‘Not Everyone Is Built for It’: Students Offer Their Take on Virtual...

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‘Not Everyone Is Built for It’: Students Offer Their Take on Virtual Schooling

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Aug 1, 2017

‘Not Everyone Is Built for It’: Students Offer Their Take on Virtual Schooling

Virtual schools—a fiercely debated topic. Some, like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the American Legislative Exchange Council, are in favor. Others, including researchers like Columbia University professor Aaron Pallas, have pushed back. In fact, last January, Pallas called out DeVos for presenting misleading graduation rates quoted from K12 Inc. while presenting her case for virtual school expansion.

But politicians and researchers aside, what do the students who attend virtual schools think? Are they pleased with their experiences, or wishing they could return to the brick-and-mortar, traditional schools where they started?

This week, EdSurge sat down with Amanda Regan, a graduate of Virtual High School in Ontario, Canada, and Kiaha Raigoza, a product of California Virtual Academies and the Flex Program through the University of Wisconsin. Unlike the aforementioned researchers and politicians, both Regan and Raigoza experienced virtual schooling for themselves, and shared with us the pros, cons, and questions they still have around the roles that virtual schools can play in both K-12 and higher education.

Check out their interview on the EdSurge podcast, or scroll below to see the full Q&A.

EdSurge: Where did you attend, and why did you and/or your parents choose to send you to a virtual program, over a traditional school?

Amanda Regan: Thanks for having me! I went to Virtual High School based out of Ontario, Canada. I did all of my high school online, grade 9 through grade 12, every single credit, in the Virtual High School. I chose to go through a virtual private school over an in-person school because the public schools in my area weren't the greatest, and didn’t really get along with my learning style. I'd gone to a few private schools before, and it was just the best option for me, academically, personally, socially. It was just more flexible.

Kiaha Raigoza: Thank you for having me as well, big honor! I went through California Virtual Academies, which is a public school curriculum. My reasoning was similar to Amanda's. My mom and I were looking at different high schools and everything, because I was coming out of private, and we weren’t really sure where to go from that point. My mom's biggest worry was that the teacher to student ratio wasn't too great, and that I’d get lost in the fray. The big selling point for me, as a fifteen-year-old, was that I was getting a free computer. So, you know.

And it must have had a big impact on you, Kiaha, because you actually then ended up doing virtual schooling later, right? And Amanda, you are now working at Virtual High School?

Kiaha Raigoza: That is correct. I went to community college for a couple years, just to get my general ed out of the way. And then, I was looking through different schooling programs and everything, when my mom told me about a program called The Flex Program, which is through University of Wisconsin. And it was great, because it was at your own pace.

Amanda Regan: I'm a teacher, so part of the placement I did with Virtual High School. And now, I'm working there over the summer helping with teaching and developing courses.

So I'm guessing, based on your consistent support of virtual schools, that you probably enjoyed your high school experiences. What did you enjoy about being part of these programs?

Amanda Regan: The biggest thing for me was the flexibility of it all. Same thing as Kiaha was saying, it was all done at your own pace— I could take my time on subjects that I didn't understand as well, i.e., chemistry. On the other hand, I could also go through the other subjects quickly and not have to wait for other students. Basically, I could just do what I was ready for. I could blitz through it, take my time, enjoy it, which is really what worked well for me. And it was more one-on-one. I got personal help from teachers, and a lot more personal attention than you would get in just a normal public school. For me personally, that was the biggest selling point.

The flexibility, the one-on-one experience... Kiaha, was it similar for you, or were there other things that you really liked?

Kiaha Raigoza: The flexibility. I probably shouldn't admit this on a podcast, but I mean, it's been a few years, so if my mom grounds me, she grounds me. But there were times, where you know, school would take me ten minutes, and then I'd play guitar the rest of the day. Looking back, it's like, “Okay, maybe I should have paid a little more attention in school.” I absolutely should have, but at the same time, I was able to really pursue what I really loved. I was like. "Okay, I like music, and I like playing around with this computer the school gave me. How can I use this? Like how can I make a living off doing these two things?" So it really helped me find myself, for lack of better words.

It is interesting that you bring up the fact of how much time you spent in the schooling environment online though. A few of my Twitter followers want to know how you managed your time effectively while you were doing this work online. How did you avoid distraction?

Amanda Regan: Time management was definitely a skill I had to learn. It's been great. It was great preparation for university. You certainly learn how to manage your time, but it wasn't always easy.

I tried to try and keep it where I had as normal of a schedule as I could. So, try and keep the nine to three type thing going. But, I was also actively pursuing figure skating at the time, so I was skating a lot, I had competitions all the time. So, the lack of a formal schedule gave me the flexibility to change my school schedule around. But then, when you go to work, you have to actually sit down and make sure that you do the work, which isn't always fun. I was able to do it where I worked during the day, but I never had homework. So, when I went home and I could just be at home with my family, so that was kind of my motivation was to work during the day, and then, not have to do anything once I went home.

And how did it look in terms of support from your teachers? Did you feel that they were able to support you, or did the distance make it more difficult for the relationship to be there?

Kiaha Raigoza: It was definitely made available. There were times where I had to contact my teachers through email. We had live sessions. Although most teachers didn't require you to go. Some teachers who would ask you to go to theirs made the class tedious, because you had to sit there for a hour and a half while you listen to this lecture when you've already got the concepts. For me, I actually preferred learning on my own and grasping the concepts. And when I did have big questions, I would ask them that. But I actually really liked the distance, so I could work on my own

Amanda Regan: Virtual High School called it “asynchronous,” so there's no set time where you have to sit in on a lecture or anything like that. All communication is either done through email or in the feedback that you get from your teacher when you hand in assignments. It's very much you get out of it what you put in. If you need more help from the teacher, you can ask for it, and get it. And it's like any school system, you have your favorite teachers, and there are teachers that you don't get along with as well. It's really just like any school system.

What about relationships with fellow students?

Amanda Regan: For most students in a virtual school, there's not a whole lot of student-to-student interaction. There are discussion boards that you can participate in, and respond to fellow students, but it's not mandatory. It's not like you have to, which was part of the appeal for me. I didn't really want to have to deal with all of the high school drawbacks. And even though I didn't have as much student interaction... I got that through my extra-curriculars.

Kiaha Raigoza: For me, I had the opportunity to have interactions through my old friends from middle school, went to prom. You know, high school politics are just a load of hooey. And told myself, "You know what, I'd rather just go home, do school work, play video games for the rest of the day." And I'm perfectly fine with this—I don't feel like I missed anything.

I'm definitely hearing some positives, but nothing in existence is perfect. What were some of the drawbacks of going to virtual schools?

Kiaha Raigoza: As much as I did not feel like I missed out, in retrospect, there were times where I definitely did get lonely. I would think, "Oh man, I wish I did have friends to hang out with during the day," because it got very lonely in my room.

Also, going through courses and everything, and with email being your main communication, it was hard to figure some things out. Like when math is getting really, really hard, and the book's not making sense, and the only method to communicate with your teacher is through email— that can get really hard at times.

Amanda Regan: I would agree, especially with the email. I know Virtual High School is working on fixing that right now. They now offer tutoring, which helps. So, that's more 24/7. But for me, it was always the little questions, where you're just stuck on this one math problem, and you know it's probably some stupid little error that you're making, but you can't figure out what it is. It's a pain to have to wait the day for your teacher to get back to you. Like I said, they're working on fixing that, but for me, that was one of my frustrations.

I wonder—you both were in high school a number of years ago, but if you could go back today, are any particular tools that you think would help keep you more connected?

Kiaha Raigoza: A non-proprietary chatroom. At least when I was going through it, Blackboard had some proprietary school-based chatroom—Elluminate—where we would do our live sessions and everything. It was cool, but it wasn't always open, it wasn't always accessible, and because it was proprietary, you had to use this operating system with these certain system requirements. If we had Google Hangouts, a lot of issues would have been solved.

Amanda Regan: Yeah. I know there are some teachers with Virtual High School who are okay doing things like Skype.

Last question. As you may or may not know, there are some people that absolutely love virtual schools, and others who are against them. There was this study that The Atlanticreferenced this past June, one that had looked at thousands of virtual charter school students in 18 states. The study found that students in those schools performed dramatically worse on standardized tests in comparison to students in traditional schools.

If somebody came up to you who had read this research and said, "Oh, I'm not a fan of virtual schools,” what would you say to them about your experiences?

Kiaha Raigoza: I think everyone learns differently. I think some people will excel in virtual schools, and I think other people won't. The concept of alternative methods of education is so important. Einstein said, "If you judge a fish by how it climbs a tree, it's going to spend the rest of its life thinking it's stupid." So, I always take studies with a grain of salt. I'm sure it was totally credible, and not everyone is built for one method of education.

Amanda Regan: Online school worked really, really well for me—made me more self-motivated, time management, all of that. But I also know other students who really struggled with it. It definitely depends on your interest, the type of learner you are. I would also say it really depends on the format of it. I mean, my experience with Virtual High School was phenomenal, and I absolutely loved it. But then, I took a few online courses during university that had deadlines and mandatory discussions, and you had to listen to a two hour lecture at a certain time, and I hated every second of it. So, I think it really depends on the style and the format of the online learning. And there's a wide variety.

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