Distance Learning at the K-12 Level

Distance learning is growing for K-12 Students (Photo by Rep. Keith Ellison)

Distance learning is not just for college and graduate level students. More and more, students have the option of completing classes online before they ever finish high school. Let’s take a look at what Florida is doing, by way of example. Its legislature established Florida Virtual School (FLVS) as the state-wide internet-based public school. FLVS offers courses for all levels, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. The classes range in difficulty from remedial to AP and Honors.

Students may attend virtual classes full-time or part-time, at a brick-and-mortar school in their district, or in the comfort of their own home. In addition, all school districts offer Virtual Instruction Programs, for which they provide their own courses, or partner with FLVS. Virtual Charter Schools offer yet another option for public school students to work completely online, or blend their distance learning with a more traditional method of instruction. Florida recently even began to require that all students complete at least one course online in order to graduate.

It’s easy to see why distance learning is appealing to public officials. Class size amendments apply to brick-and-mortar schools, but not to virtual classrooms. There are no such constraints when it comes to online teaching. Plus, the cost per pupil who is learning online is only about two-thirds that of a student being taught in a traditional classroom.

But there are benefits for the students, too. For those who don’t do well in a traditional classroom, those who require more time to absorb the material, and those who need to make up a missed class, the flexibility accorded by an online class may be just the ticket.

Don’t get the idea that virtual classrooms allow students to slack off, though. FLVS teachers must be certified, just as they are in brick-and-mortar classrooms. Instruction must comply with the Sunshine State Standards, the list of competencies each student must attain at each grade level in seven core subjects. The AP and Honors classes are every bit as rigorous as in traditional classrooms, and students are required to take the AP exams after finishing the course. Indeed, distance learning may provide the only access students in low-performing schools or rural areas have to take those kinds of classes.

Full-time or part-time, seated at school in a computer lab, or relaxing on the couch at home, most students enrolled in distance learning classes are public school students. As such, they are eligible to participate in all the extra-curricular activities that their classmates are involved in, they can apply for whatever scholarships are available to any other public school student, and they will receive a diploma when they graduate. That also means that they are subject to the same end of course (EOC) assessments as other students, and that they must take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) when applicable.

In addition to its in-state instruction, FLVS now offers distance learning all over the world, though non-Florida residents are required to pay tuition for their classes. Distance learning for the K-12 set seems to be the wave of the future. In addition to Florida, another 29 states, and the District of Columbia, have established virtual schools for elementary through high school students. Look for one to spring up in your neighborhood soon.

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