Kim Roberts; Michigan Connections Academy
Kim Roberts, an elementary teacher with the Michigan Connections Academy, interacts with students online. View a video about virtual learning in Michigan’s schools at www.mackinac.org/14439.

Technological advancements that took place between 1900 and 2000 dramatically altered almost every level of human activity. The advancements in transportation, science, medicine, engineering, agriculture and energy were truly revolutionary.

 Yet while people’s lives were steadily improving as a result of these innovations, the methods for educating children largely remained unchanged. The buildings are bigger today, there are “smart” boards and other technology in classrooms, but the overarching approach to teaching is more similar to the way it was done in 1900 than it is different. We still haul kids to a central location, sit them in a classroom with a teacher for several hours a day and expect them to learn.

This isn’t an indictment — most of the technological and scientific advancements wouldn’t have had much of an impact on education one way or another. And most of the time, learning does occur in the traditional classroom environment. But the real question is whether or not we can now do it better, with computer and Internet technologies challenging the notion that the best way to teach kids is in a one-size-fits-all classroom setting.

This new phenomenon is known by many different names: online education, digital learning, virtual schooling or distance learning. No matter what’s it called, the use of the power of computer software and the Internet can revolutionize how schools operate, so much so that maybe a century from now they’ll list virtual schooling has one of the amazing innovations of the previous century.

Virtual learning is using digital technology to deliver instruction to students. Sometimes this just means students log on to a computer for a course during their regular school day and learn through the computer software program instead of using the traditional method of relying on a face-to-face interaction with a teacher. Other virtual learning programs don’t require students to attend school at all — the entire interaction with the teacher occurs through the Internet. Instruction can be delivered in real-time through streaming lectures and live group discussions can happen through group chat programs. With the power of the Internet, nearly all the interactions that a student might experience in a classroom can be realized remotely.

Unleashing the power of these new technologies in the area of teaching has led to some very inventive courses. Florida Virtual School, for example, offers a history course called “Conspiracy Code” that is a fully interactive, three-dimensional video game. Students explore a fictional world and uncover history-based clues to progress through the game. Online teachers provide assistance and facilitation, and students engage in some traditional coursework, like writing essays, participating in discussion groups and taking tests. But the history lessons are delivered through the interaction with the game, not through a classroom lecture or textbook.

For one reason or another, some people are skeptical about the ability of students to learn through these electronic media. When you consider that nearly everyone alive today was schooled in the traditional face-to-face method, it’s understandable why some might hesitate to give virtual learning a fair shake. A common criticism posited from skeptics is that kids can’t learn by just sitting in front of a computer.

On its face, that may be true. But virtual learning is much more than passively contemplating a computer. It’s interacting with material and immersing oneself in a learning environment. It’s asking questions and doing original research. It’s taking assessments and working to master different skills. In the end, virtual learning, although it occurs through a computer, can be designed in such a way as to replicate all of the traditional classroom functions that students have performed for centuries.

Perhaps these same people would have made the same complaint when Gutenberg invented the printing press — after all, everyone knows that you can’t learn from just reading a book! In some ways books could be seen as the first form of “virtual learning,” because students could learn from a teacher without having the lesson come directly out of the teacher’s mouth. The current concept of virtual learning is not much different, and in many ways is significantly better than just learning from a book.

Another common criticism is that students will miss out on the human interaction that is inherent in a face-to-face environment. This seems plausible — students’ relationships with their teachers are often considered critical to helping students develop a love of learning and a motivation to succeed. If you talk to online teachers and students, however, many of them will report that they actually feel more connected to each other in a virtual environment than in a classroom setting. Because communication can take place at any time and in any place, teachers find it easier to provide students with more one-on-one attention.

Individualization of the instruction is just one advantage virtual learning has over the traditional face-to-face classroom setting. For instance, in a typical classroom, teachers are forced to measure and teach to the average pace of the collective class. This is extremely difficult because not all students learn the same material at the same pace. In fact, most students learn different material within a particular subject at different paces: a student might be able to breeze right through the Pythagorean theorem but get hung up on distinguishing congruent triangles.

In a virtual environment, however, each student can learn at his or her own pace, completely independent from the progress of the rest of the class. Software programs can detect how well students understand particular concepts, increasing the pace when students are clicking along and slowing down when things become difficult. Even when the instruction is delivered live by a teacher through the Internet, these sessions can be recorded and played back in their entirety — affording students who need extra work on a particular lesson the ability to replay the material without worrying about what their peers might think.

Indeed, working in an individualized learning environment through a computer software program or the Internet can set students free from certain levels of peer pressure that may prevent them from realizing their full learning potential. For instance, there’s an old teaching adage that “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” But every student knows better. If a student asks a “stupid question,” they’ll hear about it later from their peers. Conversely, some students might hold back their performance in the classroom for fear of being labeled a “nerd.” In a personalized learning environment, however, many of these types of adverse peer pressures disappear as students are free to move through and master the curriculum at their own pace — without having to worry about how their peers will judge them.

Michigan traditionally has been seen as a leader in online learning. Michigan Virtual School was one of the first state virtual schools in the country and currently enrolls more students in virtual learning courses than any other program or school in the state. Students signed up for more than 14,000 different courses offered through MVS in 2009. Additionally, in 2006, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed into law a new high school requirement that all students take at least one online course or “learning experience” in order to graduate.

Another leader in virtual learning in Michigan’s public schools is “GenNET,” a program run by the Genesee Intermediate School District. GenNET grants access to any student in Michigan to 900 different online courses. While GenNET does not actually provide the instruction through these courses, it monitors quality and coordinates access and enrollment in the courses. GenNET acts more like a portal to these online courses through a wide variety of course providers, many of which cost a fraction of what it costs a local district to provide the same course to individual students.

Many other districts throughout the state are creating their own online programs to engage students that for whatever reason are not being served well in the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. Students who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out are the most likely to benefit from these kind of online programs. Students who are struggling to keep up with their grade level or who are soaring ahead can also benefit, since virtual learning programs allow them the flexibility to retake difficult material or take on more if desired.

Michigan also has two virtual charter schools that serve students in grades K-12 from all around the state. These two schools began operating last fall and quickly filled their legislatively mandated enrollment cap.

Based on the potential benefits that virtual learning can provide, Michigan should make this opportunity available to more students. Current law limits the virtual learning opportunities for students, especially if they are interested in a full-time online program. States like Minnesota and Florida have policies that enable students and parents a wider range of choices to enroll in online courses, and the demand for these courses has only grown (as it has in Michigan, despite the legal limitations).

It should be noted that online learning might not be the right fit for every student. Some virtual courses, especially full-time online ones that don’t require any regular school attendance, are best designed for students who are highly motivated and organized. Having an appropriate amount of support either at home or elsewhere is also important when taking a full-time online course.

That doesn’t mean that only high-achieving students can benefit, though. In fact, many students who have become disengaged from the conventional classroom are some of the first ones to try virtual learning. Many of the first programs established around the state were specifically geared to serve students who’ve dropped out, are homebound, have been expelled or suspended, or are at risk of failing. Additionally, the number of different types of courses that exist is ever-expanding, and companies are constantly attempting to make their courses appeal to as many students as possible.

Challenging high-achievers to accomplish more and re-engaging students who’ve become disinterested are worthwhile goals. But virtual learning can provide even greater gains. This technology holds the potential to break down many of the disparities that have developed between different types of schools and districts based mainly on geographical or socio-economic factors.

With online learning, students are no longer limited to the types of courses or instructional quality of their local school. All students could theoretically sign up for the very best courses taught by the very best teachers. Students in Detroit, the Upper Peninsula, Bloomfield Hills and Kalamazoo would all have the ability to take any of the courses that most aptly fit their particular goals and learning plan.

The virtual learning phenomenon is growing at a remarkable pace — the International Association for K-12 Online Learning estimates that there are now 1.5 million students in the United States that take at least one online class. Since this new mode of delivering instruction holds potential to increase students’ learning opportunities and better meet their individual and diverse needs, Michigan schools should look for ways to make more of these courses available to more students.