Demystifying Cyber Schools — the Benefits of a Virtual Education

Throughout the school year, parents and caregivers everywhere are thinking about and making plans for their children’s education—and there is a lot to think about. Specifically, “what kind of school should my child attend?” With so many options available, from the traditional brick-and-mortar public schools to charter schools to religious schools, students have more educational choices than ever. One option is the increasingly popular and innovative virtual school.

Virtual schools started appearing in the late 1990s and are currently available in several states across the country – including California. According to A National Primer on K-12 Online Learning from the North American Council for Online Learning (April 2007), at the end of 2006, 25 states offered state-led online learning programs, and 18 states were home to 147 virtual charter schools serving over 65,000 students.

Yet, despite the steady growth in interest and enrollment, many people don’t understand how virtual schools work or the numerous benefits they provide – to both students and our education system.

Virtual learning enables school districts to deliver a flexible educational option via the Internet and allows educators to address the specific gifts or challenges of the individual student. Virtual students have notable educational support as they learn from home with parents or caregivers while working with teachers over the Web. Virtual schools typically provide a print-rich curriculum that combines textbooks and hands-on materials along with technology tools.

But what does all that really mean? The benefits of virtual education come in many forms. For the student, “wearing your pajamas to class” may be one of them, but it’s far from the defining characteristic. Above all, students are offered high-quality, highly accountable, individualized learning. Teachers, parents and students work together to plan the educational path that is right for the student. Does the student require additional work in Algebra? Are they interested in learning Chinese? Do they want to focus on one subject for several days? These are the types of questions and options virtual learning affords. With virtual learning, the actual school work and education are the main focus, while the time and place it gets done is secondary.

As a result, virtual schools attract all types of students, resulting in a diverse and unique student body. A typical virtual class may include students who are far ahead of their peers in a traditional setting, as well as those who are behind or require additional assistance in certain areas. Or, students who need a rigorous, yet flexible learning schedule to accommodate a sports or acting career. It also brings together students from different towns. Yet these students are learning together, from each other, and sharing on many levels.

While many parents worry about the social implications of having their children enrolled in a virtual school, many of the schools take this into account and make it easy for the kids to interact with their peers. Some virtual schools provide planned field trips where students can interact with one another in person, and online bulletin boards where kids can talk about the latest Harry Potter movie or meet a new friend with similar interests from another state.

The dedication to your child’s education is also paramount to succeeding in a virtual learning environment. Parents or caregivers directly contribute to and participate in the student’s day-to-day education process while lessons can be delivered when and where it works best for both. For example, Carissa Lim is currently enrolled in a virtual school program and is taught by her mother, Nancy Lim. Carissa is also a gymnast who spends a great deal of time practicing and competing in her sport – a traditional school schedule and environment was challenging and did not support her lifestyle The virtual learning model offers families like the Lims an alternative to public school education with a flexible schedule while still providing an enriched and challenging curriculum.

“My daughter needs an outlet for her athletic passion and personality and she just wasn’t happy in a traditional public school,” said Nancy Lim, a virtual school parent. “Virtual learning allows us to advance in subjects she is interested in and allows her to pursue gymnastics at the same time – I couldn’t ask for a better arrangement.”

Parents of students in virtual schools consistently give high remarks on their children’s education. For families who find that traditional schools are not providing the individualized attention they want, virtual schools continue to provide a highly effective and successful alternative.

Jonathan Horowitz Ed.D. currently serves as principal of Capistrano Connections Academy and oversees Central California Connections Academy. Horowitz has more than 25 years of experience in education in California. He resides in Capistrano Beach with his wife, Debbie, a college guidance counselor.