Monticello High School junior Logan Gunsallus is one of many ACPS students taking an online course this summer

Tomorrow’s kindergarten students may live through a transition that means many of their high school classes will not include a teacher in the classroom. The technology used by today’s high school students, whether it’s in a student’s pocket or on a screen in front of them, bears little resemblance to what was available when they started their formal educations.

Charlottesville and Albemarle public schools are both ramping up investments in online courses, partly in response to a new state mandate requiring at least one online course for graduation, but also in the belief that it’s the best way to prepare students for upcoming challenges in work and college. It used to be called “distance learning,” and the distance it’s putting between schools of the last century and schools of the future appears to be a rapidly growing divide.

“Complete virtual online learning is not right for every student for every subject,” Charlottesville High School teacher Meagan Maynard says, “but it does have its place in education.”

“It’s clear that education is going in this direction, especially at the college level,” Albemarle spokesman Phil Giaramita says. “Even schools like the University of Virginia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are offering classes online, and that trend isn’t going to reverse.”

At Charlottesville High School last year, over 150 students enrolled in eight online courses, which ranged from Economics and Personal Finance to AP Government, Biology, and Creative Writing.

“We didn’t have many students who failed [last year], but we had some students who didn’t adapt well and went back to traditional classes,” Charlottesville Assistant Superintendent Gertrude Ivory says.

Some courses are a full school year in length, while others are a semester, quarter, or summer school class, and students, Maynard says, can complete work in the self-paced classes from school or home.

“Some students do an eighth period from home, but those are your more advanced students,” Maynard says. “We also have a flex lab in the building that is supervised. The students are assigned there for one period a day and are all working on different assignments.”

Critics of virtual learning highlight a lack of student interaction as a major concern, but Albemarle Assistant Superintendent Billy Haun says County staff wants to build that contact into their courses by blending two or three face-to-face meetings into the syllabi, as well as by designing assignments like discussion boards that force students to interact.

“The idea of the classroom is changing,” Haun says. “Your History of Virginia class might be at home, and then at Monticello.”

And some students who are enrolled in an online course but need more help, Maynard says, will attend the traditional class meetings and work independently, but will have teacher support when they need it. Other students are turned away from registering for online courses.

“The main thing is that the student is an independent, self-directed learner,” Maynard says, “and that’s a decision that has to be made by the guidance counselor, the parents, and the student before the course.”

Western Albemarle High School freshman Julian Waters draws a distinction between the two types of classes he takes.

“In the classroom, the teacher talks and you have the choice to listen or daydream, but online you’re forced to read and teach it to yourself,” Waters says.

But it’s also tempting to visit other websites, and the adjustment to a mostly-silent learning environment was difficult, Waters adds, noting that his current teacher built end-of-unit conferences into the course.

Despite the attempts at flexibility and engagement, not all parents are sold on the new learning model.

Albemarle High School parent Julie Moore wonders if her school system is sacrificing the fundamentals.

“We’re jumping on the technology bandwagon, and that’s great because there’s virtually no job that doesn’t use technology, but there are the nuts and bolts like typing and writing that are being left behind,” Moore says.

Moore also questions the online shift if not all County students have the Internet at home.

Valerie L’Herrou, whose son attended Monticello High School last year, questions the emphasis on technology.

“It’s silly to use technology where it’s not called for just for the sake of using it,” L’Herrou says. “I would rather the teacher’s energy go to instructing the students, not using technology.”

“Where it fits in and enhances the curriculum,” L’Herrou adds, “that’s where it should be used.”

The teacher’s transition from the traditional classroom to the online setting also presents challenges.

“A lot of parents and teachers assume that kids have tech skills because they have grown up with computers,” Maynard says, “but we can’t assume that kids are good with computers because they are good with video games. That doesn’t mean they have the skills they need to be successful in a professional setting.”

Many students only use computers for entertainment or social media, Maynard says, so teachers will often face the unforeseen challenges of teaching students to check email daily, share and upload documents properly, or submit assignments in the correct locations.

What’s more, Maynard adds, is the myth that a teacher can post their traditional assignments online and call it a virtual course.

Monticello teacher Mike Craddock says that reinforcing student time-management skills and stating how long virtual assignments should take is a necessary adjustment. 

To date, Charlottesville has spent $97,750 purchasing 22 courses from WHRO, a public media outlet in Hampton Roads that specializes in online course development, Charlottesville spokeswoman Cass Cannon says. Five of those 22 courses are currently running, and CHS faculty are vetting the remaining 17.

“We went with WHRO because they were developed by Virginia teachers, they meet the Standards of Learning, and they embedded content like Flash-based quizzes that link to relevant course content that we couldn’t,” says Charlottesville Program Administrator for Virtual Education Stephanie Carter.

Albemarle has budgeted $160,000 for their virtual schools initiative for the upcoming school year. Currently, they offer an Economics and Personal Finance course, will offer 2 health courses starting this fall, and plan to offer 5 more courses beginning January 2014.

Giaramita says the County is designing their courses in-house with Blackboard, a widely-used online education platform, which will save approximately $93,000 from what it would cost to purchase the courses from an outside vendor.