Virtual learning to grow

Virtual learning to grow

June 27th, 2011 by By Julie Hubbard/The Tennessean in News

Michael Williams likes his No. 64 racing motorbike, a dirt track and getting his education on a laptop.

After he missed more than 40 days his senior year at Creek Wood High School to turn professional in the Motocross series, his lifestyle no longer jibed with block scheduling and pep rallies.

His school district, Dickson County, struck an agreement with Metropolitan Nashville Schools - the 18-year-old could finish English, chemistry and economics from teachers on the other side of a computer cable and get his diploma through Metro's virtual school program.

That opportunity will reach countless other young Tennesseans next month, when a new law allows any school district to start its own virtual school, adding the Volunteer State to a growing online education movement. Students with pursuits like Williams', home-schoolers and private school students can enroll full or part time, learning without ever entering a school building.

Educators encourage virtual courses because students probably will have the experience in college, and districts could use them to save money. Putnam County requires high school students to take an online course. Metro suggests its students do the same but doesn't mandate it.

"Some say, 'Oh, it's just a kid wanting to do school stuff on the computer,'" said Libby Gilmore, Williams' mom. "He got up every morning, did his work, rode ... and graduated in May. It really worked for us."

Florida started its state-run K-12 virtual school in 1997. Connecticut offers a virtual high school. Georgia launched its virtual high school in 2005, and it now has more than 12,000 students.

In Tennessee, online classes were limited to credit recovery, specialty courses - like German - if schools had no instructor, or supplemental online courses after school or in the summer to get ahead.

"We're behind by about 15 to 20 years and behind in technology in general," said Kecia Ray, Metro's executive director of learning technologies, who previously worked for Georgia's virtual school.

Metro is asking the state to start Nashville Virtual School, which will enroll 100 students to take full-time online courses next school year. Entrance will require a counselor's recommendation, a 2.5 grade-point average and a signed contract of ethics.

Students in virtual schools have the same requirements as traditional school students, but do it all through a computer with live chats and emails. They take their final exams in person.

It would be free to full-time students enrolled in Metro schools, with the regular per-student state funding going to the district to cover costs. Out-of-district, home-school and private school students using the system would be charged, but the amount hasn't been set.

Wilson County Schools may ask to start a virtual school, and Rutherford is weighing costs of its own virtual school or working with Metro to use its programs.

"Funding may become an issue," said Rutherford County Schools spokesman James Evans. "If we send a student to Metro's virtual school, they also want the funding associated with that student."

About 1,700 students statewide were taking online courses last school year through e4TN, a company that the Tennessee Department of Education used to manage its virtual courses. They were paid from federal stimulus money that ended.

This year's original virtual school bill had the state managing it, but with a $2 million pricetag, it was amended to let districts choose to manage their own virtual schools, as well as sign agreements to work together and share resources.

Program has foes

Not all experts think virtual or cyber schools are the way to go.

"It's an empty form of education," said Gene Glass, senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center in Colorado. "They learn nothing about working in groups, socializing or anything kids in traditional schools learn."

Glass argues there's no research comparing students who attend long-term online virtual schools to traditional students. He's concerned about the influence lobbyists have exerted in getting them approved.

The corporation K12 Inc., for example, lobbies state legislators for virtual school businesses, Glass said. The company hired three lobbyists for this year's Tennessee legislative session. Tennessee's new law does not allow virtual companies to run statewide cyber schools like some states, unless a district wants to hire one.