TCS Daily

The Virtues of Being Virtual

By Ron Packard - July 30, 2003 12:00 AM

Education in this country is often seen as unresponsive to changes in society and dismissive of innovative ideas, but let's not forget that some of these innovative ideas have become fundamental to the education of our children.


Around the turn of the last century, compulsory public education itself was only a small movement, a novel idea that hadn't been proved and was sometimes viewed as minatory. It didn't take long, however, for the public school to be central to our way of life as the modern economy created a market demand for educated workers. In fact, a high-quality public education system soon became a key contributor to U.S. economic growth


Even 10 years ago, the idea of a "virtual school" -- where students learn at home with an extensive, engaging curriculum delivered via the Internet, but remain part of a public school system -- seemed chimerical. Today, it appears more like a powerful idea that is meeting a new and growing market demand.


A study released in May by the Education Commission of the States reported that almost 60 public virtual schools or academies are operating today in 13 states. More significantly, the number of these schools has doubled in the last year.


What accounts for this growing trend? It's not simply the proliferation of the Internet, but is instead driven by several important factors. First is the desire for families to obtain the best education for their child and a realization that virtual public education can achieve this. This desire has been made more acute by the increasing importance of education in determining the success of our children and a decline in some of our nation's public schools. Second, it is a growing desire by parents to play a more significant role in their children's education and regain a connection with their families too often lost to long commutes and double-income workloads.


What types of students are benefiting from this new approach to public education? With their rich course of study, one-on-one instruction, and rigorous accountability, virtual public schools are helping students with many different learning styles from a wide variety of backgrounds for whom traditional pubic schools aren't the answer. Among the students choosing virtual public schools are: gifted and talent students; students struggling with coursework in a traditional classroom setting; students with physical or learning disabilities; students from military families; students living in rural areas; and students whose parents are seeking the highest quality education option available.


For the last several years I've worked with the pioneers of the virtual school movement to meet this growing market demand. This new direction in my life began with an attempt to help my young daughter with her first-grade math homework. My formal training is in engineering and economics, and I went on the Internet to look for assistance -- what should she be learning and how could a parent help? What do the best schools in the world do? I came up empty-handed, but with an idea of developing a world-class school curriculum and putting it online where it could help any parent help any child.


I recruited William Bennett, the author and former U.S. Secretary of Education, and the two of us collaborated to form an education company called K12. Our aim was, and remains, to build the best academic curriculum in the world. K12's curriculum, including lessons delivered online and with traditional material like books and workbooks, now covers kindergarten through seventh grade, with a new grade being added each year.


Technology is not the soul of the education, but merely a window to bring the students efficiently to high quality content and make the material more engaging. Technology can create an individualized education that 10 years ago we could only dream about. Every child in this country should have access to a world-class education. With virtual education, it does not matter whether a child lives in the inner city or 100 miles from the nearest neighbor, they can obtain a great education.


The virtual public schools we support with this curriculum provide the tools for parents to instruct at home, working closely with a certified public school teacher and following a rigorous academic program that makes regular progress assessments. These students receive everything they need to attend the school including access to a certified teacher at no cost to the family. In addition, every student, like their counterparts in brick and mortar schools, is required to take standardized assessments in a proctored setting. These schools are tuition-free public schools. In many ways, they are often the most public schools in the state because anyone can attend regardless of where they live.


If you were to spend a day with a student enrolled in one of K12's virtual academy programs, much of what you would see would seem familiar: lessons in language arts, math, science, history, art and music; students reading, writing, adding and subtracting; art projects, music class, all guided by lesson plans and curriculum provided over the Internet. You would also note several differences; most importantly you would notice that students are working at their own pace, allowing fast learners to move rapidly so they are never bored and allowing slower learners to take the extra time they need to make sure they are not left behind. You might also be amazed at the breadth and depth of the content and how much a student can learn when education is delivered in an individualized, engaging manner.


You would also see parents and children working side-by-side in one of life's most important endeavors -- the education of a child. And in that process, family members come to know and appreciate each other as never before.


So the promise of virtual education is not only the irrefragable benefit derived from providing every family in this country access to a world-class education in an outstanding public school, but also the promise that we might be better off if families are empowered to grow more connected than one might expect in the information age. That's a promise worth keeping.


Ron Packard is CEO of K12 Inc., a virtual school curriculum company.


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