Virtual Learning: No Longer for the Select Few
Our world is quickly becoming less physical and more virtual. In the classroom, this is just as true as anywhere else. What seemed impossible just a few years ago is now probable with virtual education.
Some time ago, I learned about a virtual math playground called Mathbreakers that starts with topics as basic as counting and advances through subject matter as complicated as Calculus. Unlike the dull worksheets I grew up with, Mathbreakers uses action adventure role-playing to give students a fun, yet calculated, gaming environment that puts math at the center. Players are in control of their futures in a third-person shooter style that takes them through various conquests.
Games such as Mathbreakers are turning a normally unglamorous, intimidating subject into something more fun and accessible. We have the concept of virtual learning to thank for this.
Virtual, or online, learning is not new to the K-12 scene. But its increasing popularity can’t be ignored. It used to be that online learning was associated only with distance learning, or students who went through the academic process off school grounds. Today, online learning is more segmented and often just one part of a more traditional learning experience. Virtual learning is no longer all or nothing—it has become mainstream and will continue to transform in-classroom learning in the coming years.
Virtual learning also makes it possible for parents, teachers, and students have access to information they may need no matter where they are physically located. This, in essence, expands the classroom and gives students more time and space to complete and comprehend their lessons.
There are many spinoffs of online learning, like the increasing availability of Massive Open Online Courses, which make virtual academics an emerging trend for K-12 learning.
Virtual Learning: It’s Everywhere
Online learning programs are a large reason more students in America are earning degrees. Thanks to online schools and courses, 2012 was the first year that one-third of the nation’s 25 to 29-year-olds had earned at least a bachelor’s degree.
Not surprisingly, we are taking the success of online learning down to the K-12 level as well. In the 2011 – 2012 school year, there were 275,000 full-time online K-12 students and a total of 1.8 million distance education enrollments.
And according to KPK12.com, more states are implementing measures that require students to take virtual classes.
As of 2014, state virtual schools exist in 26 states.
Many states are moving towards mandating virtual education because students will likely be required to take a virtual course or two should they decide to attend college.
For instance, take Florida. KPK12.com notes that as of 2014, “Florida is the first state in the country to legislate that all K-12 students will have full- and part-time virtual options and that funding will follow each student down to the course level.”
Florida’s virtual school had over 400,000 enrollments in 2014, a number that will, at the very least, remain stable.
Another state in the south that’s primed to join the virtual party is Alabama. Lawmakers recently passed a bill “that requires each of its districts to provide virtual courses for high school students by the 2010-2017 school year.”
As I have mentioned before, one major reason for the trend toward K-12 virtual learning is to for college readiness and preparation. Another reason—not to be sneered at—is that online learning is now viewed as less of a threat to traditional classroom settings than when it first hit the K-12 scene. Educators now see the benefits of the two learning styles operating together to build well-rounded learners.
Because of these shifts, we will see a lot more online education integrated into school curricula shortly.
The Many Shades of Online Learning
What exactly does virtual learning entail? It’s not just about virtual schools and courses. The possibilities are endless.
Take cloud computing. Cloud computing has unlimited potential for teachers, students, parents, and administrators. With the use of a common location, academic expectations can be better accessed, as can actual student work. Instructors can also share learning materials and experiences through the remote opportunities that cloud computing provides.
Cloud storage can save space, money, and time for its users. A report by CDW Government found that over 40 percent of schools use cloud applications to store their data. By 2016, schools are expected to spend 35 percent of IT budgets on the cloud. The savings add up, though. Right now, K-12 schools report that their cloud initiatives are saving them an average of 20 percent on IT costs. By 2016, those savings are expected to reach 27 percent.
Online tutoring is another aspect of making the learning process digital
The supplemental education services industry is expected to make over $10 billion per year annually in North America by 2017, and it’s no wonder. As students face higher pressures in classrooms, companies like Sylvan and Kumon make millions every year by encouraging parents to bring in their students and pay a premium fee to have them tutored one-on-one.
Cost isn’t the only issue, though. Tutoring outside school hours is inconvenient for both parents and students who already have tight schedules. After a day in school, kids are not keen to head back into a traditional learning environment, which can mean a lot of extra tension between parents and kids that surrounds an already-anxious experience. No one likes to feel lost in subject material, but the traditional tutoring setup is just too rigid to work for everyone.
But what if the same flexibility that is afforded to regular K-12 and college classes was extended to tutoring too? Of course, many online tutoring options are already available, but as an industry, online tutoring lacks the sophistication of the larger-scale academic offerings. As demand for this form of flexible learning rises, though, tutoring in remote ways will see a spike in popularity and availability.
Students are already native online learners. Virtual tutoring could open the doors for a lot of breakthroughs – and at a greater convenience and lesser cost to students. These emerging companies just need to look for ways to set themselves apart from the outdated model of in-person tutoring to provide the most help and succeed.
Another breakthrough courtesy of the Internet is the concept of the virtual laboratory. Virtual laboratories are popping up in school districts and online learning curriculum across the country. It is easier and less expensive for students to do experiments remotely than ever before.
There are several benefits to virtual labs
One of them is flexible access. Perhaps the most often cited benefit of any online learning tool is convenience. The same is true of virtual laboratories in many cases. Students can perform experiments whenever they want.
In some cases, a virtual lab may be used during the regular class time but still, in such instances, there is flexibility for the teacher who is not limited by using resources within a strict timeframe.
Another benefit of virtual labs is instant feedback. Students can redo experiments on the spot if needed. All the results are recorded automatically, making communication between teachers and students more efficient. Experiments no longer have a “one chance” option and students can analyze what went wrong immediately and critically.
Top-notch equipment is another remarkable thing about virtual labs—many schools and students using virtual labs have access to cutting-edge technology. Companies that build and maintain virtual labs must compete to stay ahead of technology progression, and that raises the quality of student options. With a virtual lab, students no longer need to settle on outdated, yet expensive, equipment because a school cannot afford to replace it consistently.
Finally, virtual labs often cost less. Sure, there is a fee associated with using virtual labs. However, the capital and maintenance costs are a lot smaller. Instead of one school footing the bill for resources, the cost is split among the clients of the particular virtual lab. This allows the school to provide a better learning experience for students at a fraction of the cost.
Now, just like any other classroom technology, virtual labs demand scrutiny to ensure that behind the flashy capabilities, their true purpose is being met. That will take some time and testing, of course, but I think it is possible with the right combination of in-person and remote lessons.
Online Learning is Not Just a Passive Fad: A Brief Note on Virtual Learning as a Life Skill
I’ve spoken before about how K-12 online learning has been used to prepare students for college, where they would likely be using their computer and the Internet for virtually every aspect of their education. I would like to make a brief statement on the pervasiveness of online learning and to demonstrate that it is not going anywhere.
In 2000, there were only about 50,000 K-12 enrollments in online courses. Now there are about 1.9 million enrollments in online courses every school year, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. What’s more—those numbers do not even include students enrolled in online schools on a full-time basis. The demand is high. There are 31 states that have full-time online schools.
Currently, the primary reason these online courses are offered is for the purpose of online recovery. 81 percent of urban schools cite this reason. And sure enough, these courses are working to improve high school graduation rates. For example, in California, graduation rates have reached an all-time high of about 78 percent, with even more impressive numbers in places such as San Francisco or San Jose.
All this is great, but there is one concern that has arisen out of this: are these courses preparing students adequately for college?
Answering a question this vague is impossible—but the debate rages on nonetheless. Just how rigorous is an online high school course? This is likely a cloudy area for those of us who grew up before the Internet forever changed the face of distance education. On a basic level, if a student reads the material, and can give correct answers on a test, that means he or she has “learned” the content. When an educator takes into account other influential factors like learning style, intelligence and work ethic, that basic definition becomes murky. The consensus in the education community seems to be that even though online courses have merit, they are less rigorous than classroom settings.
Questions of education quality aside, online learning at the K-12 level does prepare students for college in one major way: by promoting computer and Internet literacy in an academic setting. Online learning is a life skill of sorts – something for kids to understand before entering the real world as adults, much like balancing a bank account or learning how to create a resume. Without a solid understanding of online learning before graduation, students are less prepared for what they will face academically following high school.
Many states and schools understand this. Remember that Florida, for instance, is one of the states that requires high school students to take at least one virtual course. As a result, those on a college prep path get early exposure to the type of learning they are likely to see in college.
Now virtual learning and other technologically-powered advancements has its pitfalls that our society needs to get ready for and find solutions to. But overall, this is one trend that has the power to make all the difference in our education today.