The virtual reality of online education
Author: Jennifer VanBuren

It may sound like something from a science fiction movie, but virtual schools have been with us in Texas for years. From private and charter schools held almost exclusively online to informal enrichment programs, students can spend as little or as much time in virtual school as their parents choose.

Texas Virtual School Network
The Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN) is a specific network of approved online courses that high school students can take as a part of their traditional face-to-face education. In 2007, Texas Legislators established a state virtual school network to provide instructional options through online courses for Texas students in grades nine through 12. This network of courses is designed to supplement the program for students who are currently enrolled in Texas public schools and open-enrollment charter schools. Last year a total of 467 districts allowed students to take online courses through the Texas Virtual School Network, and 5,685 students in grades eight through 12 in regular public schools took at least one online course through the network.

The courses are provided by public school districts, open-enrollment charter schools and higher education institutions and are reviewed to ensure they are 100% in-step with the state curricula (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) as well as the National Standard for Quality Online Courses. These high school classes are taught by Texas-certified teachers who have also completed approved training for online instruction.

Steps to success
Why would a student want to take courses through TxVSN? The main reasons, according to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) include:

Expand local course choices. Some high schools have low enrollment and cannot offer a wide variety of courses, especially those that are advanced or specialized
Early graduation. Self-explanatory! For many reasons, including wanting to join the military, raise a family, get a jump-start on college or join the workforce early, students can graduate early by completing course requirements online
Credit advancement (aka getting ahead)
Credit recovery. If a student does not complete a required course, she can retake it online and still maintain her grade level and course progression in school. This usually, but not always, happens over the summer
Schedule flexibility. Many students in high school are employed or needed by family during regular school hours. With the flexibility of online learning, they can earn the credits needed for graduation on their own time
Access to college credit. Through dual credit courses (college courses students can take in high school) and AP ® courses (high school courses that may gain college credit upon the completion of a qualifying exam), students can earn college credits while in high school

Getting started
How does it work? The provider supplies the course materials and certified online teacher and the student’s home campus provides a mentor whose position is to support and encourage the student, monitor progress and help secure needed instructional materials. Since the actual teacher of the course will be giving instruction, the mentor does not need to be certified.

There are different providers available for selection.

Picking a provider can seem like a daunting task, but there are tools in order to help you make an informed decision. At the online TxVSN Data Center, students and parents can check out course demonstrations and videos and take a look at rates of enrollment, success, drop and attrition for each provider. Also available are independent evaluation reports as well as student and parent surveys.

Standards and testing
Sorry, enrolling in virtual school is not a way out of the STAAR test or end-of-year exams. TEC Chapter 30A states that each student enrolled in a course offered through the TxVSN must take any assessment instrument that is administered to students who are provided instruction in the course in the traditional classroom setting. As these courses follow the standardized state curriculum, the students are, in the intended way, being taught to the test.

Districts or open-enrollment charter schools may set their own standards when registering their students’ TxVSN high school courses. However, students may not be enrolled in more than two dual credit (college credit) courses per semester unless individual exceptions are made and approved by the principal of the high school and the chief academic officer of the college.

Funding matters
Sound great? Who pays? The student’s school district or open-enrollment charter school pays for the student course fees. How? The school district or open-enrollment charter school receives state funding through the Foundation School Program (FSP) when the student completes the course the same way as if he received instruction in the traditional classroom setting. FSP funding can be used to recoup the actual course cost as well as the cost to provide mentors to the students enrolled in online courses.

Students who are not currently enrolled in a public or open-enrollment charter school can sign up for these courses, but must do so through their home district and may only enroll in two courses per semester. The home district, responsible for paying for the course, can collect a fee from students, as the district does not get any FSP funding for students not enrolled.

State involvement
Pending state legislation would expand the network to include private school and home-school students. Supporters of the bill hope to provide for more courses that will reach more students. Perhaps the most highly-contested portion of this bill is that which would allow non-profit entities and private companies to provide online courses, instead of being limited to school districts, charter schools and colleges. Many believe that any time private companies stand to make good money off public funds, there is the danger of putting profit before the public good.

“Technology has revolutionized society, yet our state education system does not benefit as much as it could from online learning,” admonishes Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, who wrote the virtual education bill.

“Every major university in Texas as well as driver’s license courses are online. But 99 percent of our students have no experience with online courses.”

The bill would also require school districts to provide all students in grades three through 12 an opportunity to enroll in electronic courses. Even after cutting some of the more drastic components of the bill, such as requiring all high school students to take at least one online course, the price tag of implementing the bill was too high for many legislatures.

Like it or not, virtual coursework is now a part of our educational system. With the Texas Virtual School Network, students, teachers and parents can feel assured that if all is going as planned, these courses will be provided by school districts or universities, taught by certified and qualified teachers and monitored by TEA. Let’s see what happens next!

Jennifer VanBuren, educator, mother and writer is educated online on a daily basis, but not usually on TEA-approved sites.

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