Online all the time?
Author: Jennifer VanBuren

Last month’s column discussed the Texas Virtual School Network, a specific network of approved online courses that high school students can take as a part of their traditional face-to-face education. Students are enrolled in brick-and-mortar schools, but take individual online courses to supplement their education. The Texas Virtual School Network Online Schools Program (TxVSN OLS) is also a part of the Texas Virtual School Network, however, in this program, virtual instruction is full time. Programs are offered to public school students in grades three through 12 by approved public school districts and open-enrollment charter schools.

Online school defined
These online public schools offer 100 percent-virtual instructional programs to students who are not physically present on campus during instruction. Courses provided by these schools are reviewed to ensure they meet the state curriculum standards, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). Because of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, teachers must be Texas-certified in the content area and at the grade level they are teaching. The courses must also meet national online school standards and teachers must be trained in online instruction.

At this time, there are three virtual academies acting as full time open-enrollment charter schools:
Texarkana ISD Virtual Academy offers a curriculum delivered by the private company Calvert Partners. With a current enrollment of 81 students, this charter is approved to serve grades three through seven.
Texas Connections Academy, affiliated with Houston Independent School District, gets its services from Connections Education (a subsidiary of Pearson) and has an enrollment of 2,463 in grades three through 12.
Texas Virtual Academy, run by the private company Responsive Education Solutions and utilizing the K12¹program, has 3,665 Texas students in grades three through 12.

The facts about funding
If this seems complicated, it is. The programs are approved by the Texas Education Association, are presented as public charter schools and are provided at no cost to individual families, but they are actually run by private corporations such as K12¹and Pearson. Where do these companies get the money to run their schools? The same place public schools get theirs: from average daily attendance (ADA) funding from the state. Since there are layers, many people do not realize there are companies that do indeed profit from funding provided to the state to educate our children. Many of the businesses that run these schools spend millions of dollars each year on lobbyists and on advertising, because in order to make more money, they need to attract more students. While some argue that providing online education costs schools less, if they cost less to run, the remainder of the money can be used as the business sees fit without public oversight.

The virtual classroom
So, how does it work? Online, or virtual schooling, can take place wherever the student has an internet connection. Instruction may be delivered over the phone, via web meetings or through a series of on-screen lessons.

Sometimes there are videos, and sometimes the student reads screens that simply look like pages of a regular textbook. Some online schools send students textbooks, CDs, videos and other hands-on materials.

While certified teachers provide and monitor the lessons, a parent or “learning coach” is responsible for keeping the child on track and focused on the work provided. If a parent is not available, families have to find their own support to keep the student focused and motivated.

According to K12, adults involved can expect to spend between three to five hours per day focused on their child’s education for children in grades K through six. This number drops to two hours in grades seven and eight for many students (although many will require much more!). Each child is expected to spend five to six hours on coursework every day.

Think positive
Many families like the flexible nature of online learning. Sometimes courses and meetings have set times, but often the lessons can be done whenever it is convenient. Students can also work at their own pace, getting extra practice and reviewing information when they need additional instruction or speeding ahead when they master a concept the first time. Other families have lifestyles that require a great deal of travel, such those with children in competitive sports, arts and music programs.

There are many reasons a family may decide to forgo the traditional classroom for a virtual one. Some students are accelerated learners who grow bored (and possibly get in trouble!) and some students need more time in order to “get” the lessons. Sometimes children feel like they do not fit in, or that their special needs are not being met in a traditional classroom.

Making virtual school a reality
To go online or not go online, that is the question. The Internet provides countless formal and informal learning opportunities; whether it is the best place for a child to get the majority of his education is not an easy call to make and should not be made lightly. Parents should be aware that there are options for virtual schools, and an educated choice is the best choice. So just go online and learn about online learning – there is no telling what you will find.

Jennifer VanBuren is a Georgetown mother of three school-aged kids.

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