A virtual school or cyber-school describes an institution that teaches courses entirely or primarily through online methods. It has been suggested that a virtual school is an online learning platform offered by an educational organization whereby individuals can earn credits in the particular area of interest which can be counted toward graduation or advancement to the next grade.
There are many different virtual school instructional and enrollment models. Instructional models range from fully independent self paced (asynchronous) courses to semester based virtual (synchronous) teacher facilitated courses. Class sizes range widely with anywhere from 25 students to as many as 200 students in each class section.
Students keep in contact with teachers and collaborate with other students through web communication tools provided in the course delivery platforms. Students can also communicate by phone, email, and other technology communication practices with instructors. Studies have shown that the use of the telephone in communication between educator and student seems to afford some aspect of more meaningful communication, as it provides more information at a personal level (sound of each other's voice, intonation of what is said, etc.). However, communication between parties by email has been understood to be the most critical component for online learning as it allows for the most convenient and speedy response on behalf of the parties involved. In addition, to help with communication many virtual schools have implemented their own system programs to help build courses and maintain student profiles. There are also a variety of books and training manuals to aid in the development of such schools and courses.
The mid 1990s saw the advent of completely virtual schools. Many of today's virtual schools are descendants of correspondence schools. It has been suggested that virtual schooling is largely a phenomenon that occurs within North America. However, other countries have been seen to operate some form of online or web-based learning content. While it has been suggested that the individuals who can benefit from virtual classes are individuals who tend to lack such opportunities, research suggests that virtual schooling tends to reflect a higher percentage of student failure and dropout.
Sometimes referred to as "distance learning," correspondence schools offered students an alternative to the traditional brick and mortar meetings within a schoolhouse. These schools utilized the postal service for student-teacher interaction, or used two-way radio transmissions, sometimes with pre-recorded television broadcasts. Students were expected to study their learning material independently and, in some cases, meet with a proctor to be tested. Modern virtual schools provide similar alternatives to students with a more ubiquitous and, often, interactive approach.
Virtual schools now exist all around the world. Over the past decade, K-12 online instruction has dramatically increased in both Canada and the United States. Some of these virtual schools have been integrated into public schools (particularly in the United States), where students sit in computer labs and do their work online. In other situations, students can be completely home-schooled, or they can take any combination of public/private/home-schooling and online classes.
Pricing and location
Funding for virtual schools usually tends to come from grants and different foundations who make donations toward the school. The costs associated with the attendance of virtual schools vary; full-time virtual schools tend to be more costly. Virtual schools may be free if the state pays for the courses; otherwise, there will be a course fee to be paid for by the student or parent(s). If a virtual school is chartered through a public supporting school district, there would be no cost associated for a student to attend the school or receive the materials needed to complete the schooling. Many school districts are now creating their own virtual academies to avoid paying another cyber school to educate one of their own students. In doing so, the school's per-pupil dollars stay in the home district. These students can graduate from their home district without ever leaving home. In most of these cases, students are given computers, books, and even internet service to complete coursework from home.
If the school requires a financial fee from the student or parent, students may also be responsible for procuring their own materials. Most courses will provide electronic materials free of cost, but others require some shopping on the students part. Textbooks may or may not be required and can be used as an aid for coursework.
Advantages and disadvantages
Advocates of virtual learning believe that virtual schools hold advantages including: not being required to attend and travel to face-to-face classes and the integration of digital media into the curricula. Virtual schools also give a student the opportunity to stay in school when traditional brick and mortar schools will no longer accept them. Some reasons for this could be extensive absences due to medical reasons, teen pregnancy, or for other reasons that the school system may deem distracting to the school body. Virtual schools can be considered a great equalizer, as these schools can make education accessible to non-traditional students. Additionally, students with physical disabilities or transportation issues may find that they are able to succeed in virtual school without the burden of getting to a physical location for schooling.
Schedule flexibility is another perceived advantage of online education. Students who have job and family obligations, which can limit the time spent in the classroom, are able to attend virtual schools at any time of day. For parents returning to school, this is an option which allows them to fit schooling into their busy schedule. So, for individuals who are self driven this type of learning environment allows them to excel at their own pace. Essentially, virtual schooling allows individuals an opportunity to engage in critical thinking activities in the environment of their choice. What could be considered one of the most advantageous highlights of taking part in virtual schooling is with the large advancement of information available online, individuals who participate in virtual schooling have the opportunity to integrate other means of technology into their knowledge production. Individuals who participate in virtual schooling have the advantage of building upon their twenty-first century skills which include global awareness, computer literacy, self-directed learning, online communications, collaboration and so on. Some believe that as a result of being able to develop and build upon twenty-first century skills, this helps to make the individual more employable.
Unlike traditional education delivery methods, students at virtual schools do not always directly interact with professors, while at other times it is as frequent as in traditional brick and mortar schools and merely takes on a different form. Hence, virtual education is considered by many to be equivalent to a directed-learning program. Because students do not interact with their instructors or peers face-to-face, detractors often cite "lack of socialization" as a disadvantage of virtual learning. Some virtual schools include online study groups in which students interact with each other online. Students are able to meet in these groups using Elluminate, Wimba or other means. Recent anecdotal evidence provided by one virtual school from one live cyberschool indicates that, while socialization may be different, it is not necessarily lacking. It is also recommended that students enrolled in virtual schools be involved in social activities outside school, much like homeschooled children. Another perceived disadvantage to distance learning is the added challenge of staying focused while in the home environment, and many students report that staying on task is the most difficult aspect of learning online.
Many students are drawn to online learning for a variety of reasons; particularly, the ability to avoid the requirement of traveling to a physical location, which may be impossible for some non-traditional learners. Critics argue that for online education to be taken seriously, online programs must adhere to generally accepted educational standards. One way that virtual schools are proving their effectiveness is the implementation of the same standardized testing that brick and mortar schools require of their students. To address this criticism, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) developed a set of standards released in September 2007 and updated on October 12, 2011. Some believe that this is an important first step in monitoring online programs, but while every provider of education must be accredited, the quality of accreditation varies significantly. For instance, the non-profit AACSB is the most prestigious accreditation agency for business schools and no virtual schools have received accreditation by the agency.
In regards to the school itself, they also see advantages to offering virtual schooling. When a small or rural school does not have the teaching staff available or capability to instruct a course that they would otherwise be unable to teach, virtual schooling opens up this opportunity.
Disadvantages to virtual schooling include the cost of start up, differences in access due to the digital divide, as well as issues regarding accreditation. Not everyone has access to digital technologies which would permit them to attend virtual schools, though in some cases, local libraries or community programs may offer access to computers and research materials. Also, in terms of disadvantages, due to the fact that virtual schools are still relatively new, there are seldom methods of evaluating their effectiveness. To date there are few studies which look at the longitudinal effects of virtual schooling and grades.
- Electronic learning
- List of virtual schools
- School website
- Virtual campus
- Virtual education
- Virtual learning environment
- Virtual school library
- Virtual university
- Clark & Berge, "Virtual Schools", 2012
- "The Investigation of Virtual School Communications"
- "The reality of virtual schools: A Review of the literature"
- "Predicting Success for Virtual School Students: Putting Research-based Models into Practice", 2008
- Online Schools vs Traditional Schools: an Infographic
- BBC News Article "Families enrol for online school"
- Briteschool FAQ "Disadvantages of attending an online school"
- Cavanaugh, C, "Development and Management of Virtual Schools: Issues and Trends", 2004