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Online schools describe institutions that teach courses entirely or primarily through online methods. Though there are tens of thousands of commercial and non-accredited courses available online, the term “online school” is generally reserved for accredited schools that teach a full-time (or nearly full-time) course of instruction designed to lead to a degree. Virtual public and private schools serving every grade level including graduate programs may elect to pursue accreditation through various regional and national organizations. Accredited schools must meet rigorous standards as defined by the issuing organization and are designed to insure that students are receiving the highest quality instruction and education. Examples of organizations that issue school accreditation include: Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges, Northwest Association of Accredited Schools
All student services are conducted through Internet technology. Online schools differ/contrasts from traditional schools through the physical media that links administrators, teachers and students and is an alliance of public distance learning schools. Many states in the United States have their own online schools, and many of them have students numbering in the thousands. By providing a student’s social security number the person is then entered into a database where they can choose which classes they want to take.
There are many different online school instructional and enrollment models. Instructional models range from fully independent self paced courses to semester based, teacher facilitated courses. Class sizes range widely with anywhere from 25 students to as many as 200 students in each class section. Students keep in contact with teachers and collaborate with other students through web communication tools provided in the course delivery platforms like Blackboard or Desire2Learn or Moodle. In some cases students communicate by phone with instructors. To help with communication many online schools have implemented their own system programs to help build courses and maintain student profiles. There are also many books and training manuals to aid in the development of such schools and courses.
History of Online Schooling
Many of today’s online schools are descendants of correspondence schools. Sometimes referred to as “distance learning,” correspondence schools offered students an alternative to the traditional brick and mortar meetings within a schoolhouse. These schools utilized the postal service for student-teacher interaction, or used two-way radio transmissions, sometimes with pre-recorded television broadcasts. Students were expected to study their learning material independently and, in some cases, meet with a proctor to be tested. Modern online schools provide similar alternatives to students with a more ubiquitous and, often, interactive approach.
Online schools now exist all around the world. Some of these virtual schools have been integrated into public schools (particularly in the United States), where students sit in computer labs and do their work online. In other situations, students can be completely homeschooled, or they can take any combination of public/private/homeschooling and online classes.
Pricing and location of Online Schools
Online schools may be free if the state pays for the courses, otherwise, there will be a course fee to be paid for by the student, parents or student’s home school. Other materials would be purchased by the student, such as books.
Materials can also add up. Most courses will provide electronic materials free of cost, but others require some shopping on the students part. Textbooks are not required but can be used as an aid for coursework.
Materials used in Online Schools
As mentioned earlier, many materials are provided free of cost. Some schools provide programs, usually for web design classes. Some popular materials include Adobe Systems products, Jasc products, and products from Macromedia. Other schools may use Corel products as a cheaper alternative. These products are usually free. Student usually receives the full version of the selected program, with a limited license, usually 1 year or so. These programs are key in the success of virtual schools, and help them to improve each year. Many schools will also provide a brand new computer for all students in need of one. Generally, these computers run using the Microsoft operating system, Windows XP, but depending on lesson needs and coursework the school may also use Linux based computers or Apple Macintoshes.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Schools
Advocates of online learning believe that online schools hold advantages including: not being required to attend and travel to face-to-face classes and the integration digital media into the curricula. Some online schools include online study groups in which students interact with each other online.
Unlike traditional education delivery methods, students at online schools do not directly interact with professors. Hence, virtual education is considered by many to be equivalent to a directed-learning program. Because students do not interact with their instructors or peers face-to-face, “lack of socialization” is often quoted, as a disadvantage by detractors. Recent anecdotal evidence provided by one online school from one live cyberschool indicates that, while socialization may be different, it is not necessarily lacking. It is also recommended that students enrolled in online schools be involved in social activities outside school, much like homeschooled children. Another perceived disadvantage to distance learning is the added challenge of staying focused while in the home environment, and many students report that staying on task is the most difficult aspect of learning online.
Many students are drawn to online learning for a variety of reasons; particularly, the ability to avoid the requirement of traveling to a physical location, which may be impossible for some non-traditional learners. Critics argue that for online education to be taken seriously, online programs must adhere to generally accepted educational standards. To reduce this criticism, The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) has developed a set of standards released on February 21, 2008. Some believe that this is an important first step in monitoring online programs, but while every provider of education must be accredited, the quality of accreditation varies significantly. For instance, the non-profit AACSB is the most prestigious accreditation agency for business schools and no virtual schools have received accreditation by the agency.
Online Schools Accreditation Agencies
- The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) provides accreditation services for more than 2000 public and private institutions in the six state region – Pre-K through university. Emanating from high quality standards, NEASC accreditation uses self-reflection, peer review and best practices as integral components of its assessment process and monitors the follow-up endeavors leading to continuous school/program improvement.
NEASC accredits schools in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
- The North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (NCA CASI) Office of Postsecondary Education is responsible for the accountability of schools with postsecondary certificate-granting designation in accordance with federal regulations. They strive to work closely with postsecondary institutions to ensure the quality of the education provided to students.
NCA CASI accredits schools in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Navajo Nation, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
- The Middle States Commission on Higher Education is the unit of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA) that accredits degree-granting colleges and universities in the Middle States region.
MSA accredits schools in Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Central America, Europe, and the Middle East.
- The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) is one of the six regional accreditation organizations recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. This agency accredits over 13,000 public and private educational institutions ranging from preschool to college level in the southern United States.
- The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), a 501(c)(3) organization, is recognized as one of six regional associations that accredit public and private schools, colleges, and universities in the United States
- The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) is an independent, non-profit membership organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the regional authority on educational quality and institutional effectiveness of higher education institutions. The Commission oversees regional accreditation for 162 institutions. Its decision-making body consists of up to twenty-six Commissioners who represent the public and the diversity of higher education institutions within the Northwest region. It fulfills its mission by establishing accreditation criteria and evaluation procedures by which institutions are reviewed.
NWCCU accredits schools in in the seven-state Northwest region of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
Online Schools Community Resources
- U.S. Department of Education – ED was created in 1980 by combining offices from several federal agencies. ED’s mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.
- American Education Research Association – The American Educational Research Association (AERA), founded in 1916, is concerned with improving the educational process by encouraging scholarly inquiry related to education and evaluation and by promoting the dissemination and practical application of research results.
- American Association of School Administrators – The American Association of School Administrators, founded in 1865, is the professional organization for more than 13,000 educational leaders in the United States and throughout the world. AASA members range from chief executive officers, superintendents and senior level school administrators to cabinet members, professors and aspiring school system leaders.
- Khan Academy – The Khan Academy is an organization on a mission. They are a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.
- Merlot – Merlot is a free and open online community of resources designed primarily for faculty, staff and students of higher education from around the world to share their learning materials and pedagogy. MERLOT is a leading edge, user-centered, collection of peer reviewed higher education, online learning materials, catalogued by registered members and a set of faculty development support services.
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