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Online Learning Advocates See Virtual Schooling as Integral to Education Reform

Lawmakers are considering new requirements on schools that offer classes online for K-12 students. Meanwhile, a forum held this week by the Beacon Center looked at the potential benefits of virtual schools.

Students in Tennessee could click their way through more courses, if a Capitol Hill push to embrace online classes for K-12 education gains traction.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would bring requirements such as teacher-student ratios, which public schools that have traditional buildings and classrooms already adhere to, to bear for their online counterparts. That bill has not yet made it to either chamber of the Legislature for a floor vote.

Advocates recently laid out their position that while virtual schooling is edgy and perhaps intimidating to some, it is a potent tool for keeping students engaged and in school.

Virtual schools do the most to innovate education and level the playing field for kids everywhere, compared to other areas of technological reform in education, said Susan Patrick, president & CEO of the nonprofit International Association for K-12 Online Learning and a former director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education. Patrick was speaking at a forum at the Sheraton Wednesday hosted by the Nashville-based Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank.

“What’s one thing we know about research on the brain and student learning?” Patrick asked. “It’s that not all kids learn in the same way at the same time.”

Even though the U.S. is innovating with virtual schools, those innovations are uneven from state to state, Patrick said.

“Right now we have 30 of 50 states that allow for full-time virtual schools, and there are about 225 of those across the country,” Patrick said, and added that although their numbers are dropping, about 30 states have state virtual schools.

Tennessee lost its state-run online education program, e4TN, because it had been fully funded with federal education technology dollars, it was one of the best uses of such money by the states, according to Patrick.

But virtual schools still exist in Tennessee, like the Virtual Instruction to Accentuate Learning (VITAL) program in Putnam County.

The VITAL program allows students in the Putnam County School District to enroll in online classes that may not be provided on-site. Students coordinate their online coursework with an on-site facilitator and attend a lab at the school during which they can work on their coursework at their own pace, the website says.

Some students may qualify for independent study after a few weeks of enrollment, provided they score high enough on progress reports. The progress reports are e-mailed by the instructor to the on-site facilitator, student, parents and virtual learning coordinator twice a month.

Last year, Tennessee lawmakers passed the Virtual Public Schools Act, opening the way for school boards, the state and charter schools to sponsor online schools. The bill, HB1030, set curriculum requirements and required teachers in virtual schools to be certified in the same manner as teachers in traditional, physical schools.

A bill this year would update those requirements. The bill, HB3062, allows the State Board of Education to set new teacher-pupil ratios for online instruction programs and requires that the education programs maintain those ratios.

It also requires programs to offer the same amount of time to students to learn and work, as is offered in other education programs, while at the same time allowing for students to work at their own pace.

“There are many reasons why kids choose not to finish school, and anything we can do to encourage them to stay in school, and to get their diploma, is a good thing,” said Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, sponsor of the bill. “It’s my hope, that through virtual education, we’re able to offer other programs or services that we may or may not be able to in other schools.”

The bill passed the House Finance Committee on last week, on its way to the floor. Its companion bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee.

The bill originally contained a requirement that at least one online course would be necessary for graduation of all students that enter the 9th grade in the 2013-2014 school year. This provision was removed because of the cost, Williams said.

However, not all members of the Legislature feel that virtual schools are the way to go in state education reform. Skeptics see gaps in accountability and the potential for shifting money away from the traditional public school system.

“You know I was not for virtual education, and I still am not for it,” Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, said in the House Education committee on Feb. 28. “They haven’t convinced me, and I think it’s wrong that a kid can start out in kindergarten and go through the 12th grade and never set foot in a school.”

But this is not reflective of the trend in online education, Patrick says.

“The biggest driver nationally of online courses is that the students otherwise do not have access to the course in their high school,” Patrick said at the Beacon Center forum. “So, 97 percent of these kids that are learning online are learning in a high school environment, taking individual courses.”

Patrick also explained how the other countries around the globe have been experimenting with virtual education as a way to keep up with the changing world.

Turkey developed world-class Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses for online, she said, and four years into the program almost all of Turkey’s 16 million students are using online education.

In Canada, the province of Ontario has invested in the full range of K-12 digital education, including four digital versions of each course for high school students.

Additionally, British Columbia has 14 percent of its high school students taking online courses. By comparison, only 1.8 million out of 50 million students in the U.S., or more than 3 percent, use supplemental online learning, while only 250,000 use it full-time, Patrick said.

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