In an earlier post, we discussed virtual high schools (VHSs), highlighting examples from Florida and North Carolina. We have since learned that an increasing number of states have plans to use VHSs as a strategy to maximize limited resources, as evidenced by inclusion of VHSs in Race to the Top (RTTT) and School Improvement Grant (SIG) applications. Rural SIG schools and districts looking to expand their course catalogues are particularly interested in exploring VHSs.
Pennsylvania, for example, proposed to use RTTT funds to create a catalogue of 12 high rigor online courses available to all students across the state. State officials argued that the online course catalogue would be a cost-effective resource for improving academic rigor in small, rural, and economically-disadvantaged school districts where rigorous courses are not currently available. North Carolina and Georgia also planned to use RTTT funds to expand their virtual schools to increase achievement in mathematics and science, with Georgia targeting students in rural communities with limited access to advanced math.
Proponents of VHSs highlight the potential of online learning to meet diverse needs of students—needs that may not be addressed in a traditional educational setting. Benefits of VHSs may include filling curriculum gaps, providing flexible scheduling, providing access to challenging and rigorous coursework, and allowing students to recover credits to meet intensified graduation requirements. A lot of SIG schools are using virtual courses to fulfill the increased learning time requirement by offering virtual courses after school or at night. And, while some schools are using them for advanced coursework, far and away the most common use of virtual classes seems to be content/credit recovery.
However, VHSs are not immune to many of the challenges facing traditional education, and there is reason to be skeptical about the benefits of going virtual. Michigan introduced virtual education programs last year but has recently put them on hold until they can determine a more efficient way to manage them. The state requires some form of online learning for high-school students and developed guidelines last year for virtual classes. However, officials say they found it difficult to ensure that virtual programs were meeting necessary requirements. Additionally, some school officials in Idaho are concerned that rural students, who face issues of poverty and lack of good internet access required for online course-taking, may be left at a disadvantage if the state pursues a technology-heavy plan.
Research has not kept up with the rapid expansion of VHSs, so that basic questions about access, enrollments, educational quality, and outcomes remain unanswered. As many states look into online options, they will need to address these questions, as well as challenges unique to online learning, including technology access and skills; teacher training and effectiveness in a virtual environment; and start up and maintenance costs.
Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.
 Holstead, M., Spradlin, T. E. & Plucker, J. A. (2008). Promises and pitfalls of virtual education in the United States and Indiana. Education Policy Brief. Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, Indiana University.