Virtual High School Opens ‘Doors’ to Learning
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 27, 2010 The Defense Department’s newest high school is devoid of walls or windows, but yet has opened its “doors” this year to students scattered around the globe.
The Department of Defense Education Activity’s virtual high school is an accredited distance-learning program for military students, whether they’re geographically separated, transitioning between schools or just dealing with a scheduling conflict.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to close gaps and enhance students’ educational experience in a 21st century environment,” Marilee Fitzgerald, the activity’s acting director, said. “I think it opens up possibilities for learning that we have yet to understand, yet to explore.”
The virtual school offers students 48 online courses in a wide range of disciplinary areas, including foreign language, math, science, social studies, language arts and physical education, as well as 15 advanced placement courses. The school also is equipped to offer English as a second language and special education, Patricia Riley, chief of the activity’s distance learning and virtual school, said.
The school primarily is designed for students eligible to attend a Defense Department school but are living in remote locations, Riley said, noting that students from as far away as Australia and Papua New Guinea already have enrolled. Most attend local schools but need courses such as U.S. history to graduate, she explained, and the virtual high school can help to fill this gap.
Next up on the priority list are students currently attending Defense Department schools, Riley said. Students are asked to seek traditional in-school classes first, but can request online access when there’s a scheduling conflict or if a required course isn’t offered in the school. The virtual school also is useful, for instance, for students transitioning from overseas to stateside, or from a Defense Department to public school, who need to ensure they meet the requirements for their new school, she added.
“This school is particularly important for military dependent students, who do move more often,” Riley said, noting she’s talked to parents whose children have attended up to four different schools during their high school careers.
“The flexibility of scheduling is critical and speaks to the transition needs of students in military families,” Riley said. Education activity officials are “well aware of the curriculum needs and planning that needs to take place to help students meet academic goals.”
Students receive support every step of the way, Riley said. Teachers are located in three hubs -- Wiesbaden, Germany; Humphreys Garrison, South Korea; and Arlington, Va. – and offer real-time online support to students scattered worldwide in a range of time zones, Riley said.
“We strategically placed them in different parts of the world to be closer to where students are,” she explained.
This live support enables Web conferencing, peer-to-peer data sharing and question-and-answer sessions with teachers. “They’re also there to simulate the true classroom experience of a face-to-face environment,” Riley said.
The school has a model of 20 to 25 teachers per 1,000 students, but is far from full capacity, Riley said. Additionally, the school has a “virtual counselor” who works in concert with counselors at local schools. The counselor can help students identify possible voids and fill those requirements with virtual classes, she added.
As for the road ahead, Riley said plans are in the works to make the virtual school diploma-granting, which would require the school to offer all of the courses needed to meet graduation requirements. The virtual high school currently operates as a supplemental school, she explained, meaning it’s intended to fill in the gaps rather than replace the activity’s brick-and-mortar schools.
“The majority of students only need supplemental courses,” Riley said. “However, we also want to accommodate those students who are in isolated situations and might need the ability to acquire a diploma from a distance.”
Officials also hope to create virtual elementary and middle schools down the road, Riley said. “But this high school is a great starting point and increases education opportunities for our students.”
Fitzgerald called the virtual high school a “great step forward.”
“It’s an important contribution to the way we educate children in the 21st century DoDEA,” she said.