When Arlington teacher R.J. Williams speaks during her online multimedia classes, high school students all over Texas log on to listen.
Williams is among a growing number of educators who are teaching in the Texas Virtual School Network, a clearinghouse established by the Legislature in 2007. The network offers a statewide catalog of supplemental online courses to students in charter and public schools.
"This year is the only time I've had two students from Arlington," Williams said of her summer online schedule. "They're usually from Austin and all over the place. I've had a few from rural areas."
Digital learning is catching on statewide as more school boards and administrators give students up-to-date technology and devices and require their districts to merge the physical schoolroom with the virtual one.
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"The whole philosophy of online learning needs to permeate our public education system," said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Education and a former teacher.
Supporters of online-learning models -- which can include one-on-one computer courses, a classroom of students taught by a teacher online or a blend of traditional classroom and digital resources -- applaud the flexibility and the application of real-world skills that students will use in business.
They point out that students who take online courses may be resolving scheduling conflicts or getting to take classes they might otherwise find unavailable at their schools.
Critics include some teachers who worry that scripted online lessons will supplant their face-to-face skills. Districts can use teacher-generated classes or those created by third-party providers, an idea that makes some observers uncomfortable.
"I'm a former educator and I understand where they're coming from," Shapiro said. "But the better ones understand that's where their students already are."
Paying for success
The Texas Education Agency must approve all online courses, and every course (even those by a third party) must be taught by a certified Texas teacher.
The agency also requires all online courses to be 100 percent aligned with the state curriculum. Students must take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness end-of-course test and any other required exams in person at school.
"I think people like the idea of the flexibility of online courses," said Barbara Smith, the network's project director. "Very few want to give up the local campus; they want the best of both worlds."
Districts pay $400 per student per semester course through the network, but the money doesn't go to the provider district until the student has completed the course.
"The student has to pass the course before they [teachers] get paid, which I think is a good benchmark for competency-based learning," Shapiro said. "We're not really paying the same for virtual schools as a classroom. We're saying you're in a different category.
"The incentive in that is the provider has to work really hard to earn the money. It's a good incentive to make these courses the best they can be."
The student's home district can recoup part of the cost of a successful online course by receiving daily-attendance funding as if the student had been in a traditional classroom.
"One of things that's very different, in terms of virtual courses, is the state is only going to pay for the success," Smith said. "If the student doesn't complete the course successfully, then the state says you can't count the time."
Most students study online solo, but Williams, the Arlington teacher, is also versed in teaching an entire class of students who are in multiple locations.
"There's only one situation I've had [online] where they were all in a classroom together," she said.
Though instant face-to-face time isn't a feature of Williams' classes, each student does get mentoring.
"I'll have an introductory lesson and then a secondary lesson where I can talk with them in real time and help them with their assignments," Williams said.
Arlington is already one of 22 school districts in Texas authorized to provide online courses for the Texas Virtual School Network.
Others include Mansfield, Plano, Irving and Lewisville, with dual-credit providers including the University of Texas at Arlington.
Williams said she can usually tell if a student is going to do well with online learning.
"One of the first lessons I teach is how to be an online student and how to reserve your time," she said. "I encourage parents to sit in with me on the sessions so they understand the workload and the responsibilities, too."
It took a year and a half to write the original curriculum, Williams said, and more time for the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Virtual School Network to approve it.
"The entire format for online courses in the last five years has become much more interactive," said Sue McGahee, the Arlington district's director of instructional technology. "This is not the old computer correspondence course at all."
The courses require considerable collaboration and communication between teacher and student, she said, whether it's in a virtual classroom or a one-to-one online experience.
"Most online courses take as long or longer to complete than a face-to-face course," Smith said.
Since students do a lot of independent work, they are also writing more, posting on discussion boards and working with students who may be in other districts.
"A lot of people come to online learning thinking this is going to be the easy way out," Smith said. Students who dropped online courses have reported that the time commitment was more than they expected, and some said it was simply "too hard."
Going virtual can be a pricey prospect for districts.
Arlington's trustees have allocated $4.1 million for the first year of a three-year strategic plan that administrators say will integrate technology into every aspect of the educational experience.A residents advisory committee made recommendations about virtual-instruction initiatives that would cost more than $500,000 to implement. The $570,525 package includes tuition for 500 students to take online classes at $400 each, plus salaries for six classroom technology aides and a district virtual-instruction specialist.
Districts exploring virtual-learning initiatives must decide whether they're interested in credit recovery, advanced classes or expanded high school course offerings.
Local policies must still be set, such as how many online credits are allowable for high school students and whether their class rankings will be affected by grades in online courses.
Districts should also look at what virtual-learning model will work most effectively for them.
"We started out where we had kids working on their own in online courses," said Paul Cash, the Mansfield district's student services director. "But what we found as best practice is to go ahead and schedule the students in a class and put them in a computer lab with a teacher."
Mansfield had 135 students signed up to take the first online classes in fall 2009, mostly Advanced Placement and foreign-language courses. By this spring, there were almost 400 online enrollments among the district's 32,000 students.
The great online perk of being able to access class material anytime, anywhere is still available in the summer.
Currently, 278 Mansfield students are taking 35 subjects online.
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657