For More N.Va. Students, the Classroom Is on the Computer

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008

Online schooling in Northern Virginia and elsewhere is becoming more popular among students and educators as a way to break from the traditional classroom setting and rigid school schedules, according to interviews with local officials and a new federal study.

School systems in Fairfax, Prince William, Arlington and Loudoun counties report heightened interest among students, most of them in high school, in online programs. In most cases, enrollments are up. In addition, the state-funded Virtual Virginia program is enrolling thousands of students not only from the state but also from foreign countries, including China and Guatemala, program director Cathy Cheely said.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported in June that a survey found a 60 percent rise from 2002 to 2005 in the number of students enrolled in online programs. The total grew from about 317,000 to more than 506,000.

"Some kids do like it more. It could be psychological issues and that they're shy. . . . When you're sitting behind a computer, nobody knows what you look like," said Patricia Donahue, supervisor of instructional technology for Prince William schools, which have had online courses since the summer of 2000.

She said some teachers apply for online jobs because of the challenge. "A regular teacher can stand in front of the class and teach the same content they've been doing for years. But when it's online, you have to look at a variety of learners. You have no idea whether the child comprehends. You have to make things interactive."

Teacher stipends and student fees for online programs vary across Northern Virginia.

In Fairfax, which offers nearly 40 online courses, students can take the courses for free if they do not exceed the usual load of courses, said Mike Kowalski, administrator of the county's online program. If the course is extra, he said, it costs $700 in the summer and about $540 during the academic year. Teachers are paid $9,000 per course, he added.

Arlington does not charge for online courses unless they are offered at alternative or continuing education schools, schools spokesman Frank Bellavia said. "We have 120 students by midyear, but we'll expect 200 in the fall," he said.

In Loudoun, online courses are offered in collaboration with George Mason University and cost about $700 each, said Peter Hughes, the school system's director of curriculum and instruction. The courses are taught by a consortium of teachers from Loudoun, Stafford, Fairfax and other counties, he said.

Hughes said Loudoun administrators are trying to reduce the cost for students. In the long term, he said, he suspects that school officials will have to determine whether to fund the courses, fully or partially, with taxpayer money through the annual budget.

"We're about to look and see if we can make that leap," he said. "We have not embraced this completely, and we're trying to work through the cost issue. We still have a firm belief that our teachers and our curriculum being implemented in our schools are the things we have the most control over."

In Prince William, students pay $425 per online course, and their teachers are paid about $300 per student, officials said. When the program began in summer 2000, there were about 20 students. Now there are more than 500, said Gina Jones, administrative coordinator of Prince William's Virtual High School.

Although Prince William's online teachers earn no benefits and have lower pay than regular classroom teachers, Jones said she receives plenty of résumés. Teachers enjoy the flexibility of the job and the possibility of spending more time with their family or working other jobs. During summers, online "office hours" last four hours a day, but during the academic year, it's one to two hours, teachers said.

"We don't have much turnover at all," Jones said.

In the Virtual Virginia program, teachers earn about $40,000 a year and work full time, Cheely said.

"I tell teachers who come in for interviews that this is the hardest job they'll ever have," she said. "No one believes it. They always come back and say, 'You're right.' "

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