Virtual Schools: Planning for Success
reviewed by Shula Klinger - 2006
Title: Virtual Schools: Planning for Success
Author(s): Zane L. Berge, & Tom Clark (Eds.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807745715, Pages: 246, Year: 2005
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This collection of essays offers its readers a realistic and thoughtful survey of online school development. Rather than tackling the why of online education, it delves into the how, exploring and explaining the processes and elements that are key to an online schools success.
If you have already taken part in a venture of this kind, this collection will ring some loud bells in your mind. However, if you are taking your first tentative steps towards a school-wide, online program for K12 students, it is full of important lessons and essential warnings.
Cautious readers who are tired of the optimistic rhetoric surrounding online education will find much to interest them in this work, which does not make promises about the programs for students of tomorrow, but tackles the practicalities and pitfalls of offering a program for students who are in school today. With refreshing candor, Berge and Clark are dismissive of carelessly developed online programs. Because of a widespread interest in them, virtual schools are sometimes a solution in search of a problem (p. 202). They also acknowledge that although technology may be perceived as the engine that drives an online school, it is really a key aspect of school culture, just like the curriculum, instructional methods, communication strategies and policies established by the school administration.
The book is divided into three sections. The first deals with the context of online school development. The second offers seven case studies from established online schools. Part three draws out a basic road map for success, drawn from the preceding case studies. Throughout the book, the emphasis is on the lessons learned by the authors. Readers who already work in online education will be pleased to find the following important issues explored and examined, time and again:
Policy and planning
Funding and management models
Student and staff mentoring
In tackling these elements head-on, with detailed narratives and plenty of first-hand accounts, the text shows that these elements are not chosen and governed by accident. They must be built intentionally by tightly coordinated teams, from the policy makers to the administrators and teachers themselves. School-based teams must articulate and share the principles on which their school is being built, if they are to succeed.
Virtual Schools also offers some salutary reminders. The first of these is for online school leaders, who need to know who their valuable resource people are. In these environments, work processes and responsibilities change rapidly. This occurs, for example, as new issues arise in student registration or when we discover software glitches that add to our workload and change our communications practices. In these circumstances, we dont always remember to tell our colleagues about these minor adjustments, which can lead both to the duplication of efforts and to confusion in the school community. As the authors remind us, ongoing professional development and effective in-house communications are essential if an online school is to thrive and be responsive to its student population.
The book also advises online program developers to take the need for onsite mentors seriously. Far more than an online textbook or set of quizzes, students need people to talk to, to make sure they understand the nature and detail of the online learning process. This is a vital observation for online school planners, since few online schools appoint staff in roles like these. We cannot anticipate every need, nor expect that existing staff have the time or experience to accomplish every task effectively. Virtual Schools teaches us to consider the need for new roles that have not been imagined in this workplace before.
The case studies in this collection are concise, frank accounts of the strategies adopted by online school administrators in a wide variety of programs, whether they are state or locally funded, and whether the curriculum is developed in-house or shared across several organizations. Several of the essays in this collection include bulleted checklists that I consider to be essential reading: They include equity and access considerations; a checklist for marketing teams in online schools; policy and procedure checklists for administrators; and a checklist for program management and administration costs. If you read nothing else in this book, page 131the Lessons Learned section from the Florida Virtual High programis not to be overlooked: almost a full page of things I wish I had known myself, three years ago.
I was glad to see this work touch on some of the relationship and communications issues in the day-to-day operations of an online school. These issues are often overlooked in books of this kind. They include the need for:
Teacher presence in online classrooms
Training for online moderators
A robust and responsible community of online learners
A culture of learning and sharing within the staff at online schools
The issues of best practices and quality learning are also discussed intelligently but briefly, as one would expect for a book that is targeted at policy makers and administrators. Virtual Schools is not a detailed workbook for new online teachers, since it covers an enormous range of issues. I can, however, recommend the section on the ideal knowledge, skills and dispositions of educational leaders and teachers, in Blomeyer and Dawsons chapter on policy considerations. Likewise, readers who work outside the United States may wish to focus their attention on the case studies, rather than on the contextual material. This is because the book is introduced with an account of the No Child Left Behind legislation, which is specific to the United States.
Virtual Schooling is at its best when it offers detailed accounts of the time-consuming and labor-intensive task of developing and implementing an online program. It also includes rare information such as the actual dollar amounts spent on course development, the ideal teacherstudent ratios for online learning, and the actual cost of instruction per student. It is not a book for readers exploring theoretical or ethical questions for online curriculum and content development. It is for educators who are on the verge of moving ahead and need wise advice about the leadership, management, and costs associated with online program implementation. One of this books few flaws is in its length. Although it raises many key aspects of online schooling it does so with such brevity that readers may miss the full import of the authors observations. This compact text deserves a close reading if its lessons are to be fully appreciated.