Education hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years. You get up early in the morning, go to a public or private school. For six to eight hours you learn as much as possible, then head home and do it again the next day. Homeschooling was also an option, but it has always drawn the smallest percentage of students. More than a decade ago, virtual schooling became an option. It enabled students to take the same classes as their public school counterparts from the comfort of home. How is virtual education disrupting more traditional schooling options?
What Are Virtual Schools?
The idea of virtual education might bring to mind images from “Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century” or “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” — elaborate setups with holographic teachers and computers at every desk. While holographic teachers aren’t a thing — yet — the latter description is not too far from the truth.
A computer is necessary to take classes at a virtual school. The most significant difference is that each student completes their courses from the comfort of their own home.
Virtual schools vary slightly from state to state, but they each have the same goal — providing students with an education. It’s public school at home. Many parents choose to use a virtual school’s built-in curriculum rather than purchasing or creating their own homeschooled lessons.
It’s a valuable tool for individuals who can’t thrive in traditional public or private school settings, or those that live in a rural area and don’t have access to quality schools. As of 2017, 34 states maintain full-time virtual schools for their residents. Only Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey and Rhode Island don’t provide virtual education.
These schools sound like a fantastic option for a lot of students. How are they disrupting traditional public and private schools?
Since the first virtual school — FLVS, based in Florida — opened in 1997, it has gathered both supporters and naysayers. Some claim virtual academies are dividing the educational community by keeping students at home, putting the virtually educated kids at a disadvantage.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
A study of the 2016-2017 school year found that students who completed their coursework through Florida’s Connections Academy — the elementary version of FLVS, for students through middle school — scored the same on math and reading as those that attended a traditional brick-and-mortar school. More than 70,000 students attended Connections Academy during the 2016-2017 school year.
Many naysayers cite low graduation rates from these virtual alternatives, but according to K12’s CEO, many of these low scores are because the school is willing to accept students who are below grade level or at risk because of a variety of factors.
Disrupting the Markets
Schools aren’t being disrupted as much as the local economies surrounding these facilities. About 7.5 percent of online charter students live in rural areas where the local schools don’t have the classes or the teachers necessary to help everyone succeed. Some may even live so far away from the school that commuting there every day is an unnecessary burden.
As more students switch to virtual alternatives, there is no longer a call to open new schools in these rural areas. This can be detrimental to the local economy because, in these small towns, schools are often the largest employers.
Affordability and Accessibility Is Key
While students can attend public school for free, private schools are often out of reach for middle- and low-income Americans without grants or scholarships. Virtual schools are considered a branch of the public school in nearly every state where they operate, providing curriculum, instruction and even textbooks at no cost to the family.
For students with chronic illnesses, demanding extracurriculars or bullying problems, a virtual school makes education more accessible. They don’t have to worry about making it to class or missing out on essential lessons because they have a doctor’s appointment or surgery scheduled.
Bullying is a growing problem in public schools, and getting the problem addressed by school officials is nearly impossible. Most public schools have zero-tolerance policies but are hesitant to enforce them. If school officials refuse to solve a bullying problem, virtual education is a great alternative. This way, the student can get the education they deserve without having to navigate a minefield of bullies every day. In Oklahoma, 41 percent of virtual school students state they chose that option because they were victims of bullying.
A Virtual Revolution
Virtual schools are disrupting traditional education, but that’s not a bad thing. These alternatives give students the option to take control of their schooling, regardless of their situation. As technology advances, more virtual schools will likely appear, giving students even more choices. Public, private, home and charter schools aren’t the only option anymore.