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.
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.
This program aired on January 29, 2013.