The small public school Matthew Wicks oversees boasts 60 adjunct teachers from across the state, 101 courses and an enrollment that has steadily risen to 600. Yet an invitation for a graduation party Mr. Wicks attended last year came from a student he had never personally met — someone who, like everyone enrolled, attended the school via a computer miles away.
“It’s amazing how much of a connection you make,” Mr. Wicks, director of virtual learning at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, said of online high schools — a rapidly growing form of education hailed as the next step in classroom technology.
The Illinois Virtual High School, an Internet-based collection of core curriculum such as social science, advanced placement and alternative courses run by Mr. Wicks, highlights the latest surge in electronic education. The number of virtual schools, full-time as well as supplemental, hit a record high of 67 in the 2002-03 academic year, catering to 21,000 students in 16 states, according to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, a group that advocates charter schools.
A look at the curricula such schools offer appears to answer the problems facing public classrooms today: Some of the most popular virtual courses, such as foreign languages, are usually among the first cut in districts strapped for cash.
At the Illinois Virtual High School, Mr. Wicks said, more than 50 percent of students come from schools the state has deemed economically needy — a “much higher” concentration than in the general student population.
“By the nature of the flexibility of what we can do, we can offer a lot,” he said, adding that most classes combine discussion boards, readings and interactive tools to simulate a classroom environment. A student’s regular high school issues the credit, he said.
But online schooling, despite its high-tech appeal, remains experimental and isn’t likely to replace traditional classrooms anytime soon, educational-technology experts warn.
“People shouldn’t think we’re the cure-all for everything in education,” said Sandy O’Reilly, academic director of the Arkansas Virtual High School. “Many students don’t realize when they enroll that these are rigorous courses. Not all students may necessarily thrive in this environment.”
Challenges in the Internet classroom aren’t limited to the Pythagorean theorem and Shakespeare. Monitoring students can prove difficult when a class is spread over an entire state, and an electronic connection cannot necessarily replace personal interaction, virtual school administrators say.
The Arkansas Virtual High School, which is in its fifth year and has an enrollment of 800, offers 30 classes this year, from English to science, as a supplement to schools with students homebound by illness or those who need to make up for lost credit. The school initially hit minor roadblocks with a Web program designed for businesses, Ms. O’Reilly said, until it revamped its classrooms with WebCT, an electronic-learning solutions company.
The program lets students view the latest teacher postings at a time convenient for them, protects lessons with a password and sets time limits on tests.
“That’s what makes it so flexible,” Ms. O’Reilly said. “If a student’s absent today, he or she can just get on that night or the next morning, when it’s best for them.”
For teachers, online classrooms may reduce class-preparation time by providing shared templates on which to shape their lessons, said Niki Davis, a professor of curriculum and instructional technology at Iowa State University.
A range of students could use the technology, including the gifted, those concentrating on sports or other activities, home-schooled children, and pupils in special education, Mrs. Davis said. But her focus as a co-founder of the university’s Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching is the Iowa Virtual Academy, a series of Web and video-based courses designed to fight a shortage of science teachers in the state’s rural districts.
Armed with a $400,000 grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, she and Iowa Public Television are field-testing online science labs. The topics offered relate to chemistry, physics and anatomy/physiology. The academy probably will start with smaller classes to monitor the program’s success, but an ideal class size is 16 to 20 students, Mrs. Davis said. Eventually, she envisions the online school moving toward the mainstream.
Mrs. Davis said the academy’s organizers chose the science courses “to start with the greatest challenge first.” English and foreign-language courses with fewer, if any, simulations will come once the current courses have been fine-tuned, she said.
“We haven’t tried to do physical education,” Mr. Wicks added.
But for $375 in out-of-state tuition, students can practice healthy dieting and workouts at the Orlando-based Florida Virtual High School with such courses as “Fitness Lifestyle Design” and “Personal Fitness.” In-state students pay no tuition for the 18-week courses, and students are monitored through “continuous communication” with instructors and an achievement log, according to the school.
Nine hundred miles north — not that distance matters for a student at the family computer — CompuHigh in Morgantown, W.Va., offers basic algebra and American government courses with Spanish and Hebrew thrown in on the side. The nine-year-old high school program, self-proclaimed as the world’s first, mixes a home education with private school enrollment for a $275 annual price tag for students not enrolled at Clonlara School, CompuHigh’s mother facility.
Not all virtual schools are entirely Web-based. Switched-On Schoolhouse, a Christian-based educational computer program designed for home-schooled students, presents pupils in grades 3 through 12 with Bible lessons in addition to language arts, math, Spanish and a handful of other interactive topics.
Perhaps the greatest role of virtual schools, Mr. Wicks said, will appear when they become the norm. The new system will challenge traditional schools to become more responsive to student needs and interests, he said.
Besides, he added, an online lab might come in handy for chemistry class: “Chemicals being mixed can virtually explode, and no one has to go to the hospital.”