Virtual learning has been taking place in higher education for years and has in more recent times made a breakthrough in elementary and secondary schools. Virtual learning can enhance classroom learning with chat rooms, blogs, video, PowerPoint presentations, and email. These technologies can provide remediation or supplemental teaching, combine classroom and off-site learning, or allow students to learn entirely off-site. Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) permit students more flexibility since they can learn at their own pace and on their own schedules; however, teachers and administrators must be proficient with the technology in order for it to be effective.
Keywords Acceptable-Use Policy (AUP); Differentiated Instruction; E-Learning; Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs); The National Educational Technology Standards for School Administrators (NETS-A); No Child Left Behind (NCLB); Online Education; Virtual Learning Environment (VLE); Virtual School
Technology in Education>Virtual Learning
What is a Virtual Learning Environment?
A Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) refers to computer-based systems that deliver learning materials and instruction via the Internet (Mulrine, 2007), a concept also known as Online Education. VLEs combine web-based methods such as chat rooms, blogs, video files, PowerPoint presentations, and email to enhance learning (Thane, 2007). In addition to college-level virtual learning opportunities, virtual learning in the United States as well as other countries is offered in various formats to students in all grades, beginning in some instances at the Kindergarten level (Gosmire & Grady, 2007). Types of online teaching and learning include supplemental teaching programs that offer remediation or expand on in-class lessons, hybrid courses that take place both on- and off-site, or classes that occur entirely online. (Rohland-Heinrich & Jensen, 2007). Students are able to interact with teachers and fellow classmates as well as pose and answer questions. Many VLE products are also adapted and designed for handheld devices. Currently, these are marketed more toward college- and university-level classes.
Common VLE products include Moodle, Learnwise, Blackboard, or Studywiz (Thane, 2007) all of which provide virtual storage space for teachers to upload learning activities, assessments, and media files for students to access from a computer or mobile device anywhere there is Internet service (Thane, 2007; Benson & Morgan, 2013). Teachers and students in VLEs are often provided with email addresses and a forum for online chats or discussions about the learning material. Some databases have calendars for students to practice time management and a place for parents to observe what students are working on (Thane, 2007).
Most virtual schools are at the high school level, however a growing number are becoming available for middle school and some are geared toward elementary-level students (Robelen, 2007). Virtual schools are-typically supplemental, offering individual courses that students can take to make up classes they failed or to expand on their school’s course offering by taking such enrichment courses as Advanced Placement subjects (Robelen, 2007). As of 2010, more than 70 percent of the school districts in the United States had some form of online learning (Molnar, 2013, p. 10). Most programs are part-time and despite concerns regarding a lack of socialization for full-time virtual learning students as well as the quality of education provided by virtual learning courses, more full-time programs are emerging (Robelen, 2007; Tucker, 2007). Another emerging model is the hybrid course that combines face-to-face time in the classroom with online instruction (Robelen, 2007).
According to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, as of January 2007, over 170 cyber charter schools were in operation, which was up from 89 schools in 2002 (Robelen, 2007; Tucker, 2007). By the 2011–2012 school year, 311 full-time virtual K–12 schools were in operation, enrolling almost 200,000 students. The majority of these schools were for-profit charter schools; the remainder were operated by school districts across the nation (Molner, 2013, pp. 24–25).
The nation’s first state-wide virtual public school, the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), was founded in 1997. It later added a K–8 curriculum. In 2000, the Florida state legislature established FLVS as an independent educational entity with state funding dependent on student performance and enrollment. By 2003, the school recorded 24,000 half-credit enrollments (Young, 2010), and during the 2012–2013 school year, FLVS was being utilized in 47 Florida districts and reported close to 411,000 half-credit completions (Clow, 2013).
The FLVS program offers courses to both part- and full-time students, with part-time students comprised of traditional and homeschooled individuals. Credits for part-time students are typically added to the student’s local school transcript, but the full-time program offers an elementary, middle, and high school curriculum and operates during a traditional 180-day school calendar. In 2013, the first graduating class of FLVS included 250 high school seniors (Florida Virtual School Full Time Host, 2013).
An article published in Education Digest in 2007 stated that technology usage in schools had risen almost 300 percent since the 1970s (Gosmire & Grady, 2007). In 2006, Learning Point Associates estimated that more than 1 million students participated in some form of online learning, and many high schools had added online coursework as a graduation requirement (Rohland-Heinrich & Jensen, 2007). The US Department of Education reported that in 2006 approximately 328,000 public school students in the United States were enrolled in online or video-based education courses (Gosmire & Grady, 2007).
Evolution of Virtual Learning in Public Schools
The first known instance of long-distance learning was seen in a 1728 advertisement in the Boston Gazette for weekly shorthand lessons that would be sent to students through the mail. By the 1990s, the Internet was in more and more homes and classrooms, and the dawn of online education had begun with student access to text and lecture transcriptions, emails, and message board forums. In the early 2000s, technology had advanced, and broadcasting video and audio over the Internet allowed students in a virtual classroom to participate together, which then led to the huge growth of online education opportunities. In 2006, over 3.5 million people were participating in online education in one form or another; by 2009, 96 percent of traditional “brick and mortar” universities were offering online coursework with approximately 45 percent of college students participating in at least one online course. By 2014, it is estimated that over 80 percent of all post-secondary students will be taking at least one of their classes online (Rasmussen College, 2011).
As virtual learning environments became more common at colleges and universities in the 1990s, administrators and teachers in elementary and secondary schools began to consider incorporating online learning into their curriculum (Rohland-Heinrich & Jensen, 2007). Trends in education at that time emphasized individualized, multifaceted methods of instruction, which seemed to be compatible with online learning models (Rohland-Heinrich & Jensen, 2007).
In 1996 President Clinton and US Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley spearheaded the nation’s first education technology plan, which was titled Getting America Ready for the 21st Century: Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge (Trotter, 2003; Office of Educational Technology, 2010a). During the next four years, technology in education remained a priority, and more and more computers in the nation’s classrooms had Internet connections (Trotter, 2003). Critics complained, however, that too many schools were not using technology effectively, and policymakers ultimately realized the importance of spending money to develop teachers’ computer skills (Trotter, 2003).
In 2000, the Department of Education presented a report titled, “e-Learning: Putting a World-Class Education at the Fingertips of all Children,” that reviewed the 1996 technology plan and proposed five new goals for successfully incorporating technology in education. These goals included ensuring every student and teacher in the United States had access to the Internet and to information technology; using technology to achieve and maintain high academic standards; training administrators, teachers, and students in the effective use of information technology; and continuing to research and evaluate technology applications to improve future applications for teaching and learning (Office of Educational Technology, 2010b). …FT.-The 2004 national education technology plan, titled “Toward a New Golden Age in American Education: How the Internet, the Law, and Today’s Students are Revolutionizing Expectations,” built on the previous two plans, adding the goals to improve teacher training in technology, encourage school districts to incorporate high-speed broadband Internet access in school buildings, and to support and develop ways to incorporate the use of digital textbooks and online instruction/e-learning and virtual schools into the national educational fabric. The No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002 was also addressed as the new plan stressed the need to level the technological playing field for all learners in the country (Office of Educational Technology, 2010c).
In 2010, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan presented the National Education Technology Plan 2010 (NETP), which was titled “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology.” The overall goals of the plan were to raise the number of two- and four-year college graduates from 41 percent to 60 percent by 2020 and to “close the achievement gap” so that every US student graduated from high school and was prepared to succeed in a career or in college (Office of Educational Technology, 2010d).
State Legislative Activity Surrounding Virtual Learning
As of 2013, the US government did not have any federal policy in place to expand or regulate virtual education; all significant legislation concerning virtual or online learning has been ratified at the state level. The first annual report by the National Education Policy Center in 2013 noted that from 2001 through 2007, 22 bills were passed to enact or expand online charter schools. Other bills provided legislative support to traditional publicly funded schools to encourage or mandate greater use of information technology and to develop online programs and course offerings (Molnar, 2013, p. 2). From 2008 through 2012, 157 bills in thirty-nine states were passed that were directly related to online and virtual learning (Molnar, 2013, p. 3).
The Appeal of Virtual Learning
School age children today are more familiar with computer technology than any other generation (Rohland-Heinrich & Jensen, 2007). Technology has always been in their lives so it seems logical to intermix virtual with traditional education....
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