Real schools, virtual classes
Students in Wisconsin and nationwide are enrolling in cyber programs to bolster or replace a brick-and-mortar education. Many say they like the freedom, but some educators worry about quality and social development.
By Robert Gutsche Jr
Special to the Tribune
MILWAUKEE — When Brandon Everts goes on the computer, he’s often suited up — virtually anyway — as a sci-fi sharpshooter, ready to destroy aliens in the Halo video game.
But increasingly, 12-year-old Brandon and thousands of other children nationwide are going online as students, ready to tackle English assignments and math problems.
“It’s a really good learning experience,” Brandon, who lives in Milwaukee, said. “You get to set your own school times, and you don’t have to stick to any strict schedule. You can do it at your own pace.”
Nationally, virtual classrooms — cyber schools based on the Internet and run by public and private schools — are beginning to augment traditional middle and high schools.
National education groups estimate at least 25 states, including Illinois, have virtual schools and an additional 13 have other e-learning initiatives, including online testing.
Enrollment on the rise
Enrollment in online schools and courses has grown from roughly 50,000 students in 2000 to about 1 million students last year, according to the North American Council for Online Learning, a cyber school advocacy group based in Virginia.
And the numbers are expected to keep rising.
“It is all happening as a way to fill gaps for states or schools,” said Susan Patrick, CEO and president of the online learning council.
Parents and students concerned about school violence, tired of crowded classrooms and frustrated with teachers they believe aren’t qualified are among those turning to alternative education methods in record numbers.
“It is so easy,” said Brandon’s mother, Toni Everts-Lyon, who previously had been home-schooling her son. “You would never get this kind of response or attention from teachers in school. And a lot of the time, if you missed an answer, the teachers would just move on with the rest of the class and you would never know what the right answer was.”
Not everyone, however, is excited about the future of educating students virtually.
Tony Evers, deputy state superintendent of Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction, said he sees value in the 13 virtual charter schools in Wisconsin, but warns against families using them as replacements for brick-and-mortar schools where students have daily contact with teachers and other students.
“It’s good for school districts to provide alternative learning for students whether it is virtual or not,” he said, “but we also from the state level have issues relevant to quality control.”
In Brandon’s case, he said he became tired of what he considered a limited curriculum and left a traditional school in the 4th grade. Though he had been home-schooled along with his siblings, at some point he wanted something different.
A televisin commercial for the Monroe Virtual High School based in Monroe, Wis., prompted his mother to call for information, and they signed up for the newly offered middle school classes last fall.
Brandon is learning Japanese, and his English class allows him to alter or even create his own curriculum. Math lessons come from books the school has sent him. After each lesson, his mother inputs the answers online and immediately gets his grade.
The Monroe virtual program, which is part of the Monroe Public Schools system, is housed in servers and a small office in a small town in south-central Wisconsin. Five teachers and a guidance counselor work with students.
“I like having this option for kids,” said Dan Bauer, who is principal of Monroe’s virtual high and middle schools.
“A lot of kids don’t have many other options when they are busy or want a different experience in school,” he said. “When I was a kid, if I didn’t like high school where I was at, what was I going to do?”
Monroe became the first in Wisconsin to offer a high school diploma completely online in 2002.
Now, Monroe Virtual High School has 350 students and 33 graduates, including a 56-year-old grandmother who returned to school later in life.
By next year, Bauer hopes to have as many as 500 students enrolled online.
Bauer said the virtual school program has students from all over the country. Those in Wisconsin can enroll once a year. For them, other than a $25 fee during enrollment, it is free. Out-of-state students pay tuition that, depending on the classes, ranges from $50 to $300.
As technology improves, more schools could offer video-game-quality lessons, where students could climb a mountain as a digital character while learning about geography and plants or help build the Pyramids to learn history and social justice, Bauer predicts.
Evers, the state school official, notes, however, that interest in these schools might be restricted.
“The interest is there, but I think there is a limited number of parents who want their kinds in a virtual environment all day every day,” Evers said, though data have shown that many home-schooled students have turned to virtual classrooms in Wisconsin.
Despite his concerns, Evers said, most districts in Wisconsin soon will have some classes offered online.
Less tension, more options
That’s good news for Randy Huolihan, 17, of Milwaukee, who said he left a traditional high school for the Monroe virtual school because of violence, racial tensions and crowded classrooms.
Huolihan, who is to graduate in spring 2008, said he wanted to be able to choose from the hundreds of optional classes he could take from the online school, such as guitar and creative writing, when he learned he couldn’t take those classes in high school.
“I am really enjoying it because it is at your own pace,” he added. “If I am having a bad day, I don’t have to do it.”
Socialization issues, however, remain a worry for those in online schools.
“We do have concerns … about the issue of younger children participating full time on virtual programs and what that means for their social development,” Evers said.
Both Brandon and Huolihan said for now interaction with others in class wasn’t as important as being able to work on their own schedule, and the online council’s Patrick said cyber schools don’t stop students from interacting with others.
She added that “while that kind of social interaction may be lacking online, a lot of the reasons they leave high school is because they lack those types of interactions in real schools too.”
Brandon, meanwhile, said he is prepared to spend a few more years in a virtual program.
But will online schools make up the rest of his education? “I think it is fun, but no, I don’t think so,” he said. “I think I will go to high school. I do miss some of my friends.”
For and against cyber schools
Children learn at own pace
Curriculum can be tailored to each child
Wide variety of classes
Quality is difficult to control
No development of social skills
No daily contact with teachers
No interaction with friends