Virtual Education

Online Programs Enhance Classroom Learning

BY DANIEL BEAUREGARD

In today’s technology-driven world, the definition of what a school is, or can be, is quickly changing. School systems and independent schools are offering new options in addition to the traditional brick-and-mortar school setting. These programs provide an education no less demanding than conventional classrooms for students who travel a great deal, are homeschooled, or are simply looking to supplement or speed up their current coursework.

What’s more, online learning can give students more attention than they might receive in the classroom. “In this environment, we are able to personalize instruction, and we have a wealth of information about our students,” says Heather Robinson, principal of Georgia Connections Academy, a K-12 virtual school.

A Different Option

boy-kidGeorgia Connections Academy is a charter school with a statewide attendance zone. The only requirement for admittance is that the student live in Georgia, or reside there most of the time.

“We provide our families with the entire school program—we provide the curriculum and hard-copy textbooks to our younger students and e-books for older students,” Robinson says.

Like any public school, Georgia Connections Academy is free, and authorized by the state board of education. The difference is that instead of sitting in a traditional classroom, students work from home at their leisure, although they are required to work daily with a “learning coach,” usually a parent or guardian, in addition to working with their teacher.

Students are required to log attendance hours each day, as well as on an hourly basis, but they can start and end whenever they want. The only time students are required to be online is when they are scheduled to participate in a live session or meet with their teachers and fellow students in a virtual classroom. All of the teachers are certified by the state and work at a teaching center in Duluth and are available by phone or email.

“I can’t say that Connections Academy is better than a traditional school,” Robinson says. “I can just say it’s a different option.” Currently, the school serves more than 2,000 students across the state.

Atlanta-Area Schools

mother-daughterThere are several online schools available to metro Atlanta students. Georgia Cyber Academy, a charter virtual school, is the largest public school in the state, with 12,000 students in grades K-11. (The academy plans to add 12th grade for the 2013-2014 school year.) It uses a specialized curriculum developed by its parent company, K12.

The Georgia Virtual School, run by the Georgia Department of Education, offers middle- and high-school courses to students across the state. The Georgia Virtual School uses the approved Georgia Performance Standards and Common Core Georgia Performance Standards curriculum, ensuring that students receive the same education they would in a school setting.

Decatur High School Assistant Principal Rochelle Lofstrand says her school uses Georgia Virtual School as an enrichment option for its students. “If we don’t offer courses or different levels here at the school, we don’t want that stopping a child in enriching their lives academically,” she says.

DeKalb County’s virtual high school, the DeKalb Online Learning Academy, is a branch of the DeKalb County system rather than a statewide charter. The DeKalb Learning Academy offers students the chance to take such core courses as language arts, business, social studies and more, as well as Advanced Placement classes. Students can also make up classes they may have failed previously so that they can graduate on time. Students may take two classes per semester in addition to their regular coursework.

Virtual learning isn’t limited to public schools. Some independent schools have developed their own virtual learning programs. Eaton Academy in Roswell, for example, offers online courses for grades K-12. Students complete their work and submit it online, where it is graded by a teacher, says admissions coordinator Margie Cohan.

“There’s a lot of flexibility,” Cohan says. “For example, we can take a child who has been out and missed a great deal of school due to illness. The public schools would say he or she had to repeat the entire semester.”

Through its ELCA Connect program, Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy in McDonough, Ga., offers traditional core classes as well as electives, foreign languages and other courses that aren’t available in a classroom setting. These courses are available to students in all grades and to non-Eagle’s Landing students, such as homeschool students, as well.

And some schools that don’t offer their own online courses will allow students to take courses from online providers in certain circumstances, such as to fulfill a graduation requirement or enrich their academic experience. At Mount Pisgah Christian School, for instance, “a student might transfer to us and need or want additional credit in a world language that we don’t offer, such as German,” says Dr. Bryan Smith, head of Mount Pisgah’s upper school. “That student would be allowed to take that online course, provided the online provider is accredited.”

Best of Both Worlds

Virtual learning programs like those provided by Connections Academy and Georgia Virtual School can help students in rural areas get the same coursework as those in more populated regions. Additionally, if a student excels in a given course and needs a more rigorous curriculum, virtual schools can provide that.

“Research is showing that students want a more rigorous and engaging learning environment,” says Christina Clayton, the GDOE’s director of instructional technology.

Ideally, online learning doesn’t replace classroom learning, she says, but rather offers the best of both worlds.

“I believe the best educational experience for a student is when an opportunity is provided for a blended environment—some face-to-face courses and some online,” she says. “However, there are cases, like students who are homebound and need to take all of their courses online, that we can provide that option for them to stay on track to graduate.”

For More Information

Georgia Connections Academy
www.connectionsacademy.com

Georgia Cyber Academy
www.k12.com/gca

Georgia Virtual School
www.gavirtualschool.org

DeKalb Online Academy
www.dekalbonlineacademy.org

Eagle’s Landing
www.elcaonline.org

Eaton Academy
www.eatonacademy.org

Mount Pisgah Christian School
www.experiencepisgah.org 

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