Back to school doesn't mean what it used to for many students and teachers. We’re not stepping anywhere near the "brick and mortar" school even though we're preparing to begin a new school year. Many of us are involved with virtual high schools either as curriculum developers, online teachers, academic advisors, or as parents of children who are taking online classes. We all probably have some interesting experiences virtual high schools that we can share. (I hope you will share your experiences in the comment area below.) This article begins a series of blogs about e-learning and virtual high schools. As a liaison between NASA educational resources and educators seeking resources to enhance their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teaching, the NASATalk team is interested in exploring how NASA e-learning materials can be used in virtual high school settings.
The first question I ask is, “What do we know about the students taking online STEM-related classes at the high school level?” Student enrollment in online learning courses continues to increase as schools and government funding agencies promote “blended learning” as an effective approach that optimizes learning opportunities. Recent changes in federal and state laws offer school systems incentives for offering virtual curriculum and at minimum “hybrid” programs with a combination of face-to-face and online coursework. Some of the research in this area provides a fairly robust model of what it takes for students to be successful in online courses. Roblyer and Davis (2009) provide a list of the predictors for success in online learning [Downloaded 5 August 2010 http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/winter114/roblyer114.html].
The next obvious question is, “What combination of student factors and learning conditions can predict success of high school students in virtual environments?” As Roblyer and Davis (2009) explain, students who had good study environments (i.e., a place to complete online work) or additional facilitator support during courses were less likely to drop out. Roblyer et al. (2008) found that having a home computer contributed greatly to student success, arrangements could be made for outside-school times for students to have access to computers. Each contributing factor could be matched to appropriate interventions. Although factors such as age and maturity could not be addressed (at least, not immediately), the number of other contributing factors makes it unlikely that factors like age or access to a computer at home could solely determine student success or failure. Orientations that specifically address how to organize and work in online environments should be further evaluated to determine how these interventions can be especially useful to at-risk students.
I next want to ask, “Are online classes easier or more difficult than traditional face-to-face classes?” As you investigate virtual schools, be prepared to cut through the myths circulating about online high schools and become familiar with web sites that can provide reliable information about virtual schooling. For example, here’s a helpful article called, 10 Myths About Online High School. One of the myths is that online classes aren’t as challenging as traditional classes. Be aware that not all online courses are equal, and learn to shop around for the learning experiences that will be most suitable for your student’s needs.
The obvious next question is, “What is a logical way to compare the different online high school diploma programs available?” Not all online virtual high schools are the same. Here's a useful way to sort virtual high schools. (Read What Are the 4 Types of Online High Schools? for more information about school differences.) Public online high schools are run by local school districts or states and are typically governed by a state department of education and tend to be tuition-free for state residents. Online charter schools are government funded but are run by private parties. Online private schools receive no government funding and are not bound to the same statewide curriculum requirements. College-sponsored online high schools, may offer the expertise of college-level professors or access to for-credit college courses. Below are examples of each of the four types of virtual high school programs. Note, these are provided as examples, not recommendations.
Finally, I want to know, "How can our understanding of conditions that help students be more successful in online courses help us guide teachers who want to use NASA resources in their online STEM classes?" Based on the research referred to in this article, it's important to know the demographics, ability levels, access to computers, and school-time support provided for a given online course. This is information that traditional "brick and mortar" teachers have access to, but may be more difficult for educators to obtain in a virtual high school setting. I'd like to explore this topic further in the next article in this series, which will examine the variety of STEM-related curriculum opportunities made available through virtual high schools and corresponding student enrollment and completion statistics.
- Online Charter Schools Example: K12 is an AdvancED-accredited virtual school program that has state-based syndication.
A helpful resource published April 28, 2010 by Education Week is available online: A Special Report on the Emerging Policy debates in Virtual Education www.edweek.org/go/elearning-report. Please share your experiences, insights, and ideas in the comment area below.