TWENTY FIRST CENTURY STUDENTS AND EDUCATIONAL REFORMS

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The growing complexity of an interdependent and interconnected world has spurred massive education reforms in the United States. Unfortunately, many say that the education system is not modernizing enough to produce more competitive twenty-first century students. According to the North American Council for Learning and Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2006), majority of Americans feel that the United States is lagging behind other industrialized countries in equipping students with 21st century skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving skills, computer and technology skills, and communication and self-direction skills.

Calls to reform the education system to align with the needs of the global workforce have prompted support for virtual schooling. Reports suggest a growing acceptance and popularity of online learning among educators, parents, and students. K-12 online learning is a new field that caters to an estimated $50 million market and growing over 30 percent annually. There are over 173 virtual charter schools serving 92,235 students in 18 states in 2007; 57 percent of public secondary schools in the U.S. offer supplemental online courses and 72 percent of school districts with distance education programs planned to expand online offerings in the years to come (Watson, Gemin, & Ryan, 2008).

The phenomenon of the "virtual school" has generated much excitement. Considered by many to have revolutionized the way education is delivered and accessed in the digital era of the Information age, virtual learning in the United States has roots that go way back in the late 18th century. The forerunner of the contemporary virtual schools is the so-called mail-based correspondence schools which originated at the University of Chicago as early as 1891. From mail-based systems, delivery mechanisms soon became radio programs, television and satellite broadcasts, until it became the Internet-based virtual schools of today. Virtual schools using the Internet as medium were launched in the 1990s but its foundation established before that period. In 1988, the federal Star Schools program was started with particular emphasis on providing distance-education technologies through telecommunication partnerships to small rural schools. In August 1993, a charter school was built by Horizon Instructional Systems in Lincoln, California, offering programs that include an "electronically assisted student teaching" program which was a blend of home-based computers, satellite technology, and distance education. The K-12 virtual school appears to have materialized in the summer of 1995 when the Eugene, Oregon-based CyberSchool Project was launched by nine district teachers. By 1996, the hype of the virtual school took ground with the establishment of the experimental WebSchool in Orange County Florida; Cyber-School Academy in Washington State; the Concord Virtual High School which was built through a $7.5 million grant; and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. What concretized the presence of K-12 virtual schools is the emergence of large, multi-state programs such as the Florida Virtual School, founded in 1997 and the Virtual High School (Greenway & Vanourek, 2006).

Several studies and researches have cited both the advantages and disadvantages of online learning. Researches show that apart from online learning not showing significant difference in influencing student performance compared to traditional classroom instruction, online learners experience forms of isolation and poor social skills. Some studies have concluded that effective implementation of blend learning approaches in virtual schools contribute to better academic performance and assessment test scores for students compared to their traditional classroom counterparts. In addition to improvement in core academic subjects, studies also show that virtual schooling provides the needed skills in critical thinking, creative problem solving, digital literacy, autonomy and global awareness to prepare students for the 21st century workforce. This study aims to do a comparative analysis of two high schools (one traditional, one virtual) and gather pertinent literature to determine whether or not the virtual school can meet the demands of the 21st century student.

Purpose of the Study

The viability of online learning to supplement traditional classroom instruction has become undeniable in the face of increased Internet connectivity. In the United Schools, 100 percent of the schools have Internet access. Computer usage begins at very young ages and young children are now able creators of multimedia content (International Council for K-12 Online Learning, 2009).

Integrating technology with education seems only fitting in the digital era of the Information age. Like all education reforms initiatives, the case has been made to laud and discredit the success of online learning in producing 21st century-standard education outcomes. Studies have pointed to the effectiveness of online learning as "equivalent" or "better" than traditional classroom instruction (Cavanaugh, 2001; Barker & Wendel, 2001). In addition, experts have come to believe that when used appropriately, e-learning can lead to improved student performance (National Association of State Boards of Education, 2001). There are also disadvantages cited: isolation, poor social development, disadvantages for students experience language, poor achievement in physical demonstration-focused subjects such as foreign language, physical education, and music (Barker & Wendel, 2001; Bond, 2002).

Exhaustive research in online learning or virtual schooling is limited, as research on the discipline is relatively new and undergoing development. This study hopes to contribute to the small body of research that explores the capability of virtual schools to meet the demands of the 21st century learner. This study presents relevant theoretical concepts and existing research work to give a proper evaluation of whether or not virtual schooling effectively equips and prepares the 21st century students with skills needed to survive in the competitive and internationalized workforce.

Statement of the Problem

The changes spurred by the Internet and multimedia technology has challenged the traditional understanding on how education is delivered in order to effectively prepare students for the demands of the 21st century. Virtual schools break down geographical and time barriers that limit opportunities for learning. The promise of flexibility and student autonomy in virtual schooling are believed to prepare students for the increasing demand in problem solving skills and technological expertise in the globalized workforce. Researchers have pointed both advantages and disadvantages of the virtual school. While it offers exciting opportunities for student engagement, purely online learning lacks the needed face-to-face interaction and exposure to socialization that traditional learning can provide. Hence, the blended learning or hybrid approach, which combines both the online experience and face-to-face instruction, has found application in most schools offering online courses today. This study will review relevant literature in order to answer the following research questions:

What are the needs of the 21st century student?

What is the effectiveness of virtual schooling in improving student performance?

What is the potential of virtual schooling in providing students with 21st century skills, particularly (a) critical thinking and problem solving skills; (b) global awareness; (c) information communications and technology (ICT) skills; and (d) self-directed learning and empowerment?

Literature Review

This section presents selected relevant studies and theoretical concepts that explore the capability of virtual schools to meet the needs of 21st century students, particularly in improving core academic competencies as well as so-called 21st century skills.

The Needs of the Twenty-First Century Student

Aside from the academic core competencies listed in the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) which include reading, English, language arts, science, government, arts, civics, history, and geography, theorists list several skills needed by the twenty-first century student: information, media literacy, and technology skills, learning and innovation skills, life and career skills, and global awareness (NACOL and Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2006).

Information, media, and technology skills are further subdivided into information literacy, media literacy, and information, communications and technology (ICT) literacy. Information literacy is the student's capacity to access and evaluate information efficiently and effectively, as well as appreciating the fundamental ethical issues related to information access. Media literacy entails the capacity to understand why and how media messages are constructed and the creation of media products utilizing appropriate media creation tools. Information and communications technology (ICT) literacy is the aptitude of using digital technologies (computers, media players, etc.), social networks, and communication/networking tools to evaluate and communicate information and successfully function in a knowledge-based economy.

Learning and innovation skills include creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving, and communication and collaboration. Creativity is the ability to create a wide range of new and worthwhile ideas, refining and evaluating them to improve creative efforts, as well as the openness and responsiveness to new perspectives. Critical thinking involves abilities such as problem identification, information gathering, assumptions, data interpretation, appraising evidence, recognizing relationships, drawing conclusions, testing conclusions, reconstructing patterns and making judgments (Thornburg, 2000). Communication and collaboration skills involves the ability to articulate thoughts and ideas effectively using verbal and nonverbal communication methods, listening effectively, and working effectively with diverse teams or groups .

Effectiveness of Virtual Schools in Improving Student Performance

Key findings gathered by educational reform organizations comparing student performance among online learners and traditional classroom learners range from "no significant difference", "equal", and "better" outcomes for students engaged in online learning. Studies also point to blended learning or the hybrid approach as the method that results to best student outcomes.

In a meta-analysis done by The U.S. Department of Education (2009) synthesizing 51 online studies in 2009, results indicate that "on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction" (p. ix). Furthermore, the study compared outcomes of both online and blended learning approaches to face-to-face instruction. The study concludes that blended instruction was more effective than face-to-face instruction and recommends implementation of blended approaches.

A meta-analysis conducted by Cavanaugh (2001) explored the differences in achievement among distance learning and traditional classroom programs at the K-12 level. Results indicated that achievement was more or less equivalent among the two groups.

The Florida TaxWatch Center for Educational Performance and Accountability (2007) cited in its final report of the Florida Virtual School that students enrolled in online courses performed better than their counterparts enrolled in traditional schools. In the school year 2004-05, FLVS students outperformed their traditional school counterparts in nine out of ten subject areas. Both groups scored 85% in art/visual arts. During the 2005-06 school year, high school students taking online courses scored consistently higher in nine out of ten subject areas than traditional public high school learners. The report also indicated that FLVS students got highr grades, rated higher on the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test), and rated higher on Advanced Placement (AP) exams than learners in traditional schools.

A study on K-adult distance education programs conducted by Shachar and Neumann (2003) revealed a significant positive effect, concluding that in roughly two-thirds of the cases, distance education learners outperformed their traditional classroom counterparts.

Cavanaugh et al. (2004) conducted a meta-analysis aimed at comparing achievement in online and traditional classroom programs. The synthesis revealed "no significant difference" in academic outcomes and concluded "approximately equivalent" measures between online students and classroom counterparts.

Other studies reveal that groups of students learning online achieved in a relatively equal level with their peers in classrooms. There appears to be evidence to demonstrate that when used appropriately, blended learning approaches in virtual schooling can improve what students learn and provide them with high-quality learning opportunities (Kearsley, 2000; National Association of State Boards of Education, 2001).

A Comparison of Traditional and Virtual Learning Environments

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. All of the data were derived from official statistics from the California Department of Education and Florida Department of Education. 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

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

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)

Source: California Department of Education, 2010

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)

Source: Florida Department of Education, 2010

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

Source: California Department of Education, 2010; Florida Department of Education, 2010

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

Source: California Department of Education, 2010; Florida Department of Education, 2010

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 (Loren Griset Academy, 2009). 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 (Florida TaxWatch, 2007).

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

Source: Santa Ana Unified District, 2009

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

Source: Santa Ana Unified District, 2009

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" (Florida TaxWatch, 2007).

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)

Source: California Department of Education, 2010

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

Source: Florida Department of Education, 2010

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

Source: California Department of Education, 2010

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

Source: California Department of Education, 2010; Florida Department of Education, 2010

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.

From the comparative analysis made, it would appear that virtual learning achieved higher educational outcomes than traditional learning. However, other considerations need to be made in the analysis. Judging on the percentage of students who are socially disadvantaged and have linguistic challenges, the comparison of students from Lorin Griset and Florida Virtual High School may be incompatible. Students from Lorin Griset come from disadvantaged backgrounds while students from Florida Virtual High School are relatively well off and better-situated. Still, the advantages of both classroom approaches could be gleaned from the findings. Aside from a more impressive school report card, virtual learning emphasizes on independent scholarship and flexibility. The regular classroom however, offers more avenues for socialization and personality development than the virtual classroom.

Potential of Virtual Schools in Promoting 21st Century Skills

Unlike literature on the effectiveness of post-secondary and higher-education online learning, there is a paucity of research that focuses on the effectiveness of K-12 distance education in enhancing learning outcomes among students. Using the Partnership for 21st Century Skills model (2007), the literature presents existing documentation on effectiveness of online learning in fostering critical thinking and problem solving skills, ICT or digital literacy, global awareness, and self-directed learning and empowerment.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

Since twenty-first century jobs require higher levels of problem solving skills and critical thinking, virtual schools prepare their students by ensuring that they are able to appreciate relationships between abstract ideas and practical applications in the context of the real world. NACOL (2001) asserts that virtual schools use competency-based learning models that are effective in enhancing critical thinking skills. Creative problem solving is also facilitated through group or team activities developed routinely in online courses.

The contextual learning theory, the learning model used in online learning, suggests that learning occurs only when the learner is able to process newly-acquired information in a manner that makes sense to them using their own frames of reference. Since the mind naturally finds meaning in context, it establishes connections that has meaning and seem useful. Education theorists assert that when learning is situated in the context of real-world scenarios, students become more motivated to learn. In addition, students find more excitement as they represent and simulate authentic and actual real-world problems, instead of abstract, out-of-context activities (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Driscoll & Carliner, 2005).

Many theorists argue that the effectiveness of virtual learning is based on principles of effective learning in general. According to the learning theory, learning is enhanced or promoted on three conditions: (a) when students have active involvement in the learning process; (b) when coursework is contextualized in real-life situations and experiences; and (c) when deep learning or critical thinking is facilitated through reflective activities (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Quitadamo & Brown, 2001).

The National Survey of Student Engagement (2008) study found that online learners reported deeper approaches to learning than classroom-based learners and experienced "better use of higher order thinking skills, integrative thinking, and reflective learning" (p. 15).

Duffy and Cunningham (1996) assert that virtual schools facilitate learning by using technology in creating real-life contexts that engage learners in solving complex problems. Using real-world situations promotes deep learning by developing critical thinking in the student. Online instruction such as simulation promotes critical thinking as it involves active and skillful analysis, synthesis, and the application of information to particular situations.

An example of a contextualized learning approach applied effectively is illustrated by Florida Virtual School's science curriculum. The school's curriculum is designed generally to revolve around the use of problem solving skills and real-world applications. For instance, in a Geometry class, students are not only taught theoretical building and architectural concepts. The online teacher required students to finish a project using real-world architectural principles. After sharing digital copies of blueprints and floor plans, students were instructed to draw the front view of home. Another assignment required students to research the concepts of slope, rise, pitch, and run by examining local buildings (Florida TaxWatch, 2007).

The use of multimedia in virtual schools is an effective learning tool that facilitates student engagement. Multimedia inclusion in online courses finds support in basic cognitive principles of learning. Constructivism argues that learning can only be meaningful once the learner is able to select relevant information, organize this information, and effectively makes connections between corresponding interpretations. Furthermore, active learning happens when a student is involved in three different cognitive processes. First, the learner chooses relevant words for verbal processing or images for visual processing. Second, the learner creates a verbal model out of these words by organization. Third, the learner integrates both the verbal and visual components. As a result, Doolittle (as cited in Hede, 2002) concludes that students have a better potential for learning from a combination of words and pictures than from words alone. The use of games and simulations when teaching online subjects allow goal-based challenges that stimulates interest and heightens students' motivation. In addition, providing tools that enable students to collate and annotate notes promote engagement (Hede, 2002).

Self-Directed Learning and Empowerment

The nature of the twenty-first century knowledge economy requires citizens to be engaged in lifelong learning. As a result, being in control of the direction of one's own learning becomes not only valuable but necessary in the 21st century. Online instruction offers the needed flexibility and convenience to complete learning units when and where a learner desires (McDonald, 2000). Moreover, virtual schools empower learners with self-paced and self-directed learning, letting them choose independently what courses to take and when.

The self-paced nature of online learning benefits both students who are quick learners and those who need more time in completing course objectives. Quick learners are given the opportunity to learn at an engaging pace while students who are relatively slow in accomplishing learning units can take their time without being subject to stigma (Watson, Gemin & Ryan, 2008).

Online learning also encourages students to execute time management and practice a higher level of personal responsibility (Cavanaugh, 2001). To illustrate, Florida Virtual School students are able to choose the rate of course completion depending on their individual needs. Students are empowered to either extend or reduce their completion period from the traditional 36-week school year. In doing so, students are able to manage their time and customize the module or unit organizers provided to suit their needs. Flexibility in online learning comes with the student's accountability to submit end products to their instructors. Students are free to submit course assignments at any time of the day in a given week but will still be subject to accountability measures. This model is very much comparable to virtual offices and telecommuting of today that allows flexibility but commands high levels of accountability and expectations regarding quality.

Haughey and Anderson (1998) state that online, networked learning has the following advantages: communication and interaction; immediacy; permanence; diffusion; and, excitement. Interactive and interpersonal applications of digital technology facilitates the shift on how learning is approached. Online learning makes the move from an authority-based learning to one founded on discovery or experiential learning.

Online learning facilitates communication and interaction based on a learner-centered model (Cavanaugh, 2001). The learner-centered approach is the core of the virtual school philosophy. Learner-centered teaching in online courses necessitates increased communication on an individual basis, and often results to positive teacher-student relationships. Positive student-teacher relationships nurtured online are lined to positive student outcomes, such as critical thinking, motivation, and dropout prevention.

The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE, 2001) lists the following activities that could foster communication and collaboration among students in virtual schools: instructional resources (online tutorials, WebQuests, practice/testing environments, instructional modules, virtual labs, and simulations); informational materials (pathfinders, electronic databases, reference resources, streaming video, and digitized primary resources); virtual adventures such as web-based tours and virtual field trips; live interactions using video conferencing; collaborative online learning (e-mail, blogs, discussions, project sharing, collaborative science experiments, collaborative writing, online books discussions, online author visits, and expert discussions; online assistance (technical support, reference questions, mentoring, and peer tutoring); sharing space (virtual galleries of student work, online newspapers, and collaborative writing areas).

Global Awareness

The reality of globalization has put pressure on education systems to adjust to the increasing complexities and needs of an interdependent world. Education's purpose in developing responsible and productive citizens to fuel national growth has been supplanted as increasing competition and interdependence of a globalized world require students to be educated in order to become more productive international citizens. Schukar (1993) explained that children should be "…provided an education that more than adequately prepares them for citizenship in the society and world they will soon inherit" (p. 57).

The advent of globalization has necessitated massive reforms in education. Thomas Friedman (2005) contends in his book, "The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century" that antiquity in the methods of learning and teaching have no place in the "flat" and "connected" world. Hence, digital technology, which he attributes to the world's "flattening", must be utilized to break down time and geographical barriers in education. Through it, the ascribed role to education as the great equalizer can fulfilled to a greater extent than the traditional educational methods.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2007) emphasizes the importance of developing global awareness in the 21st century student. Global awareness involves the use of critical thinking and problem solving to be able to understand global issues, learn from and engage collaboratively with individuals from diverse cultures and backgrounds to foster an attitude of mutual respect and open dialogue, and understand different cultures and learning non-English languages.

The aim of global education is to develop empathy and perspective-taking among students as they study human conflict and cooperation, interdependence of human systems, and cross-cultural differences (Freeman, 1993; Tye & Tye, 1992). In other words, global education serves to produce students who have a global perspective and are equipped with skills, knowledge and dispositions to be able to appreciate and tolerate the inherent pluralities in culture, ethnicity, and religion in the globalized world (Gilliom, 1981).

There are several types of activities that virtual schools launch to promote global awareness and an enhanced appreciation of cultural diversity among students. Virtual schools teach social studies concepts that require students to do web-based research, communicate with students from different countries or states, engage in collaborative projects, and go on telefieldtrips (Harris, 2002). As a result, students are provided the opportunity for real-time interaction and collaborative learning with children from diverse cultures that the physical school cannot.

Merryfield (2000) states that when technologies are fused with social studies learning, the potential to promote cross-cultural understandings is maximized and awareness in topics such as equity, diversity, and discrimination are heightened.

NACOL (2001) documents one of the most innovative projects launched by Broward Country Public Schools with the assistance of the Florida Virtual School that successfully fused social studies learning with technology to develop global awareness. In an AP and Honors American History Course, four groups composed of Japanese and American students collaborated through online video conferencing and email interaction to discuss World War II and Japan-US relations. Using a Japanese interpreter, American students were able to interact with students from Achiba, Japan. Other instructional content came from a Holocaust survivor, Japanese camp prisoner and a professor of Asian Studies. Throughout the course, students created multimedia presentations and engaged in problem-solving activities. "Face-to-face" collaboration using Web video conferencing enabled heightened cultural awareness and promoted the bridging of two cultures.

Young, Birtolo, & McElman (2009) reports how online learning in the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) provides opportunities for students' increased awareness and appreciation of global issues and concerns. Students are given activities ranging from online forums to discuss AIDS and world hunger, to participation in online clubs that share perspectives on international affairs and other social issues. In 2008, staff from FLVS' online newspaper News in a Click interned as editors for PEARL World Youth News where they collaborated with students all over the world through Web conferencing in creating and editing the newspaper.

Creative strategies utilized by online teachers also provide avenues of intercultural collaboration and dialogue (Young, Birtolo, & McElman, 2009). One example is the Global Economic Summit organized by FLVS economics teacher Patty Sibson that featured a cross-curriculum discussion of global issues participated by around 100 learners from different countries. The activity utilized Web conferencing and creative problem-solving tasks.

Another example is the online Chinese Language course offered by the Michigan Virtual High School (MVHS). The course, which meant to introduce Chinese language and culture to beginning Chinese language learners, ran for a semester and was taught by a qualified Chinese-speaking instructor. Using a task-based language-learning curriculum, the course emphasized on enhancing basic communication skills and cross-cultural, global awareness and understanding. The online course required self-study and virtual meetings and was designed to feature four main resources: an e-textbook, a group problem-solving project, Web conferencing and discussion, and a group writing activity (NACOL, 2001).

Digital technologies used in virtual schools offer students the means to acquire new types of knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to function more effectively and become more productive global citizens (Bell-Rose & Desai, 2005). Digital technologies offer many potential ways to foster global awareness in classrooms. By infusing global education and technology in social studies learning, students are able to appreciate the interrelationships of countries and peoples worldwide.

Liz Pape (2007) discussed how virtual schools are contributing in meeting the global awareness skills of the 21st century student. In an online chat interview moderated by Education Sector, she explains that online learning schools have developed teaching models that enable the delivery of interaction of students across state or national lines, such as those participating in online classrooms together. In this manner, global awareness and citizenship skills among students are developed.

Certain limitations prevent virtual schools from maximizing the opportunities of students to develop cross-cultural understandings such as learning non-English languages. There is a recognized shortage of foreign language teachers (Cavaluzzo & Higgins, 2001). Moreover, technology-based social science teaching to develop global awareness is not always successful. There is a required effort upon the online teacher to initiate and execute creative strategies that could produce desired global education outcomes. Studies have come to conclude that technology alone does not enhance student outcomes (McIsacc & Gunawardena, 2001)

Information and communications technology (ICT) Literacy

The need for technological aptitude in order to become more competitive in the 21st century workforce is now undeniable. In the age of information, it has become a necessity for students to master the ability to use technologies to process, analyze, and articulate information in education, life, or employment settings. Since the use of technology in virtual schools is a built-in requirement, students master 21st century technology skills to prepare them for the global and Web-driven workplace.

Some educators feel the effectiveness of technology is overestimated, citing that introducing information technology in schools has not achieved either transformation of teaching or learning. Researchers deduce that maximizing the benefits of IT investments require more than simply introducing technology and aligning it with the curriculum. They believe it requires "triangulation of content, sound learning principles, and high-quality teaching" (Cox et al. as cited in Bell-Rose & Desai, 2005, p. 43).

Several suggest that the appropriate application of digital technology in the classroom setting enhances student outcomes. In 2003, a quasi-experimental study was conducted by Rosas et al. (as cited in Metiri Group, 2009) on 1,274 early elementary students in Chile whose outcomes were compared to a treatment group that were equipped with handheld devices with games designed to advance reading comprehension, spelling, and mathematical skills. After a period of 3 months, the study revealed that students who used the handheld devices for 30 hours posted significant improvements than their control group counterparts.

A study reports positive correlations between the usage of educational games on PDAs and performance in reading comprehension and mathematics. The studies conclude that gaming engages students in deep concentration and motivation that leads to high attention, concentration, and self-regulation of students' learning process (Savill-Smith & Kent, 2003).

A meta-analysis across 42 studies conducted by Pearson et al. (as cited in Metiri Group, 2009) showed significant positive results with the use of virtual learning technology in primary and secondary schools. Except for foreign language were virtual learning revealed ineffective, results were consistent across grade levels and subject areas. Effects were slightly higher to learners under blended learning programs.

Conclusion

The complex challenges that students face today in light of the rapidly increasing diversity of the country's population, globalization of commerce and culture, and explosion of the Internet and other technologies, higher academic outcomes and increased versatility will help prepare students meet the demands of the 21st century.

The related literature reviewed indicates the potential of virtual schools to adequately meet the needs of the 21st century students and contribute to enhanced academic performance and the development of important skills needed to prepare them for the workforce and the global economy. There are advantages as well as disadvantages to online learning, but its benefits outweigh its limitations. There are also advantages such as socialization and personality development that are better enhanced in traditional classroom settings. It is timely to consider the blended learning policy or the combination of online and face-to-face instruction as the most ideal in meeting needs of the 21st century student. There remains yet inconclusive evidence on whether online learning surpasses the quality of traditional classroom learning, but it is clear that the virtual school has become a popular and necessary option for millions of students across America. Maximum benefits of virtual schools may include facilitating improvement of students performance in academic core subjects as well as developing skills including creative problem solving, critical thinking, self-directed learning and empowerment, and ICT literacy.

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