From CNET Magazine: Virtual classrooms are growing in popularity, but beware. There can be big differences in quality and cost.
Leslie KatzFormer Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Natalie LeBaron dissected earthworms, grasshoppers and frogs for her 10th-grade biology class.
Sure, high school students have been excising amphibian hearts for decades -- but not like LeBaron. She wields her scalpel on top of the dryer in her family's laundry room in Stockton, California.
LeBaron, 15, had just completed her sophomore year with Stanford Online High School (mascot: the Pixel), where she takes classes while in a fluffy chair in the corner of her bedroom. When she does science experiments, like dissecting frogs or measuring cellular respiration, her teacher sometimes asks to see photos, which she snaps and sends with an iPad.
But it's not all homework at Stanford Online High School (OHS). Student life can be surprisingly well-rounded.
LeBaron, for example, runs a weekly club focused on the multiplayer video game Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator. She's also performed in a one-act play via Adobe Connect, sharing the virtual stage with a fellow actor in New Jersey as audience members applauded with emojis.
"Sometimes it gets a little bit lonely, being the only person in Stockton that goes to my school, but it works out," says LeBaron, who has met classmates at get-togethers on Stanford's Palo Alto, California, campus 85 miles from home. "I love the challenge. I love the environment."
There are all kinds of online high schools -- from government-funded public and charter schools, which are free to resident minors, to private schools including those like OHS, which are affiliated with universities.
Nearly 460 full-time charter, privately run or district-operated virtual schools enrolled more than 261,000 students during the 2014-15 academic year, according to the National Education Policy Center.
Something for everyone
So what's the appeal? For some, like LeBaron, these virtual schools feel like natural extensions to their home schooling. Others might have been bullied, struggle with chronic illnesses or live in remote areas.
Others are high achievers who need higher academic standards or the flexibility to compete in sports, start companies or perform on stage.
German student Birte Doludda, 17, checks off several of those reasons for attending OHS. She and her family moved to Tokyo eight years ago when her father got a job there with chemical maker Nippon Aerosil.
"In physical schools, I often had disappointing teachers who seemed uninterested in their own subjects," says Doludda, who just completed her junior year. "[At OHS] I get to work on subjects that I like and experience things like philosophy, which I am told not many high school students get to do."
Alex Shaffer, now 25, attended Indiana University High School because it made it easier for him to juggle homework while keeping his 30 internet marketing clients happy.
"I needed a high school that was flexible with my schedule so I could go to meetings and work on my projects," Shaffer says on the school's website. "I was able to work at my own pace, and being able to work anywhere was a good thing because I traveled."
The center also notes that for-profit virtual schools account for nearly three-quarters of all enrollments. They also have the highest student/teacher ratio, with 44 students per online classroom. The report's authors go so far as to describe the virtual schools it looked at as "dismal -- if not disastrous."
"The whole model is flawed," says lead author Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University. "[It] was not developed by academics or researchers or practitioners."
Even schools with impeccable academic credentials have their skeptics. That's because they can't provide the social elements -- from varsity tryouts to locker room awkwardness -- that are an important part of growing up. For some, that's OK.
"I do think that I am missing out on some typical high school experiences, like walking to class with my friends," Doludda says, "but I believe that I experience all the ones that really matter."
She says she's made close friends at OHS, but has met them only over Skype.
Learning without borders
On a Tuesday evening, hardly a standard time for a high school class, Kim Failor led an AP biology class from a video chat window on one side of a computer screen, while students on camera answered questions or delivered presentations.
Vikram Venkatram, for example, gave a report on plant defenses and posted visuals on a virtual whiteboard he shared with classmates as far away as China and Japan. They praised him with smiley faces and virtual high-fives after he'd finished.
"I really like how a lot of the assignments and teaching are focused on quality over quantity," says Venkatram, 16, who started his senior year this fall.
"It's definitely a lot of work and it's not easy. But it's nice because every homework assignment will ask in-depth questions on something new versus 16 or even 50 questions on the same kind of math [but] with different numbers."