Walking into a mildly futuristic building on East Flamingo Road, I wonder if I’m in the right place. There’s no name on the door, for one thing. For another, there’s no real indication of what goes on inside. But once I walk in, a polite lady directs me around a corner and down a short hallway, where I find what I’m looking for. Welcome to the Clark County Virtual High School.
The school’s receptionist seems puzzled about why I would actually come by in person. She explains that everything I might want is online, including all the teachers and administrators. It is, after all, a virtual high school.
Clark County offered its first online classes in the late 1990s to serve students who could not attend a physical high school—mostly performers and athletes who traveled extensively. Since then, Virtual High has grown from its first graduating class of six students into an independently accredited school that now teaches more than 3,000 full and part-time students every semester.
Three other accredited online high schools are based in Las Vegas: Nevada Virtual Academy, International Virtual Learning Academy and Advantages Online Private School. Of course, the physical location of an online school is not particularly relevant; what matters is the quality of the school, what courses it offers and whether it’s accredited. Every reputable school (online or not) must be accredited by one of the six regional agencies in the United States. Our local agency (the Northwest Accreditation Commission) has certified at least 27 accredited online or virtual schools, though Las Vegas students can attend schools accredited by other regional agencies, and their credits will be just as valid.
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As online schools became more popular, they started serving more than just students with heavy travel schedules. Today, online schools are also attractive to over- and under-achieving students who either want to take classes not offered at their local schools or who need “credit retrieval”—that is, to retake classes they skipped or in which they did poorly. (Virtual High does not offer credit retrieval, but many other schools do, including the other three online schools based in Las Vegas.)
Local student Kasey Green (see our 20 Under 20 feature), a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Nevada Connections Academy, says the online school offers more flexibility than her old brick-and-mortar school. “You have choices which project you want to do instead of just ‘You have to do this project,’” she says. “You can work at your own pace and move ahead.”
Without teachers constantly around, students have to be self-motivated. At the same time, the flexible structure allows online courses to adapt depending on how quickly students learn. Some online programs are even mastery-based, which means students can earn credit for courses as soon as they master the material, so skilled students can complete courses in a fraction of the time they would take in traditional schools.
Other aspects of online schools are surprisingly ordinary. For instance, teachers still need to keep an eye out for students who try to cheat. Passing notes and peeking over a neighbor’s shoulder have been replaced with chatting and accessing unauthorized websites during a test. So teachers no longer walk around to keep an eye on students, but watch them with webcams and screen-monitoring software instead. But the motivation to cheat appears to be about the same. Some schools still require students to take finals in person, but others allow students to do everything online.
Oddly, the growing sector of online schools is still largely independent from the community of homeschoolers. This is not to say that homeschoolers aren’t online: Homeschoolers are aggressively self-sufficient and have been creating and sharing material online for as long as they have had Internet access. In the early 2000s, homeschoolers started using a free online virtual learning environment called Moodle, created by graduate student Martin Dougiamas as part of his Ph.D. project on open source software and teaching. Today more than 40 million people around the world use Moodle, and homeschoolers can find Moodle courses in even the most obscure subjects.
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As virtual learning environments become more flexible and commonplace, the most important element of a good online school is the same as for any school: good teachers. But online schools have some advantages in hiring teachers. In a traditional school, teachers must be physically present and often teach a variety of subjects, making it difficult to specialize—especially at the elementary level. Online, however, teachers can work anywhere in the world, part or full time and even with multiple schools, which enables them to work exclusively in their area of expertise.
The lack of a teacher’s presence would seem to be a drawback, but younger students are adapting quickly, says Sandy Gamba, the co-founder of Advantages. For “digital natives,” it feels natural to connect with a teacher online. Students who are not comfortable in a formal classroom environment often find it easier to connect with teachers online. Kasey Green agrees, and says that by e-mailing teachers students get more individual attention online.
Online education is challenging the very idea of what a school is. For example, Advantages is an online private school based in Las Vegas. It’s fully accredited, has 32 teachers who instruct students around the world, and is more than doubling in enrollment each year. But Advantages has only three full-time employees. Instead of a large full-time staff and faculty, Advantages hires teachers, tutors, counselors and administrators as independent contractors.
In this arrangement, location is irrelevant, as is the physical plant. Traditional schools must manage enormous infrastructures, but online schools can instead act as conduits—finding, organizing and connecting resources without directly owning or maintaining anything beyond a small staff and a few servers.
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The Clark County School District is not planning any major changes to its Virtual High, other than expanding to keep up with increased demand. Instead, the district is starting to research how to integrate online instruction into physical classrooms. It is far too early to predict the results of this program—even optimistic projections don’t see it reaching most classrooms until at least 2015. However, the project could bring individualized instruction for specialized subjects, custom plans, adaptive learning and mastery-based programs to all Clark County students. If so, it could provide all Clark County students with the best of both systems.