Technology is making education more accessible for students, especially those who enroll in online programs.
Four years ago, Cameron Alred decided to enroll in the Stanford University Online High School, a virtual education program he attends at his Tulsa home. He chose it for its rigorous academic program and nontraditional environment.
When other students used free time to play basketball, Cameron Alred preferred staying behind to talk with the teacher about the day’s lesson.
That might include anything from an obscure scientific principle to an intricate math equation.
Four years ago, the high school senior’s distinct curiosities led him to enroll in Stanford University Online High School, a highly selective virtual education program with students from across the globe.
Admission at the tuition-based school is difficult, but it is only one such online program for kindergarten through grade 12. Oklahoma has multiple free virtual programs open to all state residents that are regulated under similar rules as public charter schools.
The reasons students choose online education vary. Some, like Alred, are looking for a different academic challenge and learning environment than what is available locally. Others travel regularly for competitive athletics and need the flexibility virtual school provides. And some are seeking respite from harsh bullying by fellow students at their area school.
In just a few years, virtual education has become one of the fastest-growing school options nationwide. Because it’s so new, research is still mixed on how effective this choice is for students.
Policy analysts do agree that online schools — like their traditional counterparts — need proper oversight and transparency.
Students in the virtual school system attend live Web classes and discussions with their peers and teachers. If they miss a live session, or want to review points for further study, a recorded video is available to view at any time.
To demonstrate how this works, Alred opened a recorded course on his laptop while sitting on the couch in his living room, one of many locations he may attend online classes. Adobe Connect, an online conferencing program, displayed a PowerPoint presentation in the center while a small video in the left-hand corner featured his teacher discussing each slide.
While the teacher speaks, students are encouraged to “text chat” amongst one another about the lesson in a scrolling bar below the main video. “It’s a school where passing notes is encouraged,” says Darin Alred, Cameron’s father.
If a student would like to speak via video, she or he may “raise a hand” and the teacher will call on this person, followed by the student’s video displaying via webcam on the screen. In math classes, Cameron Alred also uses a computer tablet to draw math problems or other notes that will appear for the students and teachers to see during the live course.
Emily Garner is a seventh-grader at Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy. Her family was attracted to the academy’s flexibility of when and how she may receive her lessons. She mixes her time between attending live classes and watching the recordings. She’s expected to complete at least 3 percent progress on her full school year each week, and finish all assignments by midnight Sundays.
The program allows her time for other experiences such as volunteering at a Tulsa Global Alliance event last November.
“I could attend Kids’ World all week and meet new friends because I didn’t have to worry about being in class at a specific time,” she says.
With many programs, kindergarten through eighth grades typically have more flexibility than high school, when GPAs and college admission become important. And the younger grades require much more parent involvement and less time online.
Along with classes, each school offers multiple online clubs in which students might become involved, including student council, honor societies, foreign language, science, arts and so on. Cameron Alred participates in computer programming and 3D modeling clubs.
If students or parents need to connect with teachers throughout the week, they hold regular office hours and are available via email and phone.
“We have parent-teacher conferences, and it’s interesting because in their comments, I can tell the teachers really know Cameron,” Darin Alred says.
Another advantage cited by online learners was the additional courses that cater to their personal interests.
Garner is taking honors algebra, which she would have had to wait another two years to take at her local school. This year, Cameron Alred is enrolled in university-level courses offered by college professors.
“I have students taking Chinese and music courses connected with the Julliard School,” says Donna Hogan, a high school math teacher at Oklahoma Connections Academy, one of the tuition-free virtual public schools in the state. “There’s no way many students in Oklahoma, particularly in rural settings, would otherwise have access to these opportunities.”
Beyond the screen
What both Alred and Garner say they miss from brick-and-mortar schools is the regular, in-person interaction with fellow students and teachers.
Alred has been satisfied with finding a social outlet through his church youth group and the regional meet-ups with Stanford OHS students. He also attends in-person summer sessions at Stanford.
For Garner, it has been more difficult. In October, she seriously considered transferring back to a traditional school for the social interaction, even though she feels there are more options and challenges in the online environment.
Garner lives in Inola, which is about a 30-minute drive to central Tulsa. This gives her fewer extracurricular options nearby that aren’t connected to the traditional school system. And the monthly regional field trips provided by her virtual school in Tulsa, where she can meet with fellow students, haven’t been enough to create deep friendships, she says.
Garner’s mother, Jennifer Garner, is working to create an in-person group to show virtual students how to cook and sew. “This will combine both a social and learning environment,” says Lee Garner, Emily’s father.
In the future, her parents also hope more standard public schools, as well as homeschool-based extracurricular activities, will be open to participation by students enrolled in online education.
As the head of school at Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, Sheryl Tatum emphasizes that there’s more flexibility, but within parameters.
“You can’t choose to only do one math lesson this week. There are still deadlines students must meet,” Tatum says. “We’re a public school in Oklahoma, so we have a governing board and the school is accredited by the State Department of Education, which audits us just like any other brick-and-mortar.”
Oklahoma online public charter schools, which are only available to state residents, began in 2011. With the formation of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board in 2012, these schools must be approved through the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board and are accredited by the Department of Education. The online schools are required to follow laws in place for other Oklahoma charter options.
Since online education is new, experts say it’s difficult to know how well each school and student is performing without further analysis and more information. A 2012 Center for Public Education report found a “troubling overall picture of poor performance and low graduation rates for full-time online students.” Alternatively, other studies revealed positive gains for online students in K-8.
In 2013, the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center recommended state agencies ensure these schools are fully reporting information, along with creating outcome measures designed for full-time online students.
While online education’s success will become clearer in the years to come, Darin Alred believes it’s important to listen to each child’s needs.
“If parents find themselves with a kid that is wired a little different, or their local school isn’t connecting with their needs, don’t be afraid to look outside the box and find another path,” he says. “For Cameron, he lights up and can’t stop talking about something that happened in class, which is very validating that we made the right decision.”