A Comparison of Traditional and Virtual Learning Environments

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The following section compares two different alternative learning environments which cater to the needs of at-risk students and students under special circumstances. One follows the traditional classroom learning model while the other follows the virtual classroom model. A comparative analysis will be made on the demographic profile, student situation, classroom characteristic, and school performance of both schools in order to explain the differences/similarities as well as the strengths/weaknesses of each. By comparing the outcomes of a virtual learning environment with a traditional learning environment, a clearer picture of what this innovative model offers to students could be made.

Background

The two schools which were selected for comparison were the 1) Lorin Griset Academy of Orange County, Sta. Ana Unified District of the State of California, and 2) Florida Virtual High School of the Florida Virtual District of the State of Florida.

Lorin Griset Academy

The Lorin Griset Academy is one among the 12 high schools offered within the Santa Ana Unified School District of Orange County. According to its official website, it is an alternative education school or a continuation school which primarily serves students who are considered to be at-risk for not graduating at the prescribed pace (Lorin Griset Academy, 2009). As an alternative school, Lorin Griset provides non-traditional education to students from Grades 9 until 12 whose circumstances and needs cannot be met through regular classroom teaching, vocational school, or special education. While continuation schools are characterized separately from the mainstream classroom in terms of teaching method and environment, the curriculum remains the same as well as the services provided. Alternative schools are designed to cater to students identified as vulnerable to dropouts, students facing substance abuse problems, chronic truants, pregnant teenagers, single mothers, and those with behavioral problems. Students at Lorin Griset Academy are also bound by the prescribed requirements for graduation as do students in the regular classrooms but the schedule is more flexible in order to help students keep up. While most of the students enrolled in continuation schools are considered at-risk academically and behaviorally, the environment in the alternative classroom is also conducive for mentally gifted students who are disappointed with the slow pace in the mainstream classroom.

 Lorin Griset Academy educates students who are sophomores through seniors and provide for them the environment in an individualized yet comprehensive study problem within the context of the "small school" setting. Proponents of this method of instruction argue that this individualized setup fosters teacher-student interaction and encourages commitment and inspiration among students because they experience the devotion of adults to their academic outcomes.

Florida Virtual High School

The Florida Virtual High School is an alternative learning environment which leverages the Internet in delivering quality instruction to high school students. Instead of attending regular classrooms, students only need to log in to their student accounts, access their lessons for the day and work on reports, projects or school assignments. Pacing is flexible and teachers are certified by the state and by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. The role of teachers is to guide students in their lessons, evaluate students' work and provide comments and recommendations to performance and students' grades.

Florida Virtual High School is client-specific, as defined by its mission. It aims to expand educational opportunities for students by making education technology-based. The mobility, flexibility, and fast pace that the virtual high school offers is accessible to students as long as they meet the profile of first priority students. According to Section 1002.35 of Florida Statutes, persons who are qualified to enroll at the virtual high school are (as cited in Florida TaxWatch, 2005):

Students who need expanded access to courses in order to meet their educational goals, such as home education students and students in inner-city and rural high schools who do not have access to higher-level courses.

Students seeking accelerated access in order to obtain a high school diploma at least one semester early. (p. 3)

The virtual high school has experienced continuing increase in its enrollment over the years. One of the greatest attractions for technology-based learning is that: a) it provides academic courses not available in regular schools; b) it allows students to retake course for high school exit; c) it is a creative alternative to mainstream classrooms; d) it enables student to choose from among various optional course; e) it can give access to differently-abled persons.

Courses are not available only at the start of the semester. Florida Virtual High School features open enrollment. Services such as education counseling, career counseling, college planning, financial aid, and scholarship information are offered just like in mainstream classrooms. However, Florida Virtual High School is not a degree-granting high school. Credits obtained from the virtual high school are credited to a student's local school to facilitate high school exit.

Demographic Profile

Student Population

In terms of demographic characteristics, Lorin Griset was around five times smaller than Florida Virtual High School in terms of student Population. Within a five-year period since SY 2004-05, Lorin Griset's enrolment size increased three-fold: 253 in SY 2004-05, 220 in SY 2005-06, 258 in SY 2006-06, 228 in SY 2007-08 and 298 in SY 2008-09. Florida Virtual High School's current enrolment size is 12,730 encompassing students in Grades 9 to 12.

Figure 1. Five-Year Enrolment Size (2004-09)

Source: (Florida Department of Education, 2010; California State Reports, 2010)

Gender

The population of both schools are nearly similarly distributed. For SY 2008-09, Lorin Griset had more males than there were females. Its gender distribution was 58% male and 42% female. On the other hand, Florida Virtual High School had more females than males enrolled. Its gender distribution was 59% female and 41% male.

Figure 2. Gender Distribution

Ethnicity

The ethnic distribution of both schools varied greatly. Lorin Griset housed a predominantly Hispanic student population. The percentage of Hispanic students from 2003-2008 stayed above 95% and for the year 2007-08, stood at 96.3%

Figure 3. Ethnicity Distribution in Loren Griset Academy (2003-08)

In Florida Virtual High School, the predominant ethnicity was White, which composed almost three-fourths of the student population. Hispanic students made up around 16% of the population, African-Americans around 9% and Asians, 4%.

Figure 4. Ethnicity Distribution in Florida Virtual High School (2003-08)

Poverty Statistics

Lorin Griset Academy educated more socially disadvantaged students as well as more English learners than Florida Virtual High School. Lorin Griset catered to students from poor backgrounds, 74% of which are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.

Figure 4. Socially Disadvantaged Students and English Learners

Moreover, nearly half (48%) of its student population are English learners. On the other hand, Florida Virtual High School has a lower percentage of socially disadvantaged students (31%) and lower percentage of English learners served (22%). The significance of this finding is that from a socioeconomic and cultural standpoint, Lorin Griset addresses the academic needs of more underprivileged and underserved students than Florida Virtual High, which may be a contributing factor to its school performance. Due in part to its legislated mission, Florida Virtual High School is quite selective in serving those "who meet the profile for success in this educational delivery context" (Florida TaxWatch, 2007, p. 12). Students who need special education services because of language difficulties or disabilities may not be addressed.

School Characteristics

The student-teacher ratio is an important classroom characteristic. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) considers it significant in evaluating the quality of the school and performance of school districts. Along with class size, student-teacher ratio has been found to impact school achievement and school districts and the state include class size reduction in their development targets. This is because the more attention that a teacher focuses on a student, the higher that student will perform. As of 2008-09, the student-teacher ratio at Lorin Griset was 17:1 while in Florida Virtual High School, it was 30:1.

Figure 5. Student-Teacher Ratio

School Activities

Opportunities for socialization are different in both schools. Lorin Griset Academy emphasizes parental participation in the activities of their children. It also provides avenues for students to socialize and display their skills and talents in events such as Back to School Night, Open House, Student performances, Fundraisers, Career Day, Music/choir and/or theatre, Science fairs, Sports events, Promotion activities, Student recognition assemblies, and Parent education training and/or workshops. On the other hand, because Florida Virtual High School is online-based, the only way where students have the opportunity to socialize is through its newsletter.

Graduation/ Dropout Rates

As pointed out earlier, Florida Virtual High School is not a degree-granting educational institution so graduation rates are not available. In Lorin Griset, graduation rates have been improving since 2005. From a graduate rate of 87.75, this has spiked to 96.9 in 2009.

Figure 6. Graduation Rates at Lorin Griset

Meanwhile, the dropout rate at Lorin Griset has also experienced a noticeable decline since 2005. From 4.3% in 2005, Lorin Griset's dropout rates for SY 2008-09 was 2.2%.

Figure 5. Dropout Rate at Lorin Griset

Florida Virtual High School suffers from course exits or withdrawal from courses. The school policy pertaining to withdrawals is flexible. Students are given a 28-day grace period within which they can drop out from the course within the grace period. Those who do so will not receive penalties and will be disenrolled and given a grade of "withdrawn with no grade." Those who decide to drop out after the 28-day grace period will be disenrolled and given a grade of "withdrawn, failed."

Data from Florida Taxwatch indicates that the problem of withdrawals is especially noticeable in high school enrolees.In SY 2004-05, an average of 56.8% of students completed course requirements, while 28.2% withdrew from their classes and were given no grades, 14.6% withdrew and were failed and .4% were failed. In SY 2005-06, 60.4% completed the courses, 26.9% withdrew with no grade, 10% withdrew and were failed and 2.8% failed.

Figure 6. Withdrawals from Courses in Florida Virtual HS

School Performance

The No Child Left Behind Act has made it clear that schools, districts, and states should be held accountable for the quality of education provided for students. In California, one measure of school performance is the API or the Academic Performance Index which ranks schools using a numeric scale from a lowest score of 200 to a highest score of 1000. API is based on the performance of a school's students on state standardized examinations such as California Standards Test (CST) and CAT-6. The API is also a measure used for evaluation purposes. School which do not meet or exceed their growth targets are qualified for funding from the state.

Figure 7. API of Lorin Griset (2004-09)

Based on Figure 7, Lorin Griset has had a relatively consistent API score since 2004, rising to its peak in 2005 at 599, decreasing to 487 in 2008 and increasing again to its most recent API of 561 for 2009. In terms of school performance, schools are bound for evaluation based on state standards of assessment. In terms of school performance, school report cards are handed out to schools in order for administrators and parents to evaluate which areas are still deficient. Table 1 shows the report card for both Lorin Griset and Florida Virtual High School from 2005 until 2009.

State-wide School Assessments

Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT)

Schools are evaluated through standardized examinations given to its students. In Florida, the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) is an annual examination given to all public school students enrolled in grade 3 until 11. Performance of students in the FCAT are used in order to generate a school grade. Similar to the public school grading system, each school will be graded ranging from an A to an F based on student performance and school improvement relative to past student performances. Schools that get a higher ranking get higher funding from the state.

Figure 8. FCAT Results of Florida Virtual High School

Figure 8 reflects the performance of students at Florida Virtual High School in the FCAT since 2005. The numbers indicate the percentage of students who either met or exceeded state expectations in Math, Reading, Writing, and Science. Compared with state averages, the number of students who earn excellent marks on all areas are higher in Florida Virtual High School.

California Standards Test (CST)

California has its own standardized testing and reporting program. One of its major components is the California Standards Test (CST) to measure the performance of students based on the characteristics and competencies of California students. California has its own academic content standards in mathematics, science, English-language arts (ELA), and history-social science.

Figure 9. Performance in CST at Lorin Griset

Based on the numbers in Figure 9, only a very small percentage of students are able to meet or exceed state expectations on performance in English, Math, and Social Science.

School Report Card

Judging on the performance of students from both schools in FCAT and CST, the school grade of Florida Virtual High School is higher than that of Lorin Griset Academy.

Table 1. School Report Card

Year

School Grade

(School Accountability Report)

Lorin Griset

Florida Virtual HS

2005-06

B

B

2006-07

B

A

2007-08

B

A

2008-09

B

A

As gleaned from Table 1, the school grade of Florida Virtual High School is higher than Lorin Griset based on the performance of its students on standardized examinations provided by the state. Florida Virtual High School started out as a "B" school for SY 2005-06 but eventually became an "A" school during the next school year and has been consistently evaluated as an "A" school ever since. Lorin Griset remained a "B" school since 2005 until present.

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