Morgan, H. (2015). Online instruction and virtual schools for middle and high school students: Twenty-first century fads or progressive teaching methods for today’s pupils. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 88(2) 72-76. doi: 10.1080/00098655.2015.1007909
This article was a review of the recent literature on the effectiveness of virtual schools for secondary students. The author acknowledged several times that there has been little research done on what makes an effective virtual school beyond examining the results produced by those schools. Essentially not many studies have actually looked under the hood of virtual schools despite the fact that enrollment in virtual schools has been growing exponentially—38% over the course of 2011 and 2012
The overwhelming majority of K-12 students enrolled in virtual schools are high school students. One of the advantages of virtual schools for secondary students is that they allow students to work at their own pace from any location and at any time. The flip side of this is some students lack the skills to communicate effectively online and do not possess the discipline needed to be successful. A handful states have gone so far as to require students to take at least one online course as a requirement for graduation.
Studies have shown that virtual schools have a high dropout rate and low graduation rates. The author argues that those poor results may not be caused by the online learning format but rather by weak implementation of online learning. For example, many programs do not check attendance or track log-on activity and time spent online. This kind of inattention is unheard of in traditional schools. Another study showed that when online education included videoconferencing or telecommunications, students performed at the same level as students in traditional schools, and the author argues that this is due to the extra attention given to implementing such a program.
The author also reviewed studies collecting data on the experiences of teachers at virtual schools, and those teachers reported experiencing more feelings of isolation than in the traditional classroom setting. Teachers at virtual schools found it difficult to assess their students’ comprehension at the secondary level due to the lack of visual cues, like confused facial expressions. Another study found that some of the burden of teaching shifted to the parents of students enrolled in virtual schools, because they needed to keep their children on track, monitor their work, and assist them with technical issues.
The author did find evidence in the research that online courses offer advantages to disabled students, because they can work at their own pace, at a flexible location, and use technology to adapt to their specific needs. The author cautioned against the use of virtual schools for disadvantaged students because they may miss out on the “emotional guidance” that a traditional school offers as well as the opportunity to have a safe space to work separate from difficult home situations. While online education programs offer some advantages for certain students, the author cautioned that many programs are not the “progressive teaching alternative” that they claim to be.
After reading a handful of articles on K-12 virtual schools, I am surprised to see the same complaint in each article: there isn’t enough research on the actual teaching happening within virtual schools. They seem to essentially be black boxes that only report the required test results to educational authorities. I wonder if this is the result of so many virtual charter schools being run by for-profit organizations. I would like to read more about for-profit virtual education.
This article, while not containing info that was particularly enlightening on the topic, offered a useful round-up of studies on virtual schools that may assist me in finding more articles to read and review.