School districts, teachers’ unions and legislators have long debated the pros and cons of virtual education. Recent accounts of the Florida Virtual School (FVS) highlight the struggle online school students have in gaining universal recognition and acceptance of their work. Popular perception often scorns the idea that the virtual platform can deliver a rigorous and quality education. Many voice fears of easy fraud and cheating without the proper oversight and supervision offered by a regular classroom environment. While educators, politicians, lobbyists and parents argue over the relative merits of the new kid on the education block, kids are weighing in with their views on the challenges and perks of online learning for the growing wave of students attending public school from home via their computers.
The Atlantic recounts the case of Dalia Ahmed, a stellar student at Miami Arts Charter School. Ahmed is an award-winning poet and was slated for four Advanced Placement (AP) classes her senior year with hopes of graduating near the top of her graduating classes and receiving Ivy League scholarship offers. However, a sudden move due to her mother’s job put her graduation prospects in jeopardy because the New York school district where she enrolled refused to recognize the credits she had obtained through the Florida Virtual School. Furthermore, she learned that her new district required seven semesters of physical education, leaving her several credits shy of the graduation requirements.
Ahmed’s dilemma points out the incongruity of graduation requirements from state to state in spite of Common Core efforts to homogenize 21st century education nationwide. The lack of reciprocity between states to recognize the academic work completed in one state when moving to another, regardless of the educational policies of individual districts, unduly punishes students like Ahmed. Florida is one of a few states fully embracing the newest form of educational delivery via modern technology by requiring each student to take at least one online class as a prerequisite to graduation. They may enroll in as many as two virtual courses per semester. New York, on the other hand is a bit more hesitant to jump on the virtual education bandwagon, fearing that the different accreditation methods and unsupervised delivery system may lead to less rigorous academics and scholastic fraud.
Ahmed had enough spunk to look into the actual policies behind the verdict pronounced over her Florida transcripts and discover that the principal had some leeway in deciding whether to grant transfer credit for work done elsewhere. Upon challenging the initial ruling, her principal reinstated five of her FVS credits but only as credits not as grades that can count toward her overall GPA, which neutralizes the benefits of her junior year grades, including AP courses. She also had to take three P.E. classes this year in order to catch up with the N.Y. graduation requirements, cutting in on the time she has for the more rigorous courses she had previously planned for her senior year.
Adding to the confusion of the inequity among the states’ educational policies surrounding virtual education, or the lack thereof, is the fact that while states like Florida, Michigan and New Mexico require graduates to complete at least some online coursework, others refuse to recognize its validity altogether. Still others offer it as an option but do not make it mandatory. States that are implementing online schooling as part of their educational model are finding the need to invent better accountability methods to insure that the students are actually the ones doing the work. The fact of the matter is, that online schooling, while it has many benefits for students who are ready to be responsible for self-directed learning, it is not for everyone so requiring virtual coursework can be counterproductive for those who do not have the discipline to carry it out.
Linda Harrington, principal of Hillsboro Online Academy (HOA) in Oregon, told prospective parents and students at an orientation night that online education is a necessity for some students in a wide variety of situations. Their students range from the medically fragile who cannot attend a brick and mortar school to those from families who must travel constantly for athletic training or performance arts presentations to teen parents and students who simply prefer the more flexible learning environment away from the drama of regular high school. However, virtual education is not a walk in the park. It requires an extraordinary amount of self-discipline, organization, time management and personal responsibility. Not every student is ready for that, so HOA staff monitors students and communicates with parents when a student seems to be struggling with the more flexible model of schooling.
William V., a former HOA student shared with CDA that while things started fairly well for him in the virtual education model in the first semester of his freshman year, family circumstances took him to another state for second semester. When he returned to HOA at the beginning of his sophomore year, he found that he could not keep up with his most challenging classes, geometry and chemistry in the online format. Although he appreciated the flexibility and was able to go into the teaching center every day for face-to-face support, he found that the teachers from whom he needed the most help were not consistently available when he needed them because they were either not holding office hours that day, away at training or busy helping other students. Therefore, he did not feel that he could get enough support to be successful and the stress of working so hard at his difficult classes was causing his work in his other classes to suffer. He also admits that the easy access to the Internet was tempting when he got overwhelmed so that he could easily resort to playing games or reading online stories instead of doing his schoolwork. To his credit, he recognized his limitations and asked to try full-time attendance at the local high school where he is busy trying to make up for lost time and get back on track for graduation.
When asked his opinion of requiring online classes for every high school student, he said that the right model of education depends on the individual student so he did not feel that was right since some can handle the responsibility while others cannot or need more support than is available in a typical virtual setting. He vehemently disagreed with the notion that a district could deny credit to a student for work already completed just because it was done online. He feels that once a U.S. school grants credit for a course, it should be recognized by any district anywhere. Michigan came to similar conclusions regarding mandatory online coursework when the infusion of much money for assessment turned up only mediocre results.
Educational director Jeannette Geib of CompuHigh, a for-profit virtual education provider based in Virginia explains how online schooling serves the needs of students who have difficulty thriving in the traditional education model for any number of reasons. The self-directed pacing relieves much of the stress and pressure that make students shut down in a regular classroom. They can find their strengths and get the work done on their own terms and time, in the learning and organizational style that best works for them. This is of enormous benefit for many motivated students whose learning style just does not fit with the structure of a brick-and-mortar school education. Nonetheless, she concludes that there is no point in wasting money trying to force students who do not want an online education to do it because they will just find shortcuts and cheats to get through the class without actually learning anything. In short, virtual education should be an option for those that want it and can handle the discipline and responsibility of it. However, as Geib notes, not even a legion of parents, politicians and activists bumping heads over the pros and cons of virtual education can force teenagers to learn when they are bound and determined not to study.
By Elinore Ruth Van Donge