Students find variety at good ol’ Virtual High

A literature course featuring 20th-century female authors is not standard fare at most high schools, yet Maggie Court earned credit at Rocky Hill High School this year by taking the course on her home computer.

“It was really cool for me,” said Court, 17, who will be a senior in the fall at Rocky Hill, one of dozens of public and private schools joining a growing online education movement in Connecticut. “I thought it was a great opportunity.”

Rocky Hill enrolled students in courses offered by Virtual High School, a Massachusetts-based company making significant inroads into Connecticut schools.

Across the nation, schools and colleges increasingly are turning to online courses as they seek to expand their curriculums, reach more students, and save money.

Maggie Court

Maggie Court in a virtual class. (Robert A. Frahm)

In the Virtual High School program, students are expected to check in regularly but have the flexibility to do the required work at any time.

“I did most of my work on weekends,” said Court. “You can check into class any time from any computer.”

Court got her assignments from an instructor from Cape Cod and communicated with classmates from places such as Vermont, New Jersey and North Carolina, exchanging comments and ideas about novels such as Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” and Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.”

“As great as Rocky Hill High School is,” Court said, “there really are not a lot of classes like that.”

In Connecticut, the virtual school movement gained additional momentum last month as state education officials announced a partnership with a Florida company to offer online summer courses for students who need to make up credits in courses they failed.

The State Department of Education, using federal funds, will pay the $150 course fee for each of the first 300 students who sign up for the summer programs offered by Florida Virtual School.

“The response has been overwhelming. . . . Clearly, this is a huge area of need and interest,” said  Karen Kaplan, educational technology director for the State Department of Education. Students can log on anytime to do the coursework.

Instead of requiring students to take entire courses over again, the program uses placement tests to determine where students need help and tailors the instruction to focus on those specific deficiencies, Kaplan said.

A state law that took effect this month requires schools districts with high dropout rates to offer online programs to students who need to make up credits.

Nationwide, 27 percent of high school students reported taking online classes in 2009, nearly twice the rate of 14 percent a year earlier, according to a survey by the education technology firm Blackboard, Inc. and the education nonprofit organization Project Tomorrow.

Virtual High School now reaches more than 660 schools in the U.S. and 30 other nations, including 69 public and private schools in Connecticut. “The last couple of years we’ve had tremendous growth in Connecticut,” said Carol Arnold, a spokeswoman for the company.

“A lot of schools in Connecticut and other parts of the country are eliminating a lot of enrichment classes due to budget cuts,” she said. “It makes sense for them to turn to organizations like us.”

Online courses have proliferated in higher education, too. Nearly 4,200 online courses were offered on Connecticut college campuses in 2009, twice the number offered three years earlier, according to the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium. Enrollment in those courses also has nearly doubled since 2006, reaching about 65,000 last year.

The consortium also manages the Connecticut Virtual Learning Center offering online courses to high school students, but that program has not grown as fast as college level programs, said Diane Goldsmith, the consortium’s executive director.

“My prediction is, it’s going to grow,” she said. “I’m talking to superintendents. They’re laying off people. . . . I think increasingly schools have to look at online as a solution. It’s the cheapest solution. There’s not a building. You don’t have to hire staff. . . . You can have a computer lab [and] have 25 students taking 25 different courses.”

How well does online education work?

In a 2009 report, the U.S. Department of Education analyzed research studies and found that students who took all or part of their class online “performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.” The report cautioned, however, that the findings are based on a limited number of studies, most of which involved adult students.

“It doesn’t work for everybody,” said Mario Almeida, principal at Rocky Hill High School. “Kids really have to be committed.” Nevertheless, he said those who took virtual classes this year “had a very good experience.” It was an opportunity to broaden the curriculum, with virtual courses covering subjects ranging from Mandarin Chinese to oceanography, he said.

“I think high schools are really catching on,” he said.

Rocky Hill is given 20 slots in the Virtual High School program in exchange for providing a teacher who runs an online course for the program.

That teacher, Margaret Hale, teaches a poetry writing course, reaching students as far away as New Jersey, Kentucky, and Wisconsin.

She maintains regular contact with the students and says that every student is required to post answers and exchange ideas. They are often less inhibited than they might be in a face-to-face discussion in a classroom, she said.

“It’s not only an opportunity to learn content but to learn the computer skills kids need,” she said.

“Honestly,” Hale said, “I think every kid should take at least one online class. . . . The potential of this is awesome.”