VIRTUAL SCHOOLS AND THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY STUDENT

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Can Virtual Schools Meet the Needs of the Twenty-First Century Student?

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).

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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 modern precursor to the contemporary virtual schools is the mail-based correspondence school, said to have been invented in 1891 at the University of Chicago. From mail-based systems, delivery mechanisms soon evolved to radio programs to television and satellite broadcasts to 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 that blended home-based computers with 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 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 music, physical education, or foreign language (Barker & Wendel, 2001; Bond, 2002).

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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?

Discussion

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) such as English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics, government, economics, arts, 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.

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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 outperformed their peers 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 consistently earned higher grades, received better FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) scores, and achieved higher marks 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 generally achieve at levels equal to 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).

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 occurs when the learner engages in three cognitive processes: selecting relevant words for verbal processing and selecting relevant images for visual processing, organizing words into a coherent verbal model and organizing images into a coherent visual model, integrating corresponding components of the verbal and visual models. 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 accountability and quality expectations for the end product.

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. According to Schukar (1993), "Children in this country must 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 the triangulation of content, sound learning principles, and high-quality teaching (Cox et al., 2003).

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. Research also points to 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.