Summer School Goes to the Beach
Virtual classes give high school kids flexibility
Ingenious teenagers can find every manner of reason to take a pass on summer school: There's the two-week family vacation in the middle of the four-week session, not to mention the potential for a day job scooping ice cream--or the fear that they might bomb at cramming a semester's worth of work into a month.
In the digital age, however, none is reason enough. The rapid spread of online learning at the secondary level--experts estimate that more than half of all school districts offer some virtual coursework, up from just 30 percent two years ago--is now creating "anywhere, anytime" flexibility for summer students, too.
While the total numbers are still small, many hundreds of students around the country will be signing on in the next week or two for everything from U.S. history to human space exploration. Take Betty Su, a rising senior from McLean, Va. She plans to complete an English class she needs to graduate through Fairfax County Public Schools Online Campus this summer--while visiting her grandparents in China. In California, Graham Petersen, who just finished his junior year in Palo Alto, will study Algebra II through the online arm of Oregon's Salem-Keizer school district while working as a teacher's assistant in a children's program. "This is no shortcut--it's the full course. But you can work at 11 o'clock at night," says Robert Currie, executive director of Michigan Virtual High School, whose courses, like most, are available nationally.
Wired. That's because programs like Michigan's (which costs $275 for a regular 90-hour class or $375 for Advanced Placement courses, already underway) are asynchronous: Interactions with teacher and classmates don't take place in real time but through E-mail and threaded discussions. "You don't have to tune in at the same time to hear the talking head," says Liz Pape, president and chief executive of Massachusetts-based Virtual High School, a collaboration of some 300 high schools that is launching a full-fledged summer program this year after a two-year pilot.
Beyond convenience, there are instructional reasons to consider the virtual classroom. Those who have struggled in a course during the year often find that the online format makes it easier to master the content. "Most students finish with A's and B's, because teachers don't let them go through with D's," says Jan Bleek, principal of the Internet Academy, an arm of the Federal Way district near Seattle that is offering 45 summer courses at $180 each. "There's lots of revision, a lot of work that goes on in depth between teacher and student after work has been submitted." While grading policies vary, kids often are free to retake assessments or to work through several practice exams until they're ready to be tested. "I got a B--the highest grade in math I've ever, ever gotten since sixth grade," says Petersen, who took the first half of Salem-Keizer's online Algebra II class this spring after failing the course first semester.
Success depends largely on actually tackling the content, of course--and nobody (other than parents, perhaps) will be breathing down a student's neck. So it's important to be realistic about whether online study is a good fit with a teenager's learning style. "The No. 1 thing is, are you capable of working on your own?" says Kathy Armstrong, an English teacher at Harris County High in Hamilton, Ga., who is also an instructor for Virtual High School. Since material is presented as text rather than by lecture, being a proficient reader is a must. And it goes without saying that students had better know their way around a computer.
A note of caution: Families shopping for an online class not offered by their child's own school will want a sign-off from the principal upfront. The home school, not the online provider, grants course credit, and that won't happen if the class doesn't meet the school's curriculum standards. Because the quality and content of online courses vary considerably--and even very good offerings might not cover all the right ground--the principal will probably request a detailed course outline before giving an OK. "I'd go so far as to determine if the principal is willing to say in writing that credit will be accepted," advises Mark Jackson, director of K-12 research at the Boston firm Eduventures. It would be a real bummer to lug a laptop to the beach and then discover that the work was all for naught.
This story appears in the June 27, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.