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Some schools use internet resources, such as online lessons, teacher support online, or online homework systems, but a fully online school (virtual school or cyber-school) teaches entirely or primarily through online methods. That is, physical interaction by students and teachers is unnecessary, or only supplementary. A fully online school enables individuals to earn transferable credits or to take recognised examinations, to advance to the next level of education.
Instructional models vary, ranging from distance learning types which provides study materials for independent self-paced study (asynchronous), to live, interactive classes where students or pupils work with a teacher in a class group lesson (synchronous). Class sizes range widely from a small group of 6 pupils or students, to hundreds Live lessons with personal interaction (synchronous learning) necessarily run on small groups of 6 - 30, while distance learning (asynchronous learning) can be any number, and may be very large.
It can often be assumed that there is a lack of social communication in an online school, therefore for younger students (pupils) a concern for lack of social skills training. The distance learning model where study packages are sent out, does fit this assumption, as the only human interaction is the marking of work by a teacher, and even that much may not be part of the service. But in a live, interactive, online school (synchronous learning) lessons are socially constructed. Students or pupils are in contact with each other and with teachers through software provided by the online school, and by email, both in lessons and outside them. Students can also communicate by phone, where permitted. Through the various kinds of social contact personal relationships develop. Some online schools do specifically address personal and welfare support, especially in the case of younger students (pupils) for social skills training, both in its own right and to underpin effective, orderly lessons.
The mid-1990s saw the advent of completely virtual schools. Many of today's virtual schools are descendants of correspondence schools. The earlier online schools began in Australia, New Zealand, North America and the UK, generally in areas where low density population made schooling by conventional means difficult and expensive to provide. In 2008 an assessment found high dropout rates. As in other computerised environments, once the glamour of the new methods wore off it became clear that human skills were paramount to success, in this case teaching and welfare expertise. Where this is recognised retention is good, i.e. in the synchronous, socially structured models; in the huge MOOC style courses the same isolation problems as correspondence learning are found.
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.
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. Students can also be completely home-schooled, or they can take any combination of public/private/home-schooling and online classes.
Pricing and location
Where online methods are integrated with State provision, costs follow state school standards. Otherwise fees must be met by the student, or parents. Many US school districts are now creating their own online services to avoid paying external providers. Such 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.
With the resources of the internet as a library, and the ease of making online study materials, there is usually a comparatively small requirement for textbooks. Most courses will provide electronic materials free of cost, or included in the course fee. Textbooks are most often required for an exam syllabus course.
Advantages and disadvantages
Advocates of online schools and online learning point to a number of advantages:
- There is a lack of costly and tiring travel involved; with a much greater dependability of lessons. Weather disrupting transport is almost irrelevant (though an area subject to frequent power cuts will suffer consequent disruptions—Similarly common health disruptions through minor illness or injury, will not halt learning, because the physical demands are so much less. Transcripts of lessons can plug short absences.
- Many students and pupils who have personal or health conditions that make physical school difficult or impossible, can manage online school.
- Control of bullying is easier, as access to a group can be instantly adjusted when a problem is raised e.g. a bully can be 'gagged' i.e. placed on observer, without ability to input actively. They can also be closed out instantly pending investigation. The automatic recording of all exchanges is a powerful investigation aid; although this has privacy implications it is also a reassurance.
- Individuals and families who need flexible arrangements due to moving about, find online school suits requirements. However, synchronous learning in live lessons does impose limits due to timezones, which tends to divide online schools in Europe and Asia from North America.
- The integration of internet resources provides a huge library of content, and students/ pupils quickly become adept at online research. Independent minded students, those with specialist skills and ambitions, can develop at their own preferred pacing using net resources.
- Online schools can be equalisers, as age, appearance, and background are far less obvious. Groups can be categorised by personal ability.
- Students and pupils benefit from exposure to others in different cultures of the world, which enriches understanding of history, geography, religions and politics, and develops social skills.
- Part-time students with jobs or family commitments, benefit from the flexibility of online schedules, although this may not apply so much to synchronous, live, online learning.
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 cyber school 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.
- Educational technology
- List of virtual schools
- School website
- Virtual campus
- Virtual learning environment
- Virtual school library
- Virtual university
- University of the People
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