27 June 2018

Virtual Schools: Alternatives in Time, Space, and Place

The first virtual schools appeared in the 1990s reframing our idea of what constitutes a school by offering “alternative solutions to educating k-12 students” (Reid, Aqui & Putney, 2009). Virtual schools provide educational opportunities that are liberated “from the confines of rigid blocks of time and uninspired configurations of space to better meet the needs of students” (Vanourek, 2011) who “expect their education to be in line with their every day technology-rich experiences” (Wicks, 2010). Using the lens of delivery, this paper explores what it is that constitutes a virtual school and examines how teaching and learning is defined when it is “not bound by time, space, and pace” (Vanourek, 2011). It explains why this method of categorisation is chosen to define these types of schools and discusses the impact virtual delivery has on the educational experiences of K12 students.

Defining Virtual Schools

Online learning experiences are becoming more common because the growth of technology-rich education is seen as an “appropriate” and even “necessary” way to educate the current digital generation (Wicks, 2010). In opposition to learning that takes place in a traditional brick and mortar institution, a virtual school can be defined as one which offers “learning experiences via the Internet” (Salsberry, 2010). However, with the advent of high-technology delivery in traditional classrooms, this simplistic definition is not necessarily beneficial to aiding a clear understanding of what constitutes a virtual school. Barker, Wendel, and Richmond (1999) clearly separate virtual teaching and learning from traditional schooling by defining a virtual school as one where students take all of their courses in the virtual environment. Russell’s (2004) definition, however, suggests that a virtual school “uses online computers to provide some or all of a student’s education”. Clark (2000), also proposes that a virtual school is one that offers “learning methods that include Internet-based delivery”, suggesting that virtual schooling only needs to “include” virtual delivery rather than have “all” of the learning taking place virtually. The method of delivery in Clark’s definition, the most widely accepted in regards virtual schools, is not exclusively online, and therefore not dissimilar from many of today’s technology-rich classrooms. This raises the question as to what the fundamental difference is between traditional classrooms that utilise technology and a virtual school if both can use the internet to deliver some of the learning.

To clearly distinguish between the two, it is necessary to turn to the idea of “time, space, and pace” (Vanourek, 2011). Rather than children being taught in “in a room for 50-some minutes at a time in 180 6-hour days”(Vanourek, 2011) whether using the Internet or not, virtual schools are simply not confined to these restrictions, instead offering instruction that may be “synchronous or asynchronous” (Barker, Wendel & Richmond, 1999). It is this notion of a blend of delivery via the internet coupled with choices of when, where, and how learning can happen, that this paper uses to define virtual schooling as distinct from the more traditional methods in brick and mortar institutions.

Time, space and place

Delivery of learning in traditional school settings are confined by the timings of the school day, the classroom, and the country in which they operate. These restriction to time, space, and place are cast aside with virtual schooling through “independent, asynchronous, and synchronous” (Barbour, 2009) delivery. Traditional classrooms do not allow for this freedom of when students can choose to learn - they must be in a certain classroom, at a certain time, on a certain day, for a certain amount of time, little to none of which they have much, if any, choice in. Even if the Internet is used to deliver some of the learning, students are expected to complete tasks in the order given, with the other children in the room and, once the bell rings, move on to the next class regardless of whether they have grasped the lesson objectives or not. Virtual schools, on the other hand, provide the benefit of “educational choice” (Berge & Clark, 2005) because students have options of independent or synchronous learning and may also take time to complete tasks at their own pace, asynchronously.

To manage this freedom and monitor learning, some virtual school programmes may have prerequisites, such as how many times learners must communicate per day, and whilst “some asynchronous courses are self-paced”, others “have structured start and end dates” (Wicks, 2010). The Virtual School Prince William County School offers online courses where students “work at their own pace within semester benchmarks” (Watson, et al 2015). In Albuquerque, the eCADEMY Virtual High School offers online learning that incorporates “an element of face-to-face support that includes meeting at a variety of time and days during the week to accommodate the students’ school and work schedules” (Watson et al., 2015). In this method of delivery, coursework is “flexible, but not fully self-paced and released to the students in a methodical, careful way by the teacher who has assessed the pace and proficiency of student learning” (Watson et al., 2015). In this way, some virtual schools go further than simply offering choice as to when learning can happen, and also offer choice as to where it can take place by not restricting delivery to purely online or face to face methodologies but by offering a blend of the two.

Wolf Creek Online High School in Minnesota, for example, provides “on-campus programmes offerings two days a week that can be combined with the online course offerings” (Watson, Gemin, Vashaw & Papeet, 2015). This provides the ultimate choice in learning pathways, simultaneously allowing students opportunities to also “participate in traditional high school activities as sports” (Wicks, 2010). This blend of synchronous and asynchronous delivery, through both virtual and face to face learning, offers choice in when and where learning takes place. However, for the virtual element to happen successfully, the how of virtual schools, and the way learning is delivered is also of paramount consideration.

There is no doubt that “online education programmes are innovators of technology for teaching and learning” (Wicks, 2010), however, whilst many courses in virtual schools are divided into lessons that include both online and offline resources, it is important to note that successful delivery of virtual learning - as separated from high-tech traditional classrooms - cannot simply be traditional learning put on the Internet. Based upon 195 student surveys, Butz (2004) concluded that online instruction can motivate students who have different learning styles but the course environment and design must be carefully considered. “Little course material can be delivered via the equivalent of a classroom lecture” because today’s generation do not think of technology as “something separate from daily life” (Wicks, 2010). Therefore, schools needs to rethink what virtual education means to avoid prohibiting students from successfully “utlizing current technologies” to make technology “fully integrated into the learning process” (Wicks, 2010).

Many online courses are “delivered via a software package called a learning management system (LMS)”, which include “asynchronous communication tools” such as “email and threaded discussions”, while “synchronous communication tools integrate video...audio...text chat, and whiteboard” (Wicks, 2010). These choices of how learning is delivered are different from traditional classrooms and can improve student outcomes and skills (Berge & Clark, 2005) because the different methods of delivery used “allows for a more democratic communication environment”. Discussion boards and text chats break down boundaries that may disadvantage children in a traditional classroom, as “physical attributes such as gender, ethnicity, or physical disability that often shape our views of others are not immediately apparent in most forms of online communication” (Wicks, 2010). This also prevents situations where “discussions are frequently dominated by a few students” in a traditional classroom, because online discussions allow all students to participate without fear of being shouted down or drowned out by more vocal or confident students. In this way, by using notions of when, where and how learning can happen, virtual schools may offer flexible and equitable learning opportunities by removing impediments, through both choices and autonomy, creating a more level playing field for all students. It is for this reason that this method of describing virtual schools is used, however, consideration of the success of this way of delivering learning is also important.

Impact on Learning

Current K12 learners have grown up with the Internet; technology is “an integral part of their lives”, an “essential tool” and, by default, “learning online is natural” to these digital natives (Wicks, 2010). Research suggests that online education is useful in preparing learners for global competitiveness, as it provides them with the skills that they will need for the new knowledge economy (Zucker & Kozma, 2003). In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education released a report based on the analysis of fifty one online learning options with two major findings: the first that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction”, and the second that “instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face to-face instruction than did purely online instruction” (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009). This suggests that the choices of space, time and place afforded by virtual schools can indeed improve learning outcomes and that the blended opportunities contribute to successful learning outcomes. However, it is important to think about the different kinds of learners that virtual schools, and the freedom of educational choices they offer, may benefit.

Online delivery methods provide opportunities to break down barriers to education Fulton (2002) and allow teachers the ability to customise learning by designing content that can “be modified to meet the unique needs of the learner, in terms of both cultural perspectives and learning styles”(Eriksson, 2016). This means delivery through choices of when, where, and how learning can place, potentially addresses learners who are gifted as well as those with specific learning needs. It is important to note, however, that enrolment in virtual schools does not necessarily reflect these potential advantages. The implication is that students who have not been successful in the traditional school environment, due to behavioral problems and other issues, often find success in online education, but there is little evidence, as yet, to support this assumption.

In 2012, Miron and Urschel conducted a report based on K-12 Inc., one of the largest for-profit virtual school organisations. Potentially, their many different delivery methods truly embrace the notions of options in time, space, and place, breaking down barriers that may be presented to children from differing backgrounds. However, rather than levelling the playing field, as suggested above, findings conclude that K-12 Inc. schools actually “enroll substantially more white students than the public schools in states where it operates” (Miron & Urschel, 2012). In addition, Carnahan and Fulton (2013) called attention to the fact that the population of special education students in cyber schools mirrors the population of special education students in brick-and-mortar classrooms, rather than exceeds it, as would be suggested by the variety of delivery methods afforded by such institutions. Indeed, in K-12 schools, the enrolment of students with disabilities stands at 9.4 %, which is significantly less when compared to the 11.5 % enrolled in public schools in the same states, and 13.1 % nationally (Toppin & Toppin, 2015).

Equally, even though some universities have begun offering online programmes to bring together gifted and academically high-achieving children, such as the Education Program for Gifted Youth at Stanford University, (Ash, 2016) there have been very few, if any, research studies to verify potential claims that educational outcomes are improved (Zucker & Kozma, 2003) for any member of virtual schooling. Research suggest that “the vast majority of virtual school students have tended to be a very select group of academically capable, motivated, independent learners” (Barbour, 2009) who would do well in any method of deliver, either virtual or face to face. This suggests that even though these schools offer autonomy and choice in time, space, and place for learning, not all aspects of society are utilising these opportunities and this needs to be considered for true success in revolution education. It seems it is not enough then to simply offer choices in time, space and place in terms of the delivery methods of education, active considerations need to be made to ensure that all “online programs must make sure that they are available to all” (Wicks, 2010) if all are to take advantage of the potential of this method of delivery in learning.


Online virtual schools challenge some of the most basic assumptions about schooling in today’s world. The delivery methods explored here, where learners can choose when, where, and how to learn using a variety of digital communication techniques, means that, there is potential for all kinds of learners to garner equitable access to educational opportunities in ways that work for each individual student. Virtual school environments may be “preparing students for the modern workplace” by providing authentic communication opportunities through “a variety of communication mechanisms” which “mirror the real world” (Wicks, 2010). In addition, “the online classroom is more likely to bring together students from different backgrounds”, preparing learners for a global world, as “students may be enrolled from across a state or even from all over the world” meaning that they are exposed to people with different backgrounds, ideas and belief systems (Vanourek, 2011). This exposure to a variety of perspectives means online learning can “develop communication skills that are important for our global economy” (Wicks, 2010), but it still is not necessarily accessible to all and bears little difference to some high-technology brick and mortar based international schools.

This paper outlines many cross-overs between the two methods of learning, but it is the truly flexible nature of how, when, and where learning can happen in a virtual school context that is what separates them from high-tech traditional classrooms. Fundamentally, virtual schools challenge the concept of time in learning, changing it from carefully synchronised scheduling into a potentially fluid and continuous process where learning takes place anywhere and anytime (Eriksson, 2012). Choices in time, space, and place for the delivery of learning are used to define virtual schools in this context, as it is this which is used to set apart a virtual school from a traditional school that uses technology integration. Even though, currently, the opportunities for all kinds of learners are not yet addressed equitably, this type of learning choice can, for many, provide an excellent alternative to those “who may not be well-served” (Reid et al., 2009) in traditional classroom environments, including learners who are in rural locations, who have social, emotional or behavioural needs, have been bullied, have disabilities or needs that cannot be met by traditional brick and mortar schooling (Barbour, 2009). However, for this kind of schooling to be successful, the course design should be engaging and use multiple instructional approaches to appeal to diverse learning styles (Toppin & Toppin, 2015). Virtual schools and online learning therefore, will have no real impact on student achievement unless there is also changes in how instruction is designed, delivered, and supported, and to date, there is no independent, reliable research that indicates that this transformation in pedagogy is occurring (Barbour, 2012).


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  3. I completely agree that virtual learning can be a fantastic tool for students. However, it is also true that it will not change how learning is achieved without a change in pedagogy itself. I especially liked how you referenced that today's educators have grown up with technology, because I believe that is an important fact related to the eventual growth of virtual learning.

  4. In fact, the school is changing. I think people will learn more from the internet. Not only in the virtual school.

  5. I decided to read this older blog post because many students are forced to endure virtual learning because of COVID-19. Virtual learning is more flexible in terms of being able to do it anywhere and anytime; however, it can be hard for students and teachers to connect and interact than they would face to face. I know this is a situation that many teachers are struggling with right now. Like you said, it is very important to keep virtual learning engaging! -Bethany M.

  6. Interesting blog, and very well-sourced! I liked the point you made about how online virtual learning has the potential to create equality in educational opportunities. Text-based communication has the ability to break down boundaries that put minority students at a disadvantage. My concern, though, is that virtual learning may be difficult for poor and low-income families to access. Do you think this could actually further the educational disparity between wealthy and non-wealthy students?


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