Interest in virtual education is rising across Georgia for families who want an alternative to traditional public schools, causing a significant increase in enrollment at the major online providers this academic year.
Proponents say the schools offer an individualized learning environment and a flexible schedule for students who are involved in sports or other hobbies. With the passage of The Digital Learning Act in 2012, which will require all students entering high school during the 2013-14 year to complete one online course before graduation, educators expect Web-based learning to grow.
“What we’ve seen is an overwhelming demand from parents, and what we’ve seen in Georgia is unprecedented across the country,” said Matt Arkin, the head of school for Georgia Cyber Academy, the largest online charter school in the state. “It’s a demand from students and parents across the state for more and better options.”
Georgia Cyber Academy reached 12,000 students this year, an increase of about 2,000 from 2011-12. Georgia Connections Academy, which launched in 2011, has an enrollment of 2,000 students, up from 737 last year.
Both operate as charter schools approved by the state and, like traditional schools, follow state curriculum. They receive per-student state funding and are required to administer standardized tests as traditional public schools do.
Georgia Connections Academy Principal Heather Robinson said her virtual school provides a flexibility that brick-and-mortar schools cannot. Students have a seat-time requirement and daily lesson plan but can approach that plan when and how they see fit. They can tackle language arts or math anytime they please and decide what time to begin the school day.
Teachers host live sessions each week, and recordings of lectures are accessible to students whenever they want to play a lesson back.
She said many students come to her school for flexibility because of travel for sports or other hobbies, but also because of bullying or falling behind in traditional school.
“We are providing a quality instructional experience,” Robinson said. “We have caring, high-quality teachers whose sole existence in doing this job is moving students from one level to the next.”
Arkin said students can receive daily interaction with teachers and other students at Georgia Cyber Academy. The 350 teachers develop individualized lesson plans for each student and offer office hours for conferences, much like in a college setting.
“They get to know their students better in the virtual environment than in the traditional classroom,” Arkin said. “The point of GCA isn’t to be a virtual school but to be an individualized school. Virtual is just a means to that end.”
Despite the benefits, virtual learning has raised questions about the experiences online students might miss out on, in addition to the academic performance that might be lacking.
Virtual schools in Georgia have fallen behind traditional public school districts in standardized testing results, even if by slight percentages in certain subjects.
As do all public schools in the state, virtual charter schools must provide individualized learning and support for special-education students. The Georgia Department of Education threatened to pull Georgia Cyber Academy’s charter late last year after a report showed deficiencies in addressing special needs.
However, there are also options for students who only want to complete certain courses online.
Georgia Virtual School, which is run by the state Department of Education, allows students to take virtual classes while still attending their regular schools.
Superintendent of Instructional Technology Christina Clayton said the virtual school benefits students who want to get ahead in a certain subject, those who need extra time to catch up or who have scheduling conflicts at their regular schools.
It also opens doors for students in rural districts, where some Advanced Placement courses or electives might not be offered.
With more textbooks and instruction becoming Web based in traditional public schools, Clayton said she sees a gradual move to virtual learning in the future.
“With online learning, the consumer will drive the demand,” Clayton said. “What we’re trying to do is embrace what’s happening on the online environment and thread that into the face-to-face learning … I see it for Georgia to be a phased and staged application, and that’s the smart way to do it.”