Virtual schools differ from the thousands of commercial, free and non-accredited courses available online through portals including iTunes U and independent course providers. The term is generally reserved for paid degree courses, but now there is a new trend -- traditional high schools that are considering a move to fully-virtual learning.
According to Susan Patrick of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a trade association, 250,000 students are enrolled in full-time virtual schools in 30 states. K12 Inc. of Herndon is the largest provider of virtual courses, Fairfax high school is considering the move to virtual classrooms, and Capistrano Unified School District has held discussions for a K-8 option.
Opinion concerning fully-virtual learning for young children tends to vary. In First College, an online school for UK students, 22 children log in from 9am - 2pm, Monday to Thursday.
After entering a password-protected classroom, the BBC reports they study English, maths, history, geography, combined sciences, French and international GCSEs.
One student, Natalie, used to attend a private school before attending the virtual school. She said:
"At my previous school, teachers were bullies and kids were bullies in the playground. I didn't learn much. I used to be afraid of maths because my teacher was really horrible.
Now you feel more confident because it is texting instead of speaking out loud and standing up. My old friends thought it was really cool but their parents thought 'internet school'? - I don't know about that. I don't think I would ever go back to real school again."
There is a growing demand demonstrated by the next generation of students who want to be able to take courses online. A number of studies have indicated that today's young people, generally more comfortable with technology than their predecessors, are more reliant than ever on digital sources for information and entertainment.
This also relates to their learning; through search facilities including Google and Wikipedia for information, social networks such as Twitter for news, apps for daily tasks and platforms including iTunes U to access interactive lessons and course material.
Using virtual resources allows for a greater flexibility in the day -- often associated with Gen-Y as something they desire in both study and the workplace.
For some teenagers, especially those with other commitments -- such as performing arts, athletes or musicians -- more flexibility is required than usual. If virtual schooling is available and the quality is up to an acceptable standard, then being able to study in their own time and around other commitments would save many of the problems that young people with these responsibilities face.
It may also be the case that virtual schools can help students who are homebound, disabled or who have been withdrawn from school due to bullying; families who live abroad can secure an English education for their child, and it may be a method to combat dropping attendance numbers in certain school districts.
These are the possible benefits of virtual schools, and yet there are a number of possible disadvantages. Students require a strong Internet connection and modern devices to access such courses; something traditional schools -- unless they include bring your own device (BYOD) schemes -- do not require.
Parents will also require assurance that online courses are delivering the same quality that traditional, physical classrooms can provide. Online learning is not heavily regulated, and without restriction there may be further fragmentation in learning environments.
It is also important to note that traditional educational establishments are not only concerned with their students passing exams -- it is also a place for children to acquire the social skills necessary for them to function well in Western society; from maintaining eye-contact with teachers and peers to learning how to speak up in class.
Although these skills can be learned elsewhere, if every school became virtual, then young people may miss out on certain 'rites of passage' and daily interaction with others their own age which takes place in schools.
Currently, there is not enough research on virtual schools to say with certainty how younger students perform in full-time online settings in comparison to traditional classrooms. Virtual networks may not be suitable for every student, but it may be a comparable to distance-based degree courses for those who work whilst studying -- and allow younger people a flexible, alternative means of learning.
Image credit: UTC library