Virtual schools are an online education program which mimics the benefits of attending a physical school for students. They provide live classroom instruction, tests, exercises, and learning materials. The only difference is that these items are delivered over the internet instead of in-person.
In 2015, there were over 275,000 students enrolled in more than 500 virtual schools in the United States.
Here are the pros and cons of virtual schools to consider if you are looking at this option as an educational resource for yourself or your family.
List of the Pros of Virtual Schools
1. There is more flexibility with your schedule.
Virtual schools are like a homeschooling option in many ways. Although there are specific in-person class times which must be met, many of the learning components are completed on a schedule that works with your other life responsibilities. As long as you meet the deadline for completion, you can work on schoolwork at noon, at dinner, or at midnight.
2. It can reduce the number of missed attendance days.
There are times when students may not feel well in the morning, then feel better in the afternoon after receiving some rest. Because of the structure of virtual schools, students can sleep in if they need to do so. They can take time to feel better. Then they can get their schoolwork completed later in the day. Required live classes are an exception to this benefit. Otherwise, there isn’t a problem in taking care of yourself first.
3. Students complete schoolwork faster in virtual schools.
Most students attend a physical classroom for about 6 hours per day in the traditional K-12 public school system in the United States. Add in up to an hour of riding the bus each way for rural students and another 1-2 hours of homework per night for older students and the entire day is consumed by school. With a virtual school, you can get all the work done in about half the time and completely eliminate homework – because you’re already learning at home.
4. It is very affordable.
In the United States, virtual schools are often part of the public education system. That means you can opt into the educational program without an added cost. You get the education for free, just as if you attended your assigned public school. There are equipment costs that families must meet, and you must purchase your own school supplies. The books and other curriculum needs, however, are shipped directly to your home or available for pickup from your local district office.
5. You don’t need to worry about the curriculum calendar.
For families that become home-based schools, most states in the U.S. require them to create a teaching calendar. They must provide evidence of what is being learned by the student. Some jurisdictions may even require parents to certify their student is being educated to avoid consequences from local truancy laws. All of this goes away with a virtual school. The school district plans the curriculum and lesson plans for you, which eliminates the need to independently find these resources.
6. Independent testing still occurs.
One of the biggest complaints involving home-based schools is that there can be an unsupervised bias in the grading process. With a virtual school, the district may have a parent help to administer a test, with the grading process kept independent of the home. Some virtual schools even require students to go to a third-party testing affiliate to eliminate any perception of bias in the grading process to provide authenticity to the grades earned by the student.
7. Teachers are still mentors for the students.
Just because a teacher is seen through the computer instead of in a classroom does not mean that the mentoring relationship disappears. Many of the teachers who work in virtual schools are caring and supportive of their students. They work hard to encourage great ideas in their students to encourage the learning process.
List of the Cons of Virtual Schools
1. Students must remain disciplined to keep their work on-schedule.
Some virtual schools have no set deadlines for schoolwork completion. The only requirement is that the work must be completed before the start of the next grade. For some families, the temptation to procrastinate on the schoolwork can be quite strong. If the schoolwork is put off for too long, it can create long days of getting through the various requirements to ensure everything is finished on time.
2. It can become a lonely experience.
Virtual schools may offer families some additional convenience when it comes to scheduling. It also limits the amount of time students have to make friends and socialize with their peers. Some virtual schools do offer meet-up opportunities to counter this issue. Many communities have homeschooling groups which meet regularly for field trips and get-togethers as well. If neither is available, working with a virtual school can cause isolation.
3. Virtual schools keep the kids at home all the time.
Families need to spend a little time away from one another, especially in larger families. The dynamics of the family relationship become stressed when everyone is spending time together all day, every day. It is difficult for the parents or the children to get some time on their own because of the necessary responsibilities involved in virtual schooling.
4. It increases the screen time of the student.
Screen time can be overly stimulating for some children. Being enrolled in a virtual school increases the amount of screen time a student receives every day. There are individual differences in children that can negate this possible disadvantage, especially those who are engaged in the learning process. For children who struggle to sleep at night, stay focused when a screen is on, or needs prompts to learn independently, a virtual school may provide fewer learning opportunities.
5. Families with multiple children must have them work separately.
Grade-based curriculum typically covers different subjects because of the age capabilities of each student. If a first-grader is learning about dinosaurs, a fourth-grader might be learning about the animals in the rainforest. In a virtual school, families with multiple students enrolled will usually be working independently from one another. In a home-based school where the parents are teachers, the curriculum can be coordinated to have the entire family working together instead.
6. It may not be possible to blend subjects together.
Virtual schools require students to show their work as evidence that they understand the core concepts of a subject. That means, unlike traditional schools, there are fewer opportunities to blend different classes together. You cannot blend creative writing and typing, for example, or have history merge with science. Because each subject is taught independently, some students may find that it takes longer for them to do their work each day than it would if they attended their local school in-person.
7. It can limit the motivation to explore.
In the virtual school environment, there is a need to check off specific boxes to clear educational mandates. That gets many families into the routine of working hard enough to finish the requirements, then going no further. It places a natural limit on a student’s curiosity, which may eventually cause a habit to develop which limits their motivation.
8. There may not be any choice in the books you get to use.
For families with deeply-rooted spiritual and cultural beliefs, virtual schools can present some interesting challenges. There may not be any options available for parents to swap out books that may be insensitive to their beliefs or culture. The school may even require students, in some instances, to complete assignments which may violate their personal or family ethical codes. Many schools will work with you if they know in advance what could be problematic. If parents are not proactive about this, however, it may lessen the learning experience.
9. It can lead to poor student performance.
Over a 4-year period, from 2011-2014, virtual schools in the Philadelphia area had student performance evaluated through standardized testing. When their scores were evaluated for the state achievement tests, 100% of the children enrolled in the virtual schools failed the test. According to Longreads, student performance in virtual schools is declining, even though the private companies which distribute the curriculum to these students is making profits in the millions.
10. There may be little, if any, oversight over the virtual school.
As with charter schools, some districts may take a hands-off approach to the virtual school system. That leaves uncertainty in the quality of the curriculum being distributed to some students. It may also place teachers at a disadvantage, being required to supervise many more students virtually than if they were to do so in a traditional classroom.
The pros and cons of virtual schools offer independence and flexibility, while requiring responsibility and dedication to the work. It can be a highly beneficial experience for some students. It may also be difficult for some students because of the limited social contact available to them. Every student is different, and every family has different needs, which is why each of these key points must be carefully considered at the personal level.