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Nearly one million students across the nation incorporate some form of cyberlearning into their educational experience. Many of them are attending Virtual High School Global Consortium. As the oldest and most prominent virtual learning institution, the Massachusetts-based, non-profit organization draws approximately 190,000 students from over 25 countries. In those virtual hallways roam students from 29 U.S. states. But don't expect to see diplomas from "Online High" anytime in the near future. Virtual High School's online classes are designed to supplement brick and mortar learning, not replace it.
That's the fundamental difference between Virtual High School (VHS) and cybercharter schools. While cybercharter schools compete with public schools for students and funding, VHS works with public schools to provide students with educational experiences they are unable to access locally. "Our fundamental vision is that we're in the business of enhancing brick and mortar schools, not competing with them," explains Liz Pape, CEO of VHS. "We're not trying to put anybody out of business, we're trying to make better what public education students are getting."
How does VHS do that? It works, as Pape describes it, as sort of an educational co-op. Schools or school districts purchase a membership and are given 50 "seats" per membership, with which students can enroll in any course offered by VHS. In return, the school provides a teacher to teach one of the online courses. First, though, he must complete a semester's training in online teaching and his specific course, which has to be within his field of certification. This collaborative system costs schools just over $100 a student per semester and, though there are sometimes waiting lists for some courses, doesn't limit the number of students VHS can serve.
It's not all that new; Virtual High School has been in operation since 1997. What is new, though, is that educators and legislators across the nation are using the VHS model to shape state-led online high schools, especially in terms of quality. "We're beyond a pilot stage," states Bill Tucker, CEO of Education Sector. "Online learning is now very much becoming in the mainstream so I think we will see more and more attention to quality."
Tucker ought to know. He has written an in-depth report about online learning, Laboratories of Reform: Virtual High Schools and Innovation in Public Education, which outlines the landscape of online learning and provides recommendations for policy-making. Pape has made her recommendations, too. She helped the National Education Association craft its Guide to Teaching Online Courses which details what needs to be done to ensure high-quality online learning experiences.
Nearly two dozen states are taking note of all the recommendations. That's how many state-led virtual high schools there are as of 2007, most of them funded by the state legislature. Though they all work differently, it's Tucker's view that supplemental programs like VHS offer students the best of both worlds. He notes that this way students continue to have everyday high school experiences in brick-and-mortar schools while widening their knowledge of the global community. "If you begin to think about this with not an either/or but a both kind of attitude," he says, "you can think about using something like VHS Global Consortium to offer a real incredible breadth of different experiences not to replace but to augment what you have in your local high school."
But, as critics ask, does online learning cater primarily to independent learners? According to Pape, that concern is why VHS has so many supports in place, including an onsite coordinator--provided by the local school--to oversee and motivate students. "You should not always assume that the online student is going to be highly self-motivated," she opines. "Having an on-site presence for teenagers is really important."
It seems that there are some things that don't change, even in the virtual world, teenagers being one of those things. The other? The need for a solid and interactive education. "High-quality teaching is still really important," reminds Tucker. "The way in which you interact with teachers may be different, but that interaction is still important."