statewide, accredited online high school. With

classes that began in January, Kentucky follows Florida, whose statewide

virtual high school opened its World Wide Web doors in 1997.

"With [virtual classes]," Roberts said, "you get the opportunity to

take classes that you'd never be able to in public school."

The Internet is the backbone of distance learning. Colleges started

the practice several years ago, then secondary schools offered individual

classes online. Now, states are adopting entire virtual curriculums.

Plans are under way for virtual high schools in Illinois, Michigan,

New Mexico, Utah and West Virginia.

A statewide virtual high school is typically state- approved and accredited

to provide classes via the Internet for any student, regardless of where

they live or what district they're enrolled in. As the Internet becomes

further ingrained into modern culture, some educators see virtual high schools

as a way to equalize school districts. Anyone, anywhere has a chance to

take any course.

With a virtual high school, proponents say, the playing field is leveled.

Regardless of geographic or economic differences, students can get the same

quality education. For example, a student in a rural school that is strapped

for money and has reduced class selections could take Latin. Or a student

in a district with few Advanced Placement contenders could go online to

join same-level students.

After a mandate from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

that required students entering a state college or university to have at

least two years of study in a foreign language, officials knew they had

a problem. Many rural districts can't offer language classes with any regularity

because they have trouble holding on to specialty teachers. And few areas

offer Advanced Placement classes.

"We needed to find a way for schools to offer these classes," said Mary

Beth Susman, the chief executive officer of the Kentucky Virtual University.

After the mandate was issued, Susman began to work with Gov. Paul Patton's

office to create a virtual high school. Having a state virtual university

up and running — although it began only last August — helped to provide

a sense of direction. The legislature provided the initial funding of $1.5

million over two years, which covers operation fees such as teacher staffing,

course development and the e-campus platform.

Officials began to talk to platform and curriculum vendors last fall

and signed deals with eCollege.com and Nebraska's for-profit class.com

Inc. ECollege would create the "campus" — or rather, the Web site — for

about $10,000, and class.com would supply the curriculum for 10 courses.

Other courses would be developed internally.

During the negotiations, the two sides agreed that the companies would

provide teacher training — everything from how to use the technology to

effective online teaching methods and ethics. Only months after the idea

was born, the Kentucky Virtual High School rang its first bell.

The school offered 13 classes to 178 school districts, including 350

high schools. Most of the classes were in science, math and foreign languages.

There were also electives such as creative writing. However, things didn't

exactly run without a hitch.

Susman tried to register in January, just to see if the system was working.

She registered online and said she received an e-mail response two days

later. "It said: "Are you a student in the high school system somewhere?'

And, of course, I wasn't, but I realized how much work they had to do to

find out who I was not," she said, laughing. The system was working, she

concluded, but it was not completely automated and needed administrative

attention.

Other atypical high school problems cropped up. The virtual curriculum

had to be conceived. Teachers wanted to adjust the purchased curriculum

to suit their styles, but could only work within the confines of the contract.

And at times, it was hard to log on to the class.com Web site.

Given the glitches, the low enrollment turned into something of a blessing.

Only 196 people had signed up for the first session. Just three signed up

for Roberts' creative writing class, and she was the only one who hung

in till the end. For the summer session, 39 people signed up for 10 classes.

An Online Setup

Different states take different approaches to the virtual school concept.

Kentucky offers classes only to public high school students. In Florida,

virtual learning is open to anyone, including home-schooled students and

private-school students.

In Kentucky, classes cost $300, a fee that is usually picked up by

the district. In Florida, all classes are free.

Once enrolled, students get a sign-in name and password. If students

need extra material for their class such as CD-ROMs or science kits, those

are mailed to them.

For classes created by Kentucky educators — as opposed to those bought

from class.com — students logging in are greeted with an interactive syllabus

that explains the lesson. Colorful, cartoon-like icons designate the types

of assignments posted and offer information on how to enter a threaded discussion.

In threaded discussions, students comment on assignments and can respond

to other students' messages. Roberts considered the discussions valuable — even though she was essentially the only participant in her class — because

of the direct feedback. She said the discussions were even more useful than

talking face to face in a classroom, because the exchange seemed more personal

and the comments better thought out.

"It's not like in class where the teacher says, "Let's discuss the book,'

and it doesn't go well because no one is ready," Roberts said. "You had

time to prepare and think. And the teacher can guide the discussion and

prepare comments for feedback."

Students in both the Kentucky and Florida programs are required to participate

in online discussions.

Flexible, Not Easy

The flexible nature of virtual schools allows students to take the class

at their own pace. Roberts, for instance, would log on every day, while

others might just log on during weekends.

When she got home from school, Roberts would immediately log on to

the Internet from her family's computer. While working on assignments from

her four "regular" high school classes, she would sign on to the Kentucky

Virtual High School page and see what assignments were posted for her.

Often, Jessica Andrews, Roberts' teacher, assigned online research on

various literary forms, such as short stories. Using a variety of sites

chosen by Andrews, Roberts would conduct research and then "chat'' with

Andrews in an online discussion.

Andrews would usually log on late at night when she had free time to

respond to comments, post discussion topics and lectures, and grade homework

assignments.

"Right now I feel like I give the person online the same type of time

and attention as those in my classroom," Andrews said.

Though there may be more freedom, online classes are not a breeze, Roberts

said. Her creative writing class took as much time — if not more — than

her regular classes.

The difficulty, she said, lies in the need to stay in constant contact.

And yet there is no one there to force you to log on and do assignments.

"You have to be self-motivated," she said.

The assignments can be harder, too, simply because they must be done

in an unfamiliar way — through online research. The classes don't revolve

around textbooks.

"This is not textbook online," said Bruce Friend, Florida's assistant

principal. "You know, "Read chapters one through 10 and do the questions

and e-mail them back to me.'"

A hidden bonus of the lessons is that students are learning how to use

technology as they work. This unfamiliarity challenges teachers, too. Teachers

are trained for the medium, but they must be very explicit when writing

assignments and beginning discussions with students. Subtlety gets lost

in the translation.

As far as tests go, Florida sets up a time and place where students

take tests or make presentations in person, while Kentucky conducts tests

online.

Of course, for Kentucky online tests, there is a possibility that a

student could be using notes, so the tests involve more critical thinking

rather than regurgitating facts. Also, software times the tests so that

students can't scour online resources for hours.

In the Future

Educators agree that although virtual high schools are becoming more

popular, no one's tearing down any schoolhouses just yet.

Instead, virtual high schools serve as a way to pool an entire state's

educational resources so students in every region have the same opportunities.

"Most people aren't willing to toss aside a traditional classroom,"

said Barbara Stein, a senior policy analyst of education technology issues

at the National Education Association. Virtual schools provide great opportunities

but should be used in addition to traditional classrooms, she said.

"Most parents and students are most comfortable with the core of their

education in a physical classroom," she said.

Educators at virtual high schools agreed.

"We don't see it as a replacement," Friend said. "We see it as a way

to expand curriculum and give students more choices. We have a motto. We

recognize that this is not for every student but being in a classroom with

four walls and listening to a teacher lecture is not for every student either."

The National Education Association has not done a formal study on statewide

virtual high schools, Stein said, but the group has issued quality standards

for educators to use as a benchmark for virtual programs.

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