New report cites value of virtual education

The University of California College Prep Initiative (UCCP) released a report today (Thursday, October 17) on the rapidly growing phenomenon of state-funded virtual education in the United States.

The report, entitled The California Virtual School Report: A National Survey of Virtual Education Practice and Policy with Recommendations for the State of California, was commissioned in order to study the patterns, costs, and effectiveness of statewide virtual programs in meeting educational needs that are not being met by traditional means. UCCP, a University of California program that provides advanced placement (AP) and high school honors courses to underserved populations in California, funded the report to examine how the experience of virtual programs in other states could be applied to the unique educational issues facing California.

"California, and the University of California in particular, needs to provide equal access to high-quality education to increase the opportunity for students to attend college," said Francisco Hernandez, executive director of UCCP and vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "While we have been reaching underserved populations in the state with AP and honors courses, we realized that this is only the tip of iceberg."

Julius Zelmanowitz, vice provost in the UC Office of the President and cochair of the UCCP Systemwide Advisory Committee, noted that, "There are certain benefits that can come from working on courseware development in conjunction with the higher education institutions that will be recipients of today's high school students. Resources in difficult areas such as mathematics can be designed so that teachers can have access to high-quality educational and professional development materials that can be customized to meet local needs."

The report outlines the ways in which certain states have centralized the creation and distribution of online courses, teacher training, and curricular resources. While many schools operate one or two online courses, the virtual education programs in the key states provide high school students with educational opportunities both in the classroom and as stand-alone courses to be taken at home. Florida and Michigan, which have the most robust offerings, have been developing these services to provide a new educational delivery mechanism that will be part of the educational infrastructure.

"We have two reasons for doing this," said Nancy Davis, executive director of the Michigan Virtual High School, which has invested $18 million in its statewide program. "First, we can provide what some schools cannot, namely advanced placement courses and remedial programs, and second, to make sure that Michigan's students can compete in the workplace where, increasingly, lifelong learning will be a necessity."

The report details how states and large school districts are now embarking on the delivery of their curriculum online. Alan Arkatov, the eLearning consultant for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation's second largest school system, is confronting problems that can only be addressed by online systems.

"With more than 750,000 K-12 students, 200,000 adult students, and the need to build out an additional 77,000 seats in just the next five years, LAUSD must supplement its current academic on-the-ground offerings with a rich online curriculum," Arkatov said. "The district's fundamental commitment to access is one that not only will include online AP courses, but areas such as remediation, special education, and professional development. In addition to highlighting the current opportunities available to students and teachers in California and around the country, this report provides an essential road map on where we go from here."

The Clovis Unified School District in California's Central Valley provides its teachers with courses purchased from the Florida Virtual School. Report coauthor Rob Darrow, the Clovis online learning specialist, conducted a statewide survey in California and found a receptivity at all levels from students through administrators.

"What we found," Darrow explained, "is that students, educators, and parents believe that California should be moving toward some type of collaborative state virtual school program that includes input from local districts, while also providing state content and technology standards for online courses. High-quality online resources can help to meet the challenges of teacher shortages and give students in all parts of the state greater access to a greater array of courses."

As this alternate form of delivery becomes more mainstream, other issues present themselves. Many schools receive their funding based on average daily attendance (ADA) of their student populations. "If a student takes three courses outside of the classroom, this has to be accounted for," said Hernandez. A bill passed in the California Legislature (AB 885) and recently signed into law by Governor Gray Davis recognizes the importance of online learning and now allows school districts to collect ADA for up to two online courses, paving the way for funding of virtual education programs in California.

The report, which offers a blueprint for California, concludes that, "Virtual education is here to stay" and, just as electronic technologies have done in banking, health care, and consumer services, such programs will provide the ability to reach students and teachers with consistent, individualized, and high-quality education to augment the classroom and for online delivery.

"We will continue to see mixed cases evolving," said the report's coauthor Gordon Freedman, of Knowledge Base, LLC, a California consulting firm. "Some students might take math online to help them with a deficiency while taking history and English in the classroom. In other cases, for a variety of reasons, some students may receive the bulk of their education at home."

The report was produced by Knowledge Base, LLC, of Monterey, California, and the Clovis School District, which won the award as a result of a request-for-proposal process issued by UCCP. The four-month effort involved a number of surveys, on-site visits, student, teacher, and parent focus groups, and the efforts of a total of 10authors and researchers. The report can be downloaded from the UCCP site For further information, please contact Francisco Hernandez at or (831) 459-2474.