Feature

Virtual Savings?

Online courses bring better access but little impact on the bottom line by Brett Schaeffer


For Mike Simeck, superintendent of the 900-student Dansville, Mich., school district, adding online courses to the district’s high school class offerings means enhancing the curriculum, not necessarily saving dollars.

“The real reason we began to get involved with Virtual High School in the first place is the former superintendent was looking for ways to diversify the curriculum,” explains Simeck, who took over in 2003 as superintendent after three years as the high school principal. “In an effort to diversify, the district signed on (with the Concord, Mass.-based Virtual High School) initially in 1999.”

A nonprofit company, Virtual High School is one of the leaders in online course delivery on the K-12 level, offering more than 150 full-semester online classes, from the familiar (AP biology and American history) to the uncommon (bioethics, number theory and maritime history).

Rapid Growth

At first, Simeck admits, not many students in his district, which consists of three inter-connected buildings that house kindergarten to 12th graders, were interested in taking online classes.

By the time VHS started charging for its courses in 2002 (from 1996-2001 it was funded entirely by a $7.8 million U.S. Department of Education Technology Innovation Challenge Grant and school districts had free access), the state of Michigan had developed its own online courses.

The cost of a VHS course — $6,000 annually for up to 25 students each semester — was about 50 percent more than the cost of a course for the same number of students through Michigan Virtual University, a state-funded online course delivery program that launched in 2000. The Dansville district signed on with Michigan Virtual High School, a division of Michigan Virtual University.

“We initially set it up with a small group of kids,” says Simeck, adding that the district tried to target students with a technology interest. He and other administrators quickly discovered they couldn’t predict who would be interested in trying online coursework.

“Eventually we had Advanced Placement kids taking classes; we had special education kids; and we had dropouts,” Simeck says. The online offerings have since become more popular. However, the cost remains an extra for the district.

“Our experience with it is that there’s no way to get it to scale for us that would make it a cost saver,” says Simeck.

However, in Florida, where the entirely state-funded Florida Virtual School provides online courses to in-state districts free of charge, those online classes can be seen as a savings, says Jodie Pozo-Olano, a consultant to the statewide virtual program based in Orlando, Fla.

A small rural district in Florida probably can’t afford to hire an instructor to teach Advanced Placement chemistry to the 10 students who may want the class, says Pozo-Olano. But at no cost, the district can arrange for those 10 students to take the AP class online.

“A district is able to serve more students without spending extra money, so in a way that is savings,” says Pozo-Olano.

Quality Costs

Researchers who’ve been studying the newest approach to course delivery indicate there’s not yet much information on whether online initiatives can save dollars for school districts.

Andrew Zucker, associate director of the Center for Online Professional Education at the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center, co-authored the 2003 book The Virtual High School: Teaching Generation V. The book examines online learning’s implications for K-12 education, primarily through a study of the Virtual High School.

While Zucker cites claims of increased educational access for students and teachers as probably the primary argument in favor of online learning, cost savings are not mentioned as a factor in the growth of virtual programs.

“We did indicate that we thought that claims of saving money were, in many cases, premature,” says Zucker. “If you’re talking about providing an online teacher to 15-25 students, you still have the same issue — that one teacher only goes so far and it costs a good deal of money for education whether it’s online or face-to-face.”

“Our goal was not financial,” says Tom Scullen, superintendent of the Appleton Area School District in Appleton, Wis. “We researched it. If you’re offering a high-quality [online] program there’s no real cost saving.”

By high quality, Scullen means an online program that involves personalized attention from a teacher, sometime even one-on-one attention.

The Appleton district contracted seven years ago with NovaNET, an online program offered by the Mesa, Ariz.-based Pearson Digital Learning, in an effort to retain students who might otherwise disappear from the radar screen.

“We started because we didn’t want to expel kids,” Scullen says. Instead, a student who was banned from campus for fighting could continue his or her education through online courses. The district then opened the virtual classroom to homeschoolers and students who were homebound because of health reasons.

Now the 15,000-student district located two hours north of Milwaukee uses three sources of online programs: NovaNET, Blackboard (which is another for-profit provider) and its own online program. Appleton began to run a few of its own online courses in September 2002, and its course offerings at the moment consist of three basic math and reading classes for students in the Appleton district.

Developing a course itself requires the district to pay a teacher his or her regular salary while he or she creates the curriculum. Depending on the subject and the time it takes the teacher to build the course, the development cost varies, according to Scullen. However, even at $10,000 a year for a full slate of Blackboard courses used by 130 of the district’s students, paying an independent is likely to be less expensive, he says. “We’ll only develop our own [online] classes when we have a need that isn’t being met by the other providers,” he adds.

School districts that have developed their own array of online courses are fielding rapidly increasing student interest. A study by Eduventures, a Boston-based firm that examined several state- and district-sponsored virtual school programs in 2003, documented the escalating enrollments. Gwinnett County, Ga., which launched a virtual program in 2001, saw its online enrollment double to 2,600 students last year. The Salem, Ore., district's online program has grown from 480 students to 2,000 over the last four years.

More than two dozen school districts across the country have started to offer their own online courses to their own students, according to 2002 data from the Distance Learning Resource Network. During the 2002-03 school year, 180,000 students in K-12 were enrolled in online courses, according to a Peak Group study, which projected one million enrollments by the 2004-05 school year.

But the economics at the district level aren’t always favorable. The Liverpool Central Schools, one of the largest suburban districts outside Syracuse, N.Y., dropped its virtual school after three years for lack of funding. The district tried without success to move it away from a school district/local taxpayer-funded program to one supported by the state. The district was unsuccessful in securing financial support from the state.

“This was a huge disappointment considering how many districts, especially the small rural ones, wanted online courses for their students,” says Laura Lavine, the former director of Liverpool’s virtual school. “I still get calls and e-mails from districts [asking], ‘Where is virtual learning in New York state?’ It's certainly not where it should be.”

Homegrown Answers

School districts that have been paying tuition or subscription costs to proprietary firms to provide the virtual classes now are entering the virtual school arena themselves. The Fairfax County, Va., Public Schools, which has used outside providers for the past three years, are joining the ranks.

In a district as expansive as Fairfax County, online courses provide greater accessibility and convenience to the district’s 166,000 students and 241 schools.

“We have some elementary students who take advanced math classes,” says Roseanne Winter, director of instructional technology services. “In the past they would have to be bused to the high school. Now they can log on in their class at school while their teacher’s teaching math to everyone else. They don’t have to be bused or lose other instruction time while they’re being bused. That’s a big advantage.”

The Fairfax district is paying $185,000 this year to Apex Learning, a proprietary provider, for 14 courses, mostly Advanced Placement. The district’s contract with the Bellevue, Wash.-based firm, allows it to include as many students as it wants in those courses.

“We still have to pay teachers to teach those courses. And that’s only a one-year use,” Winter says. “If we created the online courses ourselves, we could use them year after year.”

That’s the approach the district is taking toward its online professional development programs, in part to address the requirement for fully certified teachers in every classroom within two years under the No Child Left Behind Act. “We’ve bought some courses for our teachers, and we are building some,” says Winter. “We have a [software] developer who’s working on a beginning teacher course.”

Fairfax is trying to bring greater convenience to its newest teachers, says the district’s director of staff development and training, Sylvia Auten. In February, Auten began a pilot program for second-year middle school teachers. Courses on curriculum preparation and assessment that in the past would have been run in a workshop outside of the classroom now are conducted online. If Auten’s pilot online program proves successful, the district will try to expand online teacher training courses, she says.

Finding Savings

While school districts haven’t necessarily found cost savings by offering online programs for students, some school leaders believe online professional development programs for teachers can save money. Lisa Ciardulli, educational technology specialist for the Georgia Department of Education, says a greater potential exists for cost savings with online professional learning.

“If you have to pull a teacher out of class, you have to pay for a substitute. If the teacher has to travel, the school or the state has to reimburse him or her for mileage and meals,” she says. “By having something that’s online, we, or the schools, don’t have to pay for meals, mileage or a hotel.”

Her state agency is creating an online course that will help Georgia high school teachers address upcoming changes to the SAT

“It would be expensive to send someone to talk with all those teachers around the state,” Ciardulli says. Instead, the online course, which teachers will be able to access at any time from any Internet-connected computer, will allow the teachers to learn what they need to know in five or six hours, she says.

The advantages of virtual staff training are even more obvious in the remote outposts.

Michael Opp directs Alaska Online, a consortium of four distance education programs and five school districts throughout the state. He coordinates online programs among small schools scattered across Alaska.

“More than half of Alaska’s schools have fewer than 150 students,” says Opp, which he explains makes it difficult to find qualified teachers in some fields. These smaller schools often look to online programs — a more convenient alternative to face-to-face courses for time-pressed teachers — to provide students with certified instructors.

Teacher Contact

Opp has partnered with the University of Alaska to meet some teacher certification needs. “The university is providing the programs and the supplemental courses,” says Opp, who is trying to coordinate teachers’ online courses to run concurrently with an online course for students.

“The idea,” he explains, “is that a student signs up for a distance education course, biology as an example. The local teacher then signs up for a distance education course with the university focusing on teaching biology content. The local teacher participates in both courses.”

In his experience, Opp says afterschool distance education courses for teachers have had limited success and limited enrollment. “Not many teachers want to spend their evenings also going to school.”

A second reason for running the online courses concurrently is the student-teacher contact.

A student’s success in an online course often can be traced to the teacher’s involvement, says Opp. He plans to add a web conferencing application that will allow the online course teacher to communicate directly with the online course students. The voice technology isn’t the same as being face-to-face with a teacher, but, says Opp, “it still helps to have that local adult to ensure students don’t fall through the cracks.”

Tim Stroud, executive director of the North American Council for Online Learning, foresees the prospect of more cost savings in online professional development than in student course delivery. The professional development modules, with their significant upfront production costs, will have greater longevity in terms of impact and use.

Canter & Associates, for example, has invested several million dollars in the development of an online master’s degree program for aspiring principals in partnership with AASA (see related story). Individual courses will be offered for sale to school districts, regional service agencies and state education departments.

Stroud says once a school district builds an online program or buys access to content for in-service training, it can be used economically with a large group of teachers for as long as the content remains current. For instance, strategies and skills in classroom management don’t change much from year to year, lending a longer shelf life to an online product on such a topic.

“The only costs associated with this program would then be annual updates, if necessary, and some limited personnel costs associated with conducting the courses,” he says.

Another advantage to online training, he says, is that it allows for “continuous, long-term training using online synchronous and asynchronous communication mediums,” such as web conferencing.

Existing Options

Most school districts have yet to jump on the bandwagon for virtual professional development.

The rural Dansville, Mich., district, where Michael Simeck is superintendent, is close enough to several universities, including Michigan State, that teachers who need graduate credits toward certification usually have plenty of options to take those the old-fashioned way: in person. But Simeck’s teachers may find the latest Michigan Virtual Schools initiative even more accessible.

The Michigan Virtual High School, which already offers 336 online courses to high school students, is about to expand into the professional development arena. “We’re putting together a large package of online professional development courses that teachers in any district can tap into,” says Robert Currie, executive director of the Michigan Virtual High School.

Dubbed Michigan Learn Port, the first online professional development courses will be available this summer, he adds.

Each Michigan school district will have to develop its own specific plan for teachers to use the online courses, either by paying for a group rate or buying individual “seats” for their teachers, says Currie, a former superintendent.

What’s Ahead

Though online student courses haven’t reaped savings for schools, some educators believe the potential for cost savings still exists.

Ciardulli, an administrator with the Georgia Department of Education, is working with colleagues in Maryland to share online content for use by teachers in both states. Ultimately, she says, the best solution would be to have all of the states sharing online content, thus maximizing resources.

That notion is only in its beginning stages, Ciardulli says, noting that the states have to determine how to set standards for those shared courses, “so that we’re all sharing the same quality.”

The model is similar to the Virtual High School, the Massachusetts-based pioneer of virtual courses, which operates as a cooperative. Each high school pays an annual membership fee to join the cooperative, and all member schools agree to have one high school teacher teach a course online through VHS each semester, says Liz Pape, the executive director.

Tom Scullen, the superintendent in Appleton, Wis., supports the notion of shared-content. “At the high school level, it’s the way to go,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to share resources.” And possibly cut costs, he adds.

Most school districts, even in the midst of their current budget crunches, are well-positioned to use online instruction.

“Even if it’s not a big money saver, it’s affordable,” says Andrew Zucker, associate director of the Center for Online Professional Education. “It’s in the ballpark for a lot of districts because they’ve already paid for an Internet connection and computers,” he says. “And online learning is here to stay.”

Brett Schaeffer is a free-lance education writer in San Francisco. E-mail: brett@brettschaeffer.com