- By Daniel Keegan
- Aug 07, 2000
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
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
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
"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
"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
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.