Virtual Learning Gains Momentum In Mass. Classrooms

On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Board of Education starts drafting guidelines for online learning after Gov. Deval Patrick recently signed a new law expanding opportunities for virtual public schools.

Massachusetts is expected to approve 10 virtual public schools in the coming years, but some brick and mortar schools are already using digital programs.

The electronic bell at Milford High School signals students to switch classes. A few bypass regular classrooms and head straight to the computer lab.

“I just went onto the VHS, which is the website that we have to sign on to, I’m taking two VHS classes so I get to decide which one I want to go to first,” senior Joclyn Crivello explained.

Jonathan Flatley and Joclyn Crivello are taking an AP physics course online. Milford High School Vice Principal Carolyn Banach offers support. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

Jonathan Flatley and Joclyn Crivello are taking an AP physics course online. Milford High School Vice Principal Carolyn Banach offers support. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

Crivello is taking Advanced Placement (AP) government and physics online through the nonprofit VHS Collaborative. It’s a Maynard-based company that offers 200 virtual courses for middle and high school students.

Milford requires students to take in-classroom courses where offered. But when there aren’t enough students signed up for a class, the school pays for virtual courses. VHS Collaborative charges between $200 and $450 per student.

“It requires stamina for students to take this type of online learning,” said Milford High School Vice Principal Carolyn Banach, who oversees the program. “It really develops them as a student and as a global learner, as a 21st century learner.”

“It can actually be harder than taking a class with a real-live teacher,” said Jonathan Flatley, a senior who is taking a virtual AP physics class along with Crivello. “It’s more independent because you are expected to learn the material from lectures that are online and based on just learning from your textbook. So there’s a lot more of having to go out and figure things out on your own.”

Sometimes Flatley and Crivello help each other with the course, and they can contact locally based teachers online. The lectures come from leaders in the field, including MIT professors. For example, one of the AP physics lectures comes from MIT’s OpenCourseWare website and is led by legendary MIT professor emeritus Walter Lewin.

VHS has been offering online courses since 1996. The company says its AP students pass AP exams — which can earn them credits at certain universities – at higher rates than the national average. Debbie Kenny of VHS says the courses are on the same schedule for every student so it feels like they are in a class together, even though they’re scattered around the country.

“The kids are coming together with a group of students, a group of peers, with a teacher and really interacting together and working collaboratively throughout a full semester and a full year, so they are not fully independent,” Kenny said.

VHS currently operates in 200 schools across Massachusetts and they’re not the only company offering virtual learning. The state is starting to work on a list of approved online courses which school districts may use.

Currently there is just one entirely virtual school in Massachusetts, which is part of the Greenfield Public Schools district. Over the next two years, the state’s Board of Education plans to approve two more. Eventually there will be 10 virtual schools serving students as young as kindergarten through 12th grade.

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  • Jackie Moon

    This will be the preferred method of education in the not to distant future. You cannot deny the efficiency of the process and the rich collaborative experience that virtual learning brings.It also is relevant to the online world today’s children our born into.

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    I predicted this would happen years ago. How long will we pay for expensive, dangerous buildings and school buses and janators and teachers when we can just send the kids home with an ipad app? it would be a great way to prevent school shootings too lol

  • BMcCarty

    My son is taking AP Economics through Virtual High School. He’s doing well but it’s completely self-taught. There are assignments (readings, problem sets, postings, tests) but no instruction. No lectures. No dialog. The only interaction is through the postings He fears that his retention is lower than other classes because there is no real time dialog, discussion, or debate.

    • http://www.facebook.com/debbie.kenny.77 Debbie Kenny

      Of course every student’s experience is unique, but most of our students do retain the content they learn in these courses. In 2012, 71% of VHS students who took the AP exam passed with a score of 3,4, or 5. That’s 12 points above the national average of 59% for all students. Most of our courses do have a lot of online opportunities for dialogue and debate. Maybe if your son is concerned, he could reach out to his teacher about this. Debbie Kenny, The VHS Collaborative

  • Kris

    Awesome. I teach and I am in the dissertation state of Doctoral degree. My area of concentration is in K-12 Distance Learning and I can tell you that this will be our future. It isn’t for everyone. It works great for students who are responsible and mature. Those that are high achievers (such as those taking A/P courses). Glad to see this is getting some good press.

  • JustBrowsing

    Online learning (eLearning) will become more prevalent in the future. It reduces costs of classrooms, printed materials, and even instructors. That said, eLearning is not for everyone, especially those who lack motivation, responsibility, and discipline. This group still needs classroom learning, coupled with a strong instructor and other resources, to excel.

    There are also programs available that combine classroom instruction with online studies. It’s a combination of face-to-face interaction with taking standardized content online. This hybrid model may be more suitable for a general population, particularly in high school (rather than college level) where teens are still developing mentally and socially and requires a more structured learning environment with peers and adults.

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      those who lack motivation, responsibility, and discipline dont tend to excel in the classroom either.

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