National Education Technology Plan 2004
The Explosion in E-Learning and Virtual Schools
Over the past five years there has been an explosive growth in online and multimedia instruction (e-learning) and "virtual schools." At least 15 states now provide some form of virtual schooling to supplement regular classes or provide for special needs.46 Hundreds of thousands of students are taking advantage of e-learning this school year.47 About 25 percent of all K-12 public schools now offer some form of e-learning or virtual school instruction.48 Within the next decade every state and most schools will be doing so.
E-learning and virtual schooling are essentially the same product: they provide individual online instruction. They are the 21st century version of distance-learning through correspondence courses by mail. But through today's technology they are more immediate and, for students, far more enriching. E-learning offers flexibility in the time, place, and pace of instruction. It provides teachers the opportunity to create an instructional environment that adapts to students wherever and however they need to learn, at home or in school. It gives parents a significant choice of providers and educators an alternative means of meeting their student's academic needs. In higher education, some 90 percent of four-year public institutions and more than half of four-year private institutions offer some form of online education.49
Virtual Schools are complete educational organizations that deliver courses primarily online. They may be run by state agencies (Florida, Illinois, West Virginia), regional agencies and consortia (Virtual High School in Massachusetts), universities (University of California), local public school districts (Houston Virtual School), and more than 80 schools (cyber-charter schools) that received a charter from a local district, state board or other sponsor.50
A good example of the impact of virtual schooling is the Florida Virtual School (FLVS). Founded in 1997, the FLVS is a national leader in providing online, distance education solutions for K-12 students. Most of its 13,000 students in the 2003-2004 school year enrolled for only 1 or 2 courses for a total of 21,270 course enrollments. In addition to designing and monitoring the online instruction, FLVS teachers communicate with students and parents on a regular basis by phone, e-mail, online chats, instant messaging and discussion forums. A full 90 percent of its enrollees complete and pass FLVS classes.
For most students, FLVS courses add to what is available in their local schools. An online GED preparation course, developed by FLVS, is available to working adults through The Florida Adult and Technical Distance Education Consortium. FLVS's 150 certified instructors teach more than 80 courses delivered over the Internet to students from Florida, more than 30 other states and even foreign countries. Partnering with FLVS, rural or smaller school districts can offer a selection of Advanced Placement courses or language study for which they would not otherwise have the resources. As one teacher from a small, rural Florida district has noted: "Online learning 'evens the playing field' for rural students."
With more choices available, traditional schools are turning to distance education to expand offerings for students and increase professional development opportunities for teachers.