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An online school (virtual school or e-school or cyber-school) teaches students entirely or primarily online or through the Internet. It has been defined as "education that uses one or more technologies to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students. Online education exists all around the world and is used for all levels of education (K-12, college, or graduate school). This type of learning enables the individuals to earn transferable credits, take recognized examinations, or advance to the next level of education over the Internet.
Virtual education is most commonly used at the high school or college level. Students who are of the age 30 or older, tend to study online programs at higher rates. This group represents 41% of the online education population, while 35.5% of students ages 24–29 and 24.5% of students ages 15–23 participate in virtual education.
Virtual education is becoming increasingly used worldwide. There are currently more than 4,700 colleges and universities that provide online courses to their students. In 2015, more than 6 million students were taking at least one course online, this number grew by 3.9% from the previous year. 29.7% of all higher education students are taking at least one distance course. The total number of students studying on campus exclusively dropped by 931,317 people between the years 2012 and 2015. Experts say that because the number of students studying at the college level is growing, there will also be an increase in the number of students enrolled in distance learning.
Instructional models vary, ranging from distance learning types which provide study materials for independent self-paced study, to live, interactive classes where students communicate with a teacher in a class group lesson. Class sizes range widely from a small group of 6 pupils or students to hundreds in a virtual school.
The courses that are independent and self-paced are called asynchronous courses. Typically for this type of learning, the students are given the assignments and information and are expected to complete the assignments by the due date. This is done on their own time. There is no scheduled time when the class meets. Usually, the only interactions that take place are through discussion boards, blogs, and wikis.
On the other hand, synchronous online courses happen in real-time. The instructor and students all interact online at the same time. This is done either through text, video, or audio chat. Therefore these lessons are socially constructed. In addition to the scheduled class time, there are usually additional assignments to complete.
Hybrid, sometimes also called blended, courses are when students learn and interact both in-person and online. Theses classes meet in person during the semester in addition to computer-based communication.
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 computerized 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 recognized, 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.
The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) developed a set of standards released in September 2007 and updated on October 12, 2011. These standards will help monitor online programs and ensure that every provider of education is accredited.
The COVID-19 pandemic spurred a dramatic increase in online schooling. Governments around the world instituted stay-home mandates and many schools closed their doors to prevent infection from spreading through some populated spaces.
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 much greater dependability of lessons. Whether 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 who have personal or health conditions that make physical school difficult or impossible can instead learn using virtual educational programs.
- Ideal for individuals and families who need flexible arrangements. However, synchronous learning does impose limits due to time zones, which tend to divide online schools in Europe and Asia from North America.
- The integration of Internet resources provides a huge library of content, and students quickly become adept at online research.
- There is greater flexibility for self-learners or gifted students to explore learning beyond the standard curriculum. Independent-minded students, those with specialist skills and ambitions, can develop at their own preferred pacing using network resources.
- Online schools can be equalizers, as age, appearance, and background are far less obvious. Groups can be categorized 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 may benefit from the flexibility of online schedules, as claimed by supporters of virtual education.
- For asynchronous education, a student may study, learn, or do their homework when they have free time. Therefore, this gives the students flexibility with their education.
- It is argued that online learning is more effective and efficient at providing education to a large number of people no matter the physical distance between the students and professors than traditional education.
- There are claims that online education "develops higher-order skills such as collaborating across time and place and solving complex real-world problems" better than in-class learning.
- Students have the ability to avoid the requirement of travelling to a physical school.
- As pointed out by advocates of online schooling, this type of education could be beneficial in rural areas, where the distance between students and educators is vast.
- A student may have the ability to take a course that is not offered at a location near them.
- Some affirm that virtual education is very cost-effective for schools or districts because it allows a teacher to instruct more students than in a face-to-face classroom setting.
- It has been claimed that courses online are less expensive for the students than courses taken in traditional school, college, or university.
Some disadvantages of the virtual school include:
- Critics argue that students do not interact with their instructors or peers face-to-face, which lends itself to a "lack of socialization" unless supplemented using online groups such as Elluminate or Wimba, or by attending other social activities outside of school.
- A challenge pointed out by critics is that there is an added challenge of staying focused while in the home environment. It has been reported that many students have a difficult time staying on task when participating in learning online.
- Some argue that the cost of starting up an online school is expensive.
- As pointed out by opposers of online school, not everyone has access to digital technologies which would prohibit them from attending virtual schools, unless their local libraries or community programs may offer access to computers and research materials.
- An argument identified by critics is that virtual schools are relatively new and because of that there are no seldom methods of evaluating their effectiveness in educating their students.
- As claimed in a study done by Eric Bettinger and Susanna Loeb, on average, online students "do substantially worse than students in the same face-to-face course".
- Critics have pointed out that it is common for technology to be unpredictable, glitch, or not function correctly.
- Some people who oppose virtual education have argued that obtaining a job with an online degree may be harder because potential employers may be sceptical of the credibility of these virtual programs.
- The assignments due for online schooling may not be assessing the ability of the students because many answers can be found on the Internet, as claimed by critics of online schooling.
- 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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