There is a new emphasis being placed on virtual academies in the K-12 virtual learning space. However, these academies are not really new—they’ve been used since the 1990s to serve students with unique educational needs (e.g., athletes and actors). Today, though, they’re seeing a resurgence fueled by the sudden necessity for virtual learning and the realization that it represents an option that can add flexibility and value well into the future.
Virtual academies are for families and students who have chosen to go all-in with virtual learning. They provide the structure of formal schooling with the added flexibility that provides options for when and where to access learning.
The History of Virtual Academies
Virtual academies, or the concept that we now consider to be a virtual academy, emerged as technology made it possible to deliver education outside the physical classroom. The concept was initially led by Florida Virtual School, which opened its charter school in 1997 using the technology available at that time—telephones. A decade later, more advanced technology like learning management systems was used to provide virtual schooling, with North Carolina being an early adopter in 2007. In 2009, the Obama administrator fueled the movement by pledging $500 million for the development of online learning courses.
Even Florida Virtual School has seen a dramatic increase in enrollment since the pandemic—it’s “up 54 percent year over year for its individual online course offerings and 64 percent for full-time programs,” according to Education Week. They’re not the only ones. According to the article: “The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School filled up months before it usually starts receiving the bulk of new applicants. An Oklahoma virtual charter school earlier this summer was enrolling 1,000 students a day. Enrollment in virtual schools is also up in Connecticut, Ohio, and Wisconsin.”
Historically, virtual academy options have been used by student-athletes, performers and others for whom the traditional K-12 learning models simply weren’t practical. Now, of course, because of the move to online learning prompted by the pandemic, the concept of virtual academies has a broader appeal.
Since the concept of virtual academies has been more limited in the past, this widespread interest is gaining the attention of legislators now grappling with how these virtual schools should be managed. This could include requirements related to the number of instructional days or hours—basically translating the requirements of a traditional physical environment into the virtual space.
Serving Specialized Niches and Offering New Options
Virtual academies have also offered niche opportunities for learning in specialized areas. Music is just one example. Forbes Music Company, for instance, has been offering a virtual academy environment since 2004. Founder and CEO Curtis Forbes says: “Though it began out of necessity, virtual education has swept the nation, and people are beginning to see the benefits. Remote learning is an excellent option in terms of flexibility, as the virtual lessons can be tailored to the exact learning style of the student. What’s more, students can learn at their own pace, in comfortable surroundings, without the pressures of a traditional classroom environment.”
For K-12 school districts, virtual academies represent another element of their system in addition to their physical school locations. Students in the virtual academies would still be part of the larger district and are still able to participate in district activities—e.g., sports and other extracurricular activities, advanced courses, etc.
The pandemic has fueled the movement, of course. What was previously more of an option at the high school level is now extending to all levels of K-12 education. Teaching during the pandemic has provided insights into how student education and engagement at all levels can be aided through technology. Technology offers the ability to provide both synchronous and asynchronous instruction, the ability to work in small groups through breakout rooms, and a wide range of other virtual options that offer variety and flexibility for both teachers and students.
Best Practice and Must-Haves for Virtual Academies
There are at least two elements of the virtual academy experience that represent important best practices: finding the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous delivery and evaluating and improving teacher competencies. It’s not that the role of the teacher is de-emphasized in the virtual environment–it’s just that it’s changed. Teachers must still be considered at the center of the learning experience when designing instruction. They play a critical role as creators and facilitators of learning experiences.
Technology matters too. As Forbes stresses, remote learning isn’t “automatically superior to in-person instruction.” Without the right tools, he says, “quite the opposite is true.” And, he adds, engagement is a must. “It can be difficult for remote students to stay focused when communication happens through a screen. We’ve found that short bursts and a wide variety of activities are more useful in a virtual education than the lengthier activities associated with in-person lessons, as they can help combat the greater potential for distraction we see online.”
What’s really being driven home so impactfully today is the importance of personal choices and family options. The new opportunity for school systems is to provide choices—including virtual academies–not instead of, but in addition to, other educational options. School systems now hold the potential to do a better job of serving all learners. More options mean more opportunities to ensure that “no child is left behind.” The virtual learning environment holds promise for K-12 school children regardless of individual skills, preferences, or disabilities, as well as opportunities to offer options designed to provide students with access to high-quality education wherever and whenever they need access. Virtual academies represent the best of teachers and technology coming together to think about different—and better—ways to engage and educate students.
Class is poised to help by providing the infrastructure to support districts in creating, generating and deploying virtual academies as part of their full suite of educational options. Get started today with a free demo.