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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

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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

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