March/April 2002 // Virtual High School
ABCs of the Virtual High School
by Kathryn Winograd
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Kathryn Winograd "ABCs of the Virtual High School" The Technology Source, March/April 2002. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The concept of the virtual high school (VHS), in which secondary school students have access to courses online, is fast becoming a widespread reality. According to Clark (2001), 14 states have "a planned or operational state-sanctioned, state-level virtual school in place" (p. i.). Clark estimates that 40,000 to 50,000 K-12 students will become "virtual" in the next year. In this time of national re-assessment of our educational system, what promises and challenges does the virtual high school hold for our students? To find answers to this question, we sought out five emergent leaders in the virtual high school world: Nancy Davis, executive director, and Michelle Lavra, communications manager, of the Michigan Virtual High School; Francisco J. Hernandez, executive director of the University of California College Preparatory Initiative; Linda Pittenger, director of the Kentucky Virtual High School; Raymond Rose, vice president of The Concord Consortium; Matthew Wicks, director of virtual learning for Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and co-chair of the Illinois Virtual High School Steering Committee; and Julie Young, director of the Florida Virtual High School.

Kathy Winograd: The virtual high school is a relatively new concept, and many people do not understand what it is or what need it addresses. Can you briefly describe your program and what the impetus was for its development?

Nancy Davis/Michelle Lavre: The Michigan Virtual High School, a part of Michigan Virtual University, began in July 2000 when the Michigan state legislature approved three years of start-up funding for the project. The intention was a) to significantly expand curricular offerings for high schools across the state of Michigan through agreements with school districts or by license from other recognized providers, and b) to create a statewide instructional model using interactive multimedia tools delivered by electronic means—including, but not limited to, the Internet, digital broadcast, and satellite networks for distributed learning at the high school level. MVHS does not grant diplomas or award degrees; no students can "graduate" from MVHS. Instead, we were designed to add value to the existing high school structure in the state, and potentially to draw some students back who may be home schooled.

Francisco Hernandez: The University of California College Preparatory Initiative is a project to provide online college preparatory courses to high school students who otherwise would not have the opportunity to take advanced placement (AP) or honors courses. We adapt, adopt or develop courses to deliver online to students in those California public high schools lacking sufficient numbers of college prep courses. Our project was one of several initiatives within the state to increase college opportunities for all of California's students. By successfully completing AP and honors courses, high school students can increase their chances of competing successfully for college admission.

Linda Pittenger: Governor Paul Patton made the decision to create a virtual learning opportunity for Kentucky's high school students in fall 1999. He committed every Kentucky school, especially small schools and schools in high poverty areas, to providing a rigorous curriculum that supports continuous progress for every student. "Every student" requires that KVHS support learners all along the spectrum—those struggling in traditional classrooms and in need of acceleration, as well as those capable of working at very advanced levels. KVHS was also created to demonstrate how teaching and learning can be transformed through e-learning, whether e-learning occurs at a distance or in a traditional classroom setting.

Raymond Rose: The Concord Consortium developed a virtual high school as part of a technology innovation challenge grant proposal in conjunction with the Hudson Massachusetts Public Schools. This school served as a vehicle to increase the range and number of courses available for schools across the country. The key feature of the concept is its cooperative nature, which has resulted in a large number of high quality courses available to participating schools at a relatively low cost.

Matthew Wicks: To quote from our mission statement, the Illinois Virtual High School is intended "to provide Illinois students and their teachers with increased equity and access to the highest quality educational opportunities." We don't replace the local school; rather, we partner with them to supplement the curriculum at the local school, offering courses ranging from remedial courses to advanced placement and everything in between. The key is to expand the options available to all students, whether they be students who do not have specific courses available at their schools, or students whose learning styles are more compatible with an online offering.

Julie Young: As an on-line high school, the Florida Virtual High School (FLVS) is unique from other secondary schools in that it does not have physical facilities. FLVS students, support staff, and teachers can be anywhere in the state or the world. This offers an unprecedented degree of access and flexibility in serving the unique needs of secondary school students everywhere. Begun in the fall of 1998 with approximately 1,400 student enrollments in 33 course offerings, FLVS anticipates over 7,000 student enrollments in 62 courses by the close of the 2001-2002 school year. FLVS offers a full high school curriculum complete with advanced placement, core courses, and elective courses. Through the One Florida Initiative, Governor Jeb Bush has allocated specific funds to serve the unique needs of rural and low-performing Florida schools, and to promote choice in education opportunities throughout the state.

Kathy Winograd: Certainly the national spotlight has been on the quality of education within our public schools. What challenges or solutions will the virtual high school offer as the nation continues to look for fundamental changes in the way we teach and assess our children?

Nancy Davis/Michelle Lavre: MVHS has developed course standards that focus on the varying levels of online learning, ranging from self-paced to highly interactive course experiences. The quality of our courses must meet our own Michigan Curriculum Standards Framework, and we are also aligned with national standards where available. Moreover, we are training Michigan teachers, certified in their subject area, to develop with us and to teach courses that we broker and license from other providers. Our online instructors are learning ways to embed technology into their "in-seat" or real time classes. This blended or "hybrid" approach offers students wider access to content and various kinds of learning tools, a better "fit" for some students in terms of learning styles, and prized technology skills that will impact their futures in both higher education and work.

Francisco Hernandez: We offer a way to provide a college preparatory curriculum to a larger proportion of students. While some students are prepared to take such courses, they often do not have access to them at their high schools. High schools can complement their face-to-face instruction with college prep courses online. We exploit high-quality online instruction to expand the delivery of a rich curriculum and in that way provide for more college-going opportunities.

Linda Pittenger: Virtual high schools are not only delivery systems for online learning, they can also function as policy levers. As they offer an opportunity for public school systems to expand and improve services, they can also function as a competitive force within the public education system by introducing new choices. These choices will challenge the status quo on issues of instructional equity, the quality of teaching, and the way schools are organized to deliver services. Is the point to perpetuate status quo or to explore potential ways to address the needs of learners more rapidly and more strategically?

Raymond Rose: Teachers in our virtual high school report that they have made changes in their face-to-face classrooms as a direct result of rethinking instructional practices while developing and leading their online courses. It is clear that face-to-face education is not effective for all students. Some students who have problems in a traditional brick-and-mortar environment will find success in online education. At the same time, learning that occurs in distance learning courses, self-paced online courses, or collaborative teacher-led online courses can differ significantly. To discuss these courses as if they were all the same does a disservice to the whole field.

Matthew Wicks: Virtual high schools give students access to courses that may not be available at their local schools. This is especially important for smaller schools. But the real strengths of virtual high schools are those aspects that are unique to online courses, such as the opportunity for teachers to interact with students in a more individualized manner. Currently, we don't really know all the strengths unique to online education, but as we gain experience, we will discover them (as well as the weaknesses). Then we can create a customized educational program of face-to-face and online courses that provides the optimal educational experience for any given student.

Julie Young: The challenges are known: the "digital divide," adequate funding, reading and writing skills, and the provision of specific student skills that will mean success online. Still emerging are the solutions that online learning can provide to age-old challenges in the classroom: equal access for all students to courses needed for graduation, individualized learning environments, lack of peer pressure and the leveling of the playing field, a shift in teaching and learning that allows teachers and students to work collaboratively on problem-solving activities in an interactive environment, knowledge of technology needed for the workplace, and, finally, the opportunity for educators to collaborate and work as a team.

Kathy Winograd: How do you see the virtual high school evolving over the next five years and what questions need to be answered before that evolution can occur?

Nancy Davis/Michelle Lavre: Our goal is to help all schools in Michigan integrate the concept of virtual learning into the curriculum and their operations. Potentially, having Michigan high schools require at least one online class for graduation may occur within five years. To reach this goal, MVHS will continue to add new courses at a variety of learning levels. For example, we will launch the Math, Science and Technology Academy, the first of several planned academies that will group courses and activities into selected content paths; we will also assist schools in identifying curriculum gaps that online courses can fill. Professional development for teachers in the effective uses of online technology for the traditional classroom will also be a priority for MVHS. Overall, closing the "digital divide" is as crucial for Michigan as it is for other states. Michigan's governor is therefore seeking to provide connectivity throughout the state, and to rectify disparities in number and capacity of computers which cause disparity in access.

Francisco Hernandez: Our program will evolve by significantly increasing the number of students and high schools served (6,000 students in over 450 high schools across 58 California counties) and offering a full array of college prep courses. But this growth can only occur if we address the questions related to the successful development of a virtual school management structure. Can we recruit and train administrators, staff, teachers, mentors, and technologists who can be successful in cyberschooling? Can we develop systems that will identify participants, register students, deliver courses, maintain transcripts, order textbooks, track student progress, issue reports, foster communication, and do it quickly and efficiently? Yes, we can.

Linda Pittenger: Virtual schooling blurs the lines between many frameworks that we take for granted today and will lead some systems to disassemble them. In their current form, these frameworks are often limiting: the funding mechanisms that draw a line between learning in the physical school and what happens away from the normal school day; policies regarding teacher recruitment, compensation, and retention; strategies that locate the least effective teachers in the poorest, most struggling schools; school policies confining middle school age students to a middle school level curriculum and preventing high school seniors from pursuing college-level work; policies that make it difficult for a drop-out to re-enter the education system or complete a diploma and hold a job. Equity will be a key factor during this transformation—if dramatic changes do not occur in schools with the largest achievement gaps and whose need for change is greatest, then they will not be leading but lagging behind in this evolution. Our failures will widen gaps rather than diminish them.

Raymond Rose: The current model for education is based on a standard of measuring learning based on seat-time. Virtual high school programs are currently restricted by having to fit into the brick-and-mortar model for schools. We need to acknowledge that this model does not result in the most effective approach to learning for everyone. Once we overcome the existing face-to-face bias, then I believe that we can develop powerful, technology-based approaches to learning. When we do that, kids everywhere will be able to learn better. That's the evolution in virtual education we are hoping to influence.

Matthew Wicks: I see two significant changes in virtual high schools. First, I see virtual high schools expanding to serve students first in middle schools and then in elementary schools. Second, I see virtual courses becoming a very common experience for students prior to graduating from high school. I think these changes are natural, and the only question is how fast they will occur.

Julie Young: I believe virtual learning will become commonplace and part of almost every high school's curriculum and every student's transcript. With the deepening budget cuts, brick-and-mortar schools will have to make every effort to find creative and cost-effective solutions to continue providing the same quality of educational opportunities for their students. Distance learning is one of those solutions. Distance learning will no longer be considered a choice, but a necessity.

Kathy Winograd: In the 90's when the online classroom first broke through the stalwart towers of higher education, advocates heralded its "anywhere, anytime" nature and recognized its potential to extend education opportunities to the "have-nots"—whether they be the geographically-remote, the physically challenged, or simply the adult learner, time-bound by work and family obligations. But in this time of national self-assessment, the virtual high schools here represent the profound discovery, at all levels of education, of how technology can fundamentally affect the ways in which our students learn and our teachers teach. Yesterday, the paralyzed were shuttled in wooden wheelchairs. Today, I read of a man who, given the tools of technology, can now walk three football fields on his own. The virtual high school is a new phenomenon. We are just beginning to understand what it heralds.


Clark, T. (2001). Virtual schools: Trends and issues. Phoenix, AZ: WestEd/Distance Learning Resource Network.

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