The virtual classroom

The recent announcement by Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue that an executive director has been hired to head up NC Virtual, an online high school, is a resounding victory for all stakeholders in our state’s educational system.

North Carolina’s students should not be penalized for things they can’t control, such as geographic location, disparities in funding or low teacher salaries.

Not every school district can offer the excellent choices and opportunities that we enjoy in Asheville and Buncombe County. Both systems provide their students with an abundance of challenging courses taught by qualified instructors. But some rural districts can’t secure sufficient teachers or funding to offer a wide variety of courses.

A quick survey of 18 districts in Western North Carolina reveals an average of five advanced-placement offerings per school. That’s admirable, but imagine being able to offer three or four times that number. This is one very practical, real-world application of online learning — delivering high-quality content where resources are scarce. Essentially, all North Carolina students will have access to a wide variety of course offerings, regardless of the school’s (or the student’s) physical location.

WNC’s substantial home-schooled population also stands to gain. Online learning can ease the burden many parents experience when trying to find quality curriculum for their home-schooled children. For example, parents without the appropriate background may find it difficult to teach high-school courses such as calculus, chemistry or a foreign language.

Online learning is very transparent, and it’s easy for parents to stay informed of their student’s progress. Whatever the reason for the home schooling, every student deserves full access to all the educational opportunities our state has to offer. Parents will also derive increased value from the state taxes they already pay.

Asheville/Buncombe students who aren’t being home-schooled could also benefit from taking online courses.

In the past month, I’ve worked with at least eight students who needed a full or half credit in order to graduate in May. Thanks to the increased flexibility offered by rolling enrollment, these students can fulfill graduation requirements that were missed or overlooked. To be sure, they must work overtime to complete the required assignments, but at least they have a chance to graduate and avoid becoming yet another dropout statistic.

Online learning also enables students to work at their own pace, taking more time to absorb the material if they need to. On the other hand, students capable of working successfully at an accelerated pace can move through the course quickly.

For students facing challenging or unique circumstances, online education can also mean the difference between graduating and dropping out. Last year I had a student who was originally from Australia. She lost credits when her family moved to Florida. By taking world history online, she was able to graduate on time. Another student took online courses due to a medical condition. She has endured numerous operations and simply could not attend a traditional public school. Through online classes, she can pursue an education at her convenience and maintain some sense of normalcy in her life.

In previous years, I’ve worked with pre-Olympic swimmers, motocross and barrel racers, and more than a few promising musicians. Those students chose online classes because the flexibility in scheduling allowed them to pursue their passions while receiving a quality education. North Carolina’s students deserve the same option.

Educational research has shown that high-school students perform equally well or better in online learning situations. And taking online courses in high school hones students’ time-management skills, leaving them better prepared to handle such courses in college. Other research suggests that teachers who work online find it has a positive impact on their experience in the classroom.

But online learning is not in competition with traditional schools, nor is it trying to replace them. It’s about improving the existing educational system by creating additional opportunities for all learners. North Carolina’s students should not be penalized for things they can’t control, such as geographic location, disparities in funding or low teacher salaries.

Of course, online education is not a magic wand we can wave over our region or state. Not all students will thrive in an online environment, just as not every student is successful in a traditional classroom setting. Rather, the point is for our community to create options to give every student maximum opportunity for success. NCV is a welcome addition to our state’s fine tradition of outstanding public education.

[North Asheville resident Peter Billingsley is a social-studies instructor for Florida Virtual School, which offers more than 80 courses online. He can be reached at pbillingsley@flvs.net.]

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