By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 6:31 PM
George Washington University has opened a private college-preparatory high school that will operate entirely online, one of the nation's first "virtual" secondary schools to be affiliated with a major research university.
The opening of a laboratory-style school under the banner of a prestigious university generally counts as a major event among parents of the college-bound. The George Washington University Online High School, a partnership with the online learning company K12 Inc., is competing with brick-and-mortar prep schools and with a small but growing community of experimental online schools attached to major universities.
Online learning may be the next logical step in the evolution of university "lab" schools, an ongoing experiment in pedagogy. Online instruction holds the potential to transcend the factory model of traditional public education, allowing students to learn at their own pace. In the ideal online classroom, no lesson is ever too fast or too slow, and no one ever falls behind.
But it's not for everyone. It's unclear how adolescents will fare in an online school, an academic model that typically requires students to take charge of their own learning. Online programs are better established among career-oriented colleges serving adults.
"It takes a lot of dedication to get yourself up early in the morning, because you don't have a bell ringing in the hallway to tell you your classes are starting," said McKenna Tucker, 16, a sophomore at the new school who lives in Tennessee.
Classes started Tuesday with 16 students studying in nine states, none of them local. There are plans to enroll more students and add a 12th grade in fall. Annual tuition is $9,995. Many of the first students, including Tucker, are children of K12 employees. The private company, based in Herndon, will operate the school, and the university will oversee and study it.
"Whether it actually is superior, and whether it works for all kids, some kids or most kids, that's a research question we don't have an answer to yet," said Michael Feuer, dean of the university's Graduate School of Education and Human Development. "This project is going to be something that contributes to that body of knowledge."
The latest federal data show enrollment in computer-based distance learning grew from 317,070 in the 2003 academic year to 506,950 in 2005 among public schools. Online high schools have opened in Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin, Oregon and California, among other states. Some are charter schools, public but governed by independent boards.
Stanford University in 2006 opened the first online high school for gifted students, exploiting the potential of online instruction to allow advanced students to work ahead of their peers or study material not covered in traditional schools.
The new GWU school is ostensibly a competitor, although it is not being marketed as a school for the gifted.
K12 says it offers more than 100 custom-designed courses that range from regular grade-level classes to honors and college-level Advanced Placement instruction. Students may choose concentrations in liberal arts, science and technology or business and entrepreneurship.
"What we're looking for are hardworking, motivated, interesting kids," said Barbara Brueggemann, the head of school.
Students are taught in small online "virtual classrooms" that, depending on the lesson, might link them and their teacher by audio, video, text-message or e-mail. There is no online gym or band, but school officials say the curriculum is flexible enough that students can easily make time for athletics and arts.
Online schools around the nation have prospered or perished largely on the strength of their programs, just like traditional schools, said Tracy Gray, director of the National Center for Technology Innovation in Washington.
"We still don't really know enough about for whom this works, under what conditions, and when does it work," she said. But research suggests that online learning is a safe choice for an ambitious, college-bound student likely to enroll at the GWU school: "Those students tend to be highly motivated and self-directed," she said.