Public Schools Expand Curriculum Online

Online Students i i

Rappahannock County High School students (from left): A.J. Collins, a junior; Colleen Daily, a senior; and Zack Jackson, a senior. All take online classes through the Virtual Virginia program. Larry Abramson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Abramson, NPR
Online Students

Rappahannock County High School students (from left): A.J. Collins, a junior; Colleen Daily, a senior; and Zack Jackson, a senior. All take online classes through the Virtual Virginia program.

Larry Abramson, NPR
Susan Cox i i

Susan Cox, who teaches an online Chinese course in Virginia, says she can tell from her students' e-mails and phone calls when they're distracted by personal problems and when they need special attention. Larry Abramson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Abramson, NPR
Susan Cox

Susan Cox, who teaches an online Chinese course in Virginia, says she can tell from her students' e-mails and phone calls when they're distracted by personal problems and when they need special attention.

Larry Abramson, NPR

When senior Zack Jackson wanted to take a class in mythology, he wasn't out of luck just because his small high school in rural Virginia didn't offer it. Instead, he headed online.

The course comes courtesy of Virtual Virginia, a state program that offers dozens of online classes to middle and high school students. The program allows children to take classes that aren't offered at their schools. Nationwide, programs like Virtual Virginia help hundreds of thousands of students take the kinds of unusual courses that make colleges sit up and take notice.

Most of the 3,000 students in the Virtual Virginia program enroll in online advanced placement courses. And thanks to the program, Zack's school, Rappahannock County High, can offer more AP classes, allowing it to compete with local private schools, which often use AP courses as a selling point.

Principal Robyn Puryear says students have to be self-directed to succeed in an online class. Since online courses are self-paced, there's a temptation to procrastinate — and that leads to trouble.

"Life interferes. Sports interfere. Just regular social life interferes, because they could put it off until the evening. But in the evening they may not be free," Puryear says.

Connecting Online

In an apartment in Alexandria, Va., online instructor Susan Cox is teaching a subject she has long wanted to teach: Mandarin Chinese. Cox has a master's degree in Chinese and literature, but she could not find a position in her field at a regular school. So when Virtual Virginia offered her a job teaching Chinese online, she jumped at the chance.

Cox meets occasionally with her students through live online sessions. Students enrolled from around the state plug headsets into their computers and gather for the classes. A lot of the teacher's work is conducted through e-mail and phone calls. Students can e-mail videos of themselves to Cox — or Kong Liaoshi, as she's known to her students.

And that's often where she gets the warm feeling she used to get from classroom interaction.

"Oh, this is interesting!" she says, calling up a video from one particularly resourceful student originally from Barbados. "She went and found on the Internet ... how to say, 'I'm from Barbados,'" Cox says. Cox plays a video of the student speaking Mandarin. She grins when she hears that the girl's "tones" are correct.

Cox taught history in a school until last fall. She's delighted to be teaching a subject she loves, but she says she did think long and hard about giving up her classroom.

"I'm a very social person. I did a lot of stuff at my school," Cox says. "And I love the kids."

Cox says she now feels the same connection to her online students. She says she can tell from their e-mails and their phone calls when they're distracted by personal problems and when they need special attention.

Online education for high school students is gaining popularity, but it may not realize one of the original promises of distance education: saving money. The start-up costs can be substantial, and it's tough to compare the costs of a virtual school with those of a brick-and-mortar one.

Online educators say the real payoff is that these virtual schools can help liven up traditional schools.

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