By Dr. Linda G. Roberts and Chuck Olson
We’re at an interesting moment in the history of online education. Non-profit providers like The Virtual High School (VHS) have proven that high-quality courses can be effectively delivered by skilled teachers online. This innovation has increased access to critical educational options and valuable enrichment for hundreds of thousands of students.
Concurrently, profit-motivated players have offered online courses of questionable quality and drawn off funding from schools that are already financially stretched. Schools are left facing the challenge of sorting out the good from the bad. Sadly, many states have imposed indiscriminate barriers to keep out the undesirable online providers. These barriers make it almost impossible for high-quality national non-profit organizations to reach more students.
This isn’t a new problem. States have been putting up barriers, like requiring locally-certified teachers for every class taught within their borders, for decades. This broad-brush approach to restricting online education is making it difficult for legitimate providers to do what they set out to do: provide new and innovative learning opportunities to all students who could benefit.
It pains us to see this trend continuing in a world where online learning could be leveling the playing field for students – especially those who are in rural areas of the nation, inner city youths, struggling learners, or are at an educational disadvantage compared to their peers. These students don’t have access to the full range of courses that would help them get into high-quality universities and colleges or move into careers that would be beneficial and profitable for them and their communities. They are unable to benefit from courses taught by certified, qualified teachers in hard-to-fill areas, like computer science, if those teachers hold certifications from other states. All students should have access to qualified, certified teachers – regardless of their geographic location or economic circumstances.
Schools in many locations struggle to offer their students a full menu of courses due to funding issues and the challenge of finding qualified teachers in every subject. Online education offers a solution. It can be used to fill gaps in a school’s course offerings and can be delivered locally to students within their own schools. This value proposition was evident more than 20 years ago, when VHS got its start (in 1996) by winning one of the earliest Technology Innovation Challenge Grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology.
Selected by an expert panel that reviewed many different proposals, this was a unique, exciting, and innovative program for its time. Its basis was the idea that there were teachers nationwide who were leaders in their respective fields, and who could be tapped for their expertise. Because instruction would be Internet-based, the organization would be able to teach students at their own local schools, and do it in a very collaborative, research-based way. Suddenly, a team of expert educators with specialized skills was made available so that all students could benefit.
Fast-forward to 2019, and we’re pleased that this online program is still going strong. An investment by the federal government more than 20 years ago has not only lasted but has grown significantly. What started as a federally-funded program that was essentially free to schools is now sustainably funded by participating schools.
Part of that success is due to a strong Board of Directors, which is comprised of teachers, administrators, technology professionals, and a few businesspeople. While many for-profit vendors have predominantly businesspeople on their board, VHS has had at least one teacher sitting on the board every single day of its existence. This speaks to the value it places on education first.
Even with all of these “wins,” supplemental online education continues to struggle to define its place on the educational spectrum.
As a non-profit, VHS puts its resources back into its programs and courses to ensure they are providing the best services to their schools. Those efforts are paying off for students and schools that can access the program. Their students are doing remarkably well on Advanced Placement® (AP®) exams and have exceeded the national average pass rates for over 10 years. Schools continue to renew and stay with the program in a sector where no institution can afford to keep spending in exchange for mediocre results. Schools love its small online classrooms, the ability for students to collaborate with other students from around the world, and most of all, the courses taught by certified, qualified teachers who are experts in their field, who guide students, and who help them learn and succeed.
Unfortunately, supplemental online learning continues to be the hidden gem of the educational world, whereas the spotlight has been put on the failures of full-time for-profit online programs. Looking ahead, we hope that some of the barriers that have prevented students, school districts, and communities from taking advantage of what online learning has to offer will start to come down. Those obstacles include state-specific certification requirements for teachers, state-specific regulations, and the demand that online courses be mapped out to certain state vs. national standards.
These and other barriers deprive schools of the opportunity to broaden the resources available to their students by using centralizing resources across state lines. Everyone knows that you can’t deliver AP® physics face-to-face to just four students in your rural school, for example, and that no school can afford to do that on its own. The Western Maine Education Collaborative (WMEC) serves five counties spanning more than 5,000 miles, 50 towns, 11 diverse school districts and 14,000 students in grades K-12 that are challenged by a lack of resources. That changed when WMEC started working with VHS in 2008. “The rigor of their courses, combined with the large variety they offer,” said a district spokesperson, “has enabled our district to accommodate students who need more advanced courses or are looking for something different.”
This leading online learning provider sets a very high bar for teachers as teachers are at the heart of the community and collaboration that is required for students to be most successful online. VHS is not against certifying teachers, but its philosophy is that those teachers should come from a wide range of places so that the overall pool of quality teachers is expanded, and all students can benefit. Over the last 23 years, the organization has more than proven its effectiveness and has no intention of taking its foot off that pedal. It sticks to a simple mission of providing students and teachers with collaborative and engaging learning opportunities. It delivers high quality content to schools that need it, whose students wouldn’t otherwise have access to this coursework.
What excites us right now is figuring out how to creatively solve some of the problems that are standing in the way of online education getting to the students and schools who need it most.
About the authors:
Dr. Linda G. Roberts is a member of the VHS Board of Directors and is best known as the former Director of the U.S. Department of Educational Technology and for her role as the Secretary of Education’s Special Adviser on Technology, both under the Clinton Administration. A former elementary school teacher, university professor, and Academic Dean, Roberts’ illustrious career includes developing our nation’s first National Technology Plan, launching five new technology programs (including the Technology Innovation Challenge Grants) for the Clinton Administration, and increasing the federal technology budget.
Chuck Olson is Chairman of the Board at VHS. He has over 30 years of executive experience in product vision, development, and business development strategy in educational technology. Olson co-founded and is a partner at LTGO; growing ed tech development companies, building award-winning products, and establishing partnerships for firms such as Scholastic, HMH, Discovery Education, McGraw Hill, Cengage, and others.
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