Is Virtual High School Right For Me?

Virtual High Schooling as a Homeschooling Supplement

There is a growing trend in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada, towards using “virtual schools” to supplement a homeschool education. A virtual school is an educational institution, often without a physical campus, where interaction between teachers and students is conducted through email, discussion boards, chatting and web sites. This trend is fast becoming a pedagogical movement in the U.S. with many comprehensive K-12 schools testing the success of online education. In Ontario, however, these schools exist almost exclusively at the high school level and are designed to help make the high school credit-collecting process more accommodating for traditional students. We are not yet seeing widespread acceptance of the virtual school as a complete replacement for school here in Ontario. But, like night school and summer school, this method of course delivery attempts to inject more flexibility into the traditional high school experience.

Although not the intended audience, homeschoolers have demonstrated great interest in these schools. Virtual schools offer a way to earn high school credits without physically attending school. Students simply apply to enroll in these schools as they would any other traditional high school. Some of these schools even have a “Guidance Department” and can offer academic counseling services.

Is Virtual High Schooling the high school solution homeschoolers have been waiting for?

Maybe, maybe not.

There has been recent opposition by American homeschoolers to implied references to homeschooling and to the use of the term “home schooling” itself in the marketing material of virtual schools. They argue that once homeschoolers register in virtual schools they are no longer true homeschool students, but are instead a subcategory of public students, enrolled in government educational institutions.

Some American homeschoolers see the expansion of virtual schools, especially into the elementary levels (when parents are most likely to homeschool), as an attempt by the government to lure homeschoolers (sometimes unknowingly, and often with enticements such as a free computer on loan) back into the public system. Once registered in a virtual school, families are once again subject to government curriculum and standards.

One concern is that families may unknowingly consent to being pulled back under government control because, while completing virtual studies at home, they overestimate their own control over their children’s education—that is, they consider themselves to still be homeschooling and they believe that they have the same educational freedom they did before. One American family learned that this was not the case when the local public board called requesting updated immunization records shortly after their child enrolled with a virtual school.

Another concern is that if “homeschooling” becomes a commonly accepted term for these students enrolled in virtual, government schools, then it becomes increasingly difficult, from a legal standpoint, to differentiate between those homeschooling through a virtual school and those homeschooling outside the government’s control. Some homeschoolers want to maintain the integrity of their label (and their separate status) to prevent opening the door to further legislation regarding “homeschooled students” as a result of this new educational phenomenon.

Some food for thought:

Virtual Schools are Offered By Public School Boards or Accredited Private Schools

In Ontario, virtual education was initially designed for current public school students who required more flexibility in completing their high school diploma. The intention was not specifically to accommodate homeschoolers. Accordingly, many of the factors built into a public school education are built into a virtual school education:

  • Ministry of Education numbers for each student
  • immunization requirements
  • association with a local school board (note: private schools are considered to be their own “school boards” under the Education Act)
  • standardized test participation
  • Per credit earned: 110 hours of classroom instruction, demonstrated attendance records, compliance with MOE outcomes/standards regarding course content and evaluation.
  • Ministry of Education’s “Full Disclosure” Policy which requires schools to disclose all instances of failing, dropping and repeating a course (with all grades earned) unless a student drops the course early enough in the school year. These virtual courses, and any grades associated with them, will appear on the Ontario Student Transcript and cannot be removed.

Virtual Schools mean Virtual Classrooms, not Independent Study Programs

Since a teacher is teaching the course to a “class” of students, uniform standards are required of all students in the class. While virtual students may have more flexibility in their daily work schedules, there are usually strict classroom deadlines for assignments and daily “attendance” requirements which could include emailing a daily journal to the teacher and/or participating in chatroom discussions at a designated time. Some courses may even involve “group projects.”

Generally, students are required to follow the semester schedule, which allows four months for the timely completion of a course. Failure to complete a course in time results in a permanent failing mark on the student’s official Ontario Student Transcript. (See “Full Disclosure” Policy above.) The student is required to retake the class in its entirety to subsequently earn the credit. homeschooled families who have been used to a more relaxed pace of study, or who have always allowed for “diversions” along the way may find this environment too rigid for their style of homeschooling.

Classroom curriculum has often been pre-designed and there may be little flexibility in the classroom material. Parents have no more say in the content, evaluation and execution of the course than they would in a public or private school. Families who are used to the freedom to choose the topics of study, the learning resources, and the methods of evaluation may suddenly finding themselves drowning in “busy work,” reading inappropriate novels, and skimming over the interesting topics in the course because of a need to keep up with all of the required topics.

Teachers are supervising entire classrooms of students, and may be teaching more than one class, just like in a traditional school. It is still possible to have to compete for the teacher’s attention. Remember the student who was always at the teacher’s desk asking questions? Now he’s emailing her a dozen times each day. The more time she spends responding to his emails, the less time she has to mark assignments, complete her administrative tasks, and correspond with you!

Virtual teachers will likely never meet their students. All evaluation is done on the basis of submitted work. This may not work to every student’s advantage, and may not provide a balanced assessment of your child.

Is Virtual High School Education Right for me?

While virtual schools are appealing for many reasons, each family should decide for itself whether their reasons for homeschooling are supported or undermined by enrolling in these new institutions.

Certainly there are many reasons to embrace virtual high schooling. It does offer parents control over the social environment in which their children pursue their studies, and in many cases, this type of schooling can accommodate students who need day-to-day flexibility in their schedule. The curriculum is ready-made and delivered without any parental involvement, and students can receive credits towards the Ontario High School Diploma. Post-secondary admission becomes a non-issue for those with the provincial diploma.

Asking yourself the following questions should help you decide whether or not virtual high schooling is right for your family:

  • Am I ready, willing and able to let an outside school prescribe my child’s curriculum, even if I am not completely in agreement with what my child seems to be learning?
  • Is it important for my child to be receiving an education that closely follows the government curriculum, and to eventually receive an Ontario High School Diploma?
  • Does my child have the self-discipline, motivation and attention span to follow a prescribed course led by a distant instructor? Will my child make an effort to contact the teacher if he/she encounters problem, and not let problems build unnoticed?
  • Will my child work well in a heavily “graded” (i.e. everything submitted for marks) system? Can my child’s submitted work alone, evaluated by someone who doesn’t know my child, earn the grades that we are hoping to achieve?
  • Can my child comfortably use a computer for long sessions at a time? Can he/she type quickly and accurately enough (or learn to do so) to avoid frustration in completing timed tests online?
  • Am I comfortable with my child becoming a part of the government education system, and will I agree to abide by the accompanying policies and regulations?

If you answered Yes to all of the above questions, then virtual high schooling may be an acceptable option for your family. If, however, you felt uneasy or answered No to any of them, you may need to spend some time considering more deeply whether or not you’re willing to compromise in the ways needed to take virtual high school as a viable option.

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