Are Virtual Schools the Answer?

Like many others, when I first heard the words virtual and school in the same sentence, I sensed trouble. The mental image of a student isolated from his peers, unable to communicate with others and confined to a computer screen brought awful connotations to mind.

Despite my initial skepticism, current virtual school programs may hold the solution to some of educations toughest quandaries.

A major misconception may be the root of misunderstanding regarding the idea behind virtual schools.

“A part of the message about virtual school is that they are really an extension and a supplement and a way to leverage traditional schools,” says Keith Oelrich, president and CEO of Bellevue-based Apex Learning. “It’s really an extension of the traditional education model.”

Unlike many virtual programs for higher-education and professionals, most of the programs targeted at the high school market don’t look to replace the classroom experience, but rather solve some of the problems caused by a lack of resources.

The issue really comes down to economic class sizes. There are all kinds of specialized educational needs, such as Advanced Placement classes, computer science classes, foreign languages, and remedial courses, that kids would like access to, but currently don’t have. According to Oelrich, schools today don’t have the ability, not only because of teacher shortages, but because they can’t devote precious resources to classes that are of specific limited interest.

“Part of what we are doing is allowing our customers to leverage their existing teacher resources across a broader geographic boundary, so that you get economic class sizes in an online fashion that you can’t get through a physical setting,” says the Apex CEO. “The driving force around creating the entire industry is the need to, in a more cost effective way, extend quality educational access to students that otherwise can’t be served.”

Seattle’s public school district has already begun investing in virtual classrooms, noting the potential such classes have in combating resource allocation issues.

“Online learning is really important to us,” says Les Foltos, Instructional Technology Coordinator for Seattle Public Schools. “It fills gaps that we would have a very difficult time filling, and it fills them with really high quality educational programming.”

Brian Benzel, the school district’s COO added: “What was originally invented for small rural schools seems to have some real potential applicability to our schools as they do transformation. By providing additional access for groups of students to content that there might not be enough students for advanced placement or a basic class, it is just a real opportunity to personalize and individualize learning for an individual student.”

While such initiatives have had positive results, there are still issues that need to be addressed.

“Still a lot of it is text, a lot of it is distributed over pretty low bandwidth to make sure that it can reach almost any modem connection,” Says Adam Newman, Senior Analyst at “Still a lot of it is text, a lot of it is distributed over pretty low bandwidth to make sure that it can reach almost any modem connection.”

While enthusiastic about the possibilities of virtual classrooms, Newman notes that because so few people are doing this, there are some back-office tech and non-tech issues that schools probably need to be aware of when they are considering these (programs).

One such issue is how to teach both teachers and students how to utilize an online educational environment.

“Any organization that is not working carefully with their teachers is doomed. Students also need a primer on how to learn online. It is a different environment, with a different set of expectations, and takes a different type of discipline. Just because students are particularly Web-savvy doesn’t mean they are online cla


While Seattle school district’s teachers have not undergone any specific online training yet, their Instructional Technology Coordinator believes it will likely be a necessity in the future.

“As availability of courses becomes more and more broad, there is a distinct likelihood that we’ll have to engage in that kind of professional development,” says Faltos.

While some companies and industry analysts have focused in largely on the home school market as the key for virtual schools, the prospect of improving the current state of America’s often-cash-strapped educational system though the use of virtual classrooms remains intriguing.

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