An article detailing the use of virtual classroom technology in Florida produced by The New York Times‘ Student Journalism Institute has caused a stir among advocates of Florida Virtual School, who argue that online instruction is one of only a handful of options available to school districts struggling to meet class-size mandates.
The piece, which appeared in the education section of the Times last week, was a truncated version of an article penned by an 18-year-old student journalist whose initial story had included additional commentary on the merits of using a “blended learning” method to both meet educational goals and operate within the limits imposed by the Florida Constitution.
“That article was written by a student reporter at The New York Times‘ institute for journalism,” Star Kraschinsky of Florida Virtual School tells The Florida Independent. “It wasn’t an education reporter. The Times omitted the positive comments, and changed the headline from ‘some Miami schools…’ to ‘in Florida…’ It really, clearly, was taken out of context.”
One of the concerns raised in the Times was the issue of student choice in enrolling in online courses, with students at some schools finding themselves in virtual learning labs against their will. While a spokesperson for Miami-Dade schools admitted that, due to enrollment that exceeded class-cap requirements, a handful of schools had assigned students to labs, Florida Virtual School maintains the program overall has been successful in its first year.
“Ninety-nine percent of the schools had parent-teacher-student meetings prior, because not everybody can learn in certain environments,” says Kraschinsky. “A few of the schools didn’t do that. As a parent, you want to make sure that it’s a choice, because distance learning, online education, is a choice.”
“We have 77 virtual learning labs in the state — 55 are in Miami-Dade,” says Julie Durrance, who manages the e-learning lab program for Virtual School. “Of the 55, I would say a good 50 of them are, for being a first-year program, operating beautifully. It’s because the schools did the prerequisites that were necessary: the orientations, the calls, the pep rallies, letting the kids know what a virtual classroom would be like. Some schools, like the one in question from the article, didn’t do the back-up. The kids walked in, they were handed a schedule and they had a virtual class. And we’re working to make sure those type of things don’t happen again next year. Even though it wasn’t our responsibility, our responsibility now is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
As for the fact that the labs are monitored by “facilitators” trained to provide technical support to students instead of traditional teachers, Virtual School says that the districts fill that position, and while some are certified teachers, it’s not a requirement. Their role is to oversee the technical aspects of the labs and ensure students are able to connect with their online instructors, who are available via cell phone, Skype and instant message every day from 8 a.m. till 8 p.m.
“We have one-to-one instruction for every student taking a class, and what I mean by that is there’s probably more interaction than you’d get in a brick-and-mortar school,” Kraschinsky says. “There are so many varieties of communication going on between the Florida Virtual instructor and the student, I think it’s just the concept of blended learning and online education that there’s not a teacher physically there, but there is a great amount of interaction between the teacher and the student.”
In 2000, the Florida legislature established Virtual School as an independent educational entity, funded by the Department of Education and overseen by a governor-appointed board of trustees.
The pilot program with Miami-Dade schools began in August, and will likely expand in the coming school year as districts continue implementing cost-cutting measures. While it is too soon to gauge the impact the new approach has had in South Florida, the Gates Foundation has announced it will be conducting a research study on Virtual School learning labs to gauge their effectiveness in reaching students.
Kraschinsky says that the Times’ student reporter had once been enrolled in Florida Virtual School.
“I actually spoke to her,” she says. “She is a very nice girl, and she was actually a Florida Virtual student and took several classes with us and had a great experience, and shared that with me. I think her intent was to put a more fair and balanced story out there. As we know, education is a choice for parents and it always should be. Some people might disagree with that. The whole class-size issue I think was really at the heart of the story as well, and when we look at class sizes, we see ourselves as an option to help districts.”