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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Virtual Classroom: Online Learning

Virtual schools make available a world of new courses -- from obscure electives to Advanced Placement classes -- that challenge students intellectually and open up new doors educationally. More to this story.

Teacher: So boys and girls, right now what we're gonna do is we're gonna log onto the internet, but I know--

Narrator: The internet has facilitated a whole new world of learning.

Teacher: Where is Miss Junie to right now?

Costa Rica.

Costa Rica, good.

Narrator: Connecting people and cultures that are worlds apart.

Narrator: Increasingly, the internet also provides an alternative to traditional classroom instruction. Virtual classes that are open twenty-four seven to students like these sophomores at Daniel Jenkins School in Haines City, Florida.

Pat: Here at Daniel Jenkins, the students actually come to school and do their classes online. And normally, most of the students would actually do this lab at home, but getting oysters and squids in this area is kind of hard for the students, so I was able to obtain those and bring them out and actually interact with the students.

Does everybody see something that's kinda silvery shiny?

Out of the close to two hundred students that I'll deal with this year, I will only see maybe ten of those students, so this is really a great opportunity as an instructor to get to meet my students face to face.

This is all part of the reproductive system.

Narrator: Pat Kretzer believes she can relate to her students better in a virtual classroom than in a real one.

Pat: Being the online instructor, you have a more personal relationship with your students, because we do interact with them online, on the phone. You can really get to know them better. And you can also identify their strengths and weaknesses much more quickly, I think, than in the regular classroom, because I deal with them only when I'm working with them. If I need to take two hours with that student to help them, then I take two hours with that student.

Hi, Chelsea, uh-huh. All right, which clues do we need to do?

Narrator: Kretzer designs and teaches her courses through the Florida Virtual School. Established in two thousand, the nation's first internet based public school offers virtual learning options for grades seven through twelve.

Julie: We offer a full high school curriculum and they are all the courses that a student would actually need to graduate to get a diploma. Although we don't offer a diploma and that is by design. Our role, here in the state of Florida, is to actually fill the gaps of our public and our private schools. For example, our rural districts have less access to high quality courses and high quality teachers. Online learning brings that to their doorstep.

Narrator: In rural West Virginia, schools are now required to offer foreign languages in seventh and eighth grade. But in small towns like Fayetteville, there aren't enough qualified teachers to do the job.

Narrator: West Virginia Virtual School provides a solution, with teachers like Joyce McClanahan, who is lead teacher for twenty-one Spanish classes in fifteen different West Virginia middle schools.

Joyce: Jesus, we must use the infinitive after [Spanish].

Now I actually don't start teaching till about a quarter till eight and I teach basically forty-five minute classes. My school day generally ends around three thirty, and then after a short break, students will start calling if they need extra help at night. So the job usually goes to about ten at night.

Teacher: Okay, good, let's do a sound check real quick and if it's all right, then we'll go ahead and get started.

Narrator: There aren't enough qualified teachers for every course in the Las Vegas school system either, in part, because Clark County accepts fifteen thousand new students each year. To address that shortage, and to save money on bricks and mortar, the county offers some forty-five hundred students virtual courses in everything from public health to microeconomics.

Mike: You had the full period to do this.

Narrator: Like many of his students, geometry teacher Mike Patterson now splits his time between real classrooms and virtual ones.

Mike: I'm able to interact on a live white board with the students. They raise their hand and I see them in front of me. We speak through the mic.

If you look at your work and see if you should have been adding instead of multiplying them.

As a teacher, I also have some flexibility. I'm not run bell by bell. I can grade papers on the front porch. It's a very different kind of an experience, a very fun one for me. It's very invigorating to my teaching career to try something like this.

Narrator: For students, virtual schools offer the opportunity to take courses not available at their regular schools, and to fit them into their individual schedules. While most of her fellow students are hitting the books at ten AM, Zoe McNealy is pursuing gold medal dreams. She can do much of her schoolwork any time of the day or night, thanks to the online offerings of Virtual High School.

Nancy: It really made the schedule for her skating much better, because it allowed her to leave school during the day, so that she could skate on an ice surface that didn't have twenty children skating on it.

Zoe: This year, I'm taking honors environmental science. I can log on anywhere that has internet access, so it allows me to either access the work at competitions, or I can access it when I come home and get the work done that I missed, without really missing anything.

Narrator: Virtual High School is a nonprofit collaborative of over three hundred high schools in twenty-six states and sixteen foreign countries that offers more than one hundred and fifty high school courses over the internet. Each participating school contributes a course to the mix.

Liz: They agree to free up a teacher one period a day to teach a course online and VHS provides the training services for that classroom teacher to learn how to effectively teach online. I think a really critical element of a good online course is the ability to build a community of learners in that course. We design our courses so that the students are engaged in online activities, they're engaged in online collaboration.

Sheldon: We wanted to provide opportunities for students to take advanced courses, to try to accelerate their learning. Whether they are having significant challenges in the classroom, or whether they're very advanced and can move rapidly through material.

Zubin: This is almost like a textbook. All my controls are here.

Narrator: For Zubin Patel, VHS means taking advanced computer science courses like cryptography at home.

Zubin: The VHS basically allows me to take these courses that aren't offered at school. It means extra work, it means staying up some nights till three in the morning doing VHS work, but I got-- you know, you have to do what you have to do.

Narrator: For Hudson's music program director, Jason Caron, VHS meant learning a new way of teaching. He took the Virtual School's fifteen week teacher training, covering subjects like how to foster online discussions, before developing his own VHS course in American popular music.

Jason: The students get two compact discs with excerpts of music. They listen to that music or watch the video and then discuss with their online classmates what they listened to or what they saw. The tone in our voice doesn't get transmitted over the internet connection, so you have to be very careful with wording and really spell out your expectations, and that's, you know, the hindrance, I guess, of being disconnected from the students physically. But a lot of it's quite the same too. You build collaborative projects. You do a lot of community building activities to try to find the sense of the class and the personality of the individuals in the class too.

Teacher: Yeah, you can click right up here and just drag that title out.

Narrator: The rigorous teacher training and engaging course designs seem to be paying off. The completion rate for VHS courses is ninety percent, and VHS AP students score ten percentage points higher than the national average on their final exams. But even its biggest booster warns against over reliance on virtual learning.

Sheldon: I don't believe you can have a completely virtual education. I don't think that it's appropriate for students to have all their courses virtually, and I think the social environment of the high school is an important environment.

Narrator: And while students see many advantages to online courses, they also recognize that virtual schooling isn't for everyone.

Lauren: I think when you're working online, you have to be a lot more self motivated. Your teacher's not sitting there, you know, "Read these pages and make sure you have this done by this time." You know what you have to do by the end of the quarter, and you just take care of it yourself. And I know a lot of students who don't have that self motivation do get behind, because no one's there nagging them.

Narrator: But for students like Zoe McNealy, Virtual High School offers the best of both worlds. The flexibility to fit the classes into a busy schedule, and the time to savor learning.

Zoe: It's almost what an actual class would offer you, except you're able to do it on your own, so, you know, you can take your time with the book. It's almost like you enjoy things more than you would otherwise.

Narrator: As technology continues to advance and teacher training improves, online learning holds even greater promise.

William: The students are going to be able to use technology much more easily and readily than ever before, not only taking full online courses, but taking parts of courses online, so that you would have what they call blended, having teachers in the regular classrooms teaching face to face with their students for part of the time, and using the technologies, where appropriate, to enhance and improve the quality of courses.

Pat: So you can call me whenever is flexible for you.

William: We see the potential of this as being a tremendous method of improving the quality of education, both in our region and across the country.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to Edutopia.org

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Roberta Furger
  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Blair Gershkow
  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Charlie Collias
  • Ken Ellis
  • Michael Mulvey
  • Jeremy Settles
  • Velocity Films
  • Rob Weller
  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Susan Blake
  • Kris Welch

Comments (30)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Larry Banks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The Missouri Virtual School (MVS) has been in operation for the past 9 years, serving 700 students in small rural schools across Missouri this past year. MVS courses are of the blended variety, including both synchronous and some asynchronous components. MVS courses emphasize real-time interactions between students and a master teacher. While this does limit some of the freedom for when students can take a course, we have found that students perform better through live interactions with teachers and other students. Content coverage is not static; it varies in real-time and from class session to class session depending on the needs of individual students and classes.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Just like with everything, Virtual courses have their advantages and disadvantages. Why they are used and how they are used are two very important factors. It is a question of balance. Taking the best of both worlds, the virtual one and the more traditional one. Doing so, will enrich the quality of learning, will increase the opportunity for the student to be exposed to a larger worldview and being able to interact with many students in a closer way will enhance their sense of community.

Kathleen Szczepaniak's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this video to have great information. I teach my online classes without seeing the students. I would like to work with them in the classroom and online. This would be the best of both worlds!

Edrika's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Virtual learning can be very beneficial for students athletes that have to travel for competitions. As the student that is a figure skater stated, she can work during breaks at practice or when she gets home late at night. She can also work as she travels for competitions. Virtual learning has opened up a world of courses that student normally would not have access to due to limited availability at their schools. The disadvatage is that there are not that many teachers who are trained to teach online courses. Also, students not used to the online community have to really be diligent in maintaining conatact with their teachers.

Regina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this video really shows that students that are in different places can learn about the same topic all at one time. I feel this is good option for children who find working on the internet easier. I also feel that district that are lacking specialized subject areas can use technology to connect more students by internet. Also being able to call the professor and ask questions. This makes it easier for the students to get the help they need. One day I would like to try this virtual school and see how it works for myself.

Doron Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I personally work in a school system that implemented the Virtual School for students thsi past fall. From a high school persepctive in a Urban Community, I can say that it is a great Idea but it ruins the integrety of the orginal classroom education. Students take advantage of the Virtual Classroom to use for classes they have previously failed for the simple reason that they are able to take the class on the computer anot deal with the everyday hassles of a classroom teacher.

David R. Sauve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently teaching full time and taking my masters online and so far I love it. I have done as much critical thinking and writing as I have in the past in the classroom when I worked on my undergrad work. VS has great advantages but I also think students should get a solid base of classes in the classroom during high school for social growth.

Sally Steinke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach high school drawing and painting, art survey and studio and one online course.
I am definitely frustrated with the online course as it is not the same as being able to work through the entire process of envisioning to engaging and persisting to problem solving with each student. I only see the end result. The course is also much too basic for high school level. I teach in Appleton, WI.

Sarah Skolsky's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too am taking classes for my Masters in special education online. I work full time teaching 8th grade. I like the freedom and flexibility of taking the classes. I can post an assignment at 2:00 in the morning if I want when I am in my insomniac state and can't sleep. I can read and do assignments at my own pace. I do agree with you on that High School students need classrooms for their social development, constructive cristism, hands-on expereince, discpline and organizational skills. Not all High School students would be able to keep up the demands of being a self-taught learner.

Erin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After watching this video, I feel motivated to try this one day. In order for the online schooling to work, I agree that the students must be self-starters and highly motivated.

Right now, I'm attending an online university to get my Master's in teaching. The professor does have more one on one time with each student, as they stated in the video. Our online collaboration is amazing. I love learning in this way because everyone has to participate. It is more interactive than I expected.

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