Virtual schools are getting mixed reviews from students and traditional high school teachers. Now every Florida high school student must take at least one online course to graduate.
“I took economics and algebra II (online) in high school because I wanted to get ahead in my classes…(and) bring up my GPA,” said Emily Wheeler, now a student at Pensacola State College.
Wheeler was one of more than 122,000 students enrolled in Florida Virtual School in 2010. In the 15 years since its inception, the state-funded virtual school has increased enrollment by 1,114 percent.
Public, private or homeschool students in kindergarten through Grade 12 who are Florida residents can enroll in Florida Virtual School free of charge. The state funds the program through state taxes. Students outside of Florida may also take courses at the virtual school on a tuition basis.
More than 110 courses are offered by the virtual school, including core subjects, world languages, electives, honors, and 15 Advanced Placement courses. FLVS is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and credits are transferable.
FLVS’s relationship with the State of Florida is somewhat confusing. FLVS states that it is part of the Florida public education system as an independent school district but, in fact, the virtual school is a separate company that is funded by state revenue. In 2000, the Florida Legislature established the school as an “independent educational entity” with a gubernatorial appointed board, thus establishing an insider position as a private virtual education provider in the State.
THE DEMAND FOR VIRTUAL EDUCATION
Florida Virtual School was founded in 1997 by Alachua homeschool parents and Orange County educators. From 1998 to 2002 FLVS was predominately used by homeschoolers and traditional students wanting to take extra courses. Currently, public school students make up the majority of the virtual school population.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show there has been a significant increase in homeschooling and associated services in the United States since FLVS began classes in 1998. A 2007 U.S. Department of Education survey estimated there were approximately 1.5 million students being homeschooled in the United States.
More demand for virtual education came about as a result of Florida’s Class Size Amendment in 2002. Under the class-reduction amendment, high school classrooms could not have more than 25 students in core subjects such as English or math; fourth- through eighth-grade classrooms, 22 students; and prekindergarten through third grade, 18.
Because the amendment limited the number of students in classrooms, but not in virtual labs, many in-school classrooms where core subjects were taught were converted to e-learning labs with computers and a “facilitator” but no teacher. Florida Virtual School provided the online courses.
“They’ve turned brick and mortar schools into access points for FLVS. You’ve got a teacher in a brick and mortar classroom and all the students are on computers and they’re paying the teacher pennies, comparatively speaking to their salary, to just regulate these kids,” said Dawn Quarles, who teaches government at Pace High School.
THE 2011 STATE LEGISLATIVE BILL
Deepening the relationship between the state and FLVS, a 2011 bill mandated that at least one virtual course is now required to be taken by all Florida high school students before graduation. If their school has no virtual program in place, FLVS will be the online provider.
One reason for state government’s mandate could be the cost of virtual education as opposed to “brick and mortar” schools. FLVS says it spent $4,840 per student in 2010-2011 compared with the state’s district average of $6,999.
“I see them continuing to try to do more for less money,” Quarles said.
FLVS, as a result of the bill, can be a full-time school, meaning students can attend the virtual school exclusively from kindergarten through high-school graduation.
But some question whether a student would be adequately served by an online-only education. Some teachers are skeptical about how well virtual classes can help many students learn.
“Interaction between student and teacher is integral to the learning process,” Quarles said. “If they don’t understand something, they have the opportunity in real time to stop me and ask me to explain and to elaborate and to give examples and to draw on the board if I need to, or to show them a picture or a PowerPoint. You have all this interpersonal exchange that you don’t have in Florida Virtual School.”
Local school districts do not receive funding for virtual classes that students take, putting the school district and FLVS in direct competition for state funds. At the same time, the bill mandates that local public schools must, in essence, provide free marketing for Florida Virtual School. Each school district is required to tell students and parents about FLVS, and that they may take accelerated courses through the virtual school if the students earn a Level 4 or 5 on FCAT Reading or Math.
While school districts lose money when students take FLVS classes, those same districts must provide testing for all FLVS students, including the FCAT and end-of-course exams. FLVS doesn’t have to pay for it or arrange it.
Public schools offering full-time virtual programs are required to provide a computer and internet access for students receiving free or reduced lunches. The virtual school does not have this requirement.
“Technologically, one half of my kids don’t even have internet at home. So if you’re telling kids you have to take a Florida Virtual School class before they can graduate, where are they going to get computer or internet access,” Quarles said.
TEACHING AT FLVS
The more than 1,400 FLVS staff members reside throughout Florida and beyond, but all have to have a valid Florida teaching certificate and are certified in the subjects they teach.
Teachers start at $45,000 a year, work 12 months a year and are required to be available to students from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. Most teachers have at least 150 students assigned to them, and work from their homes.
Students log on to a website to gain access to lessons, which consist mostly of text with some graphics. All the material is online; there are no textbooks.
“With FLVS it’s all reading, no audio, only reading. It’s a tough environment to learn in,” PSC student Wheeler said.
The students can call, e-mail or text online instructors for help.
On the website Glassdoor, teachers anonymously talk about the facade of “availability” that is required. Even though an 84-hour workweek is not really expected, student or parent complaints about “unavailability” could cause a teacher to be fired. Therefore teachers work in a constant “on-call” situation, and have to carefully assess any trip away from the phone.
Because of the heavy teacher workload, “Emailing (and) calling doesn’t work that well. The teacher might call back three days later when you’re not in the same mental place you were,” Wheeler said.
In reviews by FLVS teachers, they complain about feeling isolated with an overwhelming, nonstop workload and no division between personal and professional life.
Wheeler said, “I’ve talked to teachers who were feeding their kids, trying to do both at once. It’s a big work load.”
Teachers employed by FLVS must sign a non-compete clause that says that after leaving, employees are not allowed to be hired in the field of K-12 education nationwide for a full year. Therefore, many teachers struggle to keep the job at any cost.
Teachers did have some positive things to say about virtual education in general. Some of the positive attributes they cited were good benefits, working from home, and interaction with highly motivated and intelligent colleagues. They also noted that a virtual learning environment can be a great option for select students who have a true need or aptitude to learn in that setting. One teacher cited those students to be about 20 percent of the current FLVS student population.
THE LEARNING EXPERIENCE AT FLVS
The predominant reasons students take classes at the virtual school include making up credits, getting ahead, improving their grade point averages and scheduling flexibility. Under the 2011 bill, high school students are required to take at least one online course.
In an informal survey done in Quarles’ Pace High School government class, students were asked to qualify their online educational experience with FLVS. Among the 16 students taking the survey, four said they would take another course at the virtual school, and 12 said they would not.
Nine students participating in the survey said the best thing about online classes was being able to work at their own pace, and two said working at home was what they liked best. Another benefit listed was the ability to take classes not offered at their high school.
“Kids don’t like to be stuck in a high school classroom five days a week, seven hours a day. Kids want more flexibility,” PSC student Wheeler said.
Complaints about virtual learning ranged from minimum interaction, lack of a teacher, having to teach themselves and having a hard time getting assistance from a teacher.
“The instructor at FLVS is not a teacher (but) a facilitator, and that person is making sure you’re doing the assignment (with) a checklist. They’re making sure you’ve posted the appropriate number of discussion questions and the correct number of comments and (if you’ve) taken the quizzes,” Quarles said.
In a 2011 New York Times article by Laura Herrera, Michael G. Moore, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, said programs that combine virtual education and face-to-face instruction could be effective. This is called the “blended learning concept.”
“There is no doubt that blended learning can be as effective and often more effective than a classroom,” said Mr. Moore, who is also editor of The American Journal of Distance Education. He said, however, that research and his experiences had shown that proper design and teacher instruction within the classroom were necessary. A facilitator who only monitors student progress and technical issues would not be categorized as part of a blended-learning model, he said. Other variables include “the maturity and sophistication of the student.”
Even though FLVS is on the cutting edge of a new educational model, Wheeler said, “They are stuck in an old school mentality.”
Although she stated many more cons than pros, Wheeler said, “I think there is a very bright future for online classes…if they would find a way to organize better and make it more interactive. They need to take advantage of the technology (such as) Skype or Facetime so that you could have live chats with your teacher.”