Yes, there really are private virtual high schools on the Internet now. And, to prove it I recently approached freelance writer Cathy Cove for permission to republish one of her Goderich Signal Star about Virtual High School (Ontario).
It is an amazing story about how innovative thinking can change the way things are done, particularly for students who may have special needs, such as attention deficit disorder, are recovering from a health crisis (replacing homeschooling, for example), simply don’t like sitting in a regular classroom, or are international students who want Ontario preparation courses. I mean, why not?
This school is private but there is no reason that a public board cannot do the same — with qualified teachers who are not only members of the Ontario College of Teachers but members of a teachers’ union as well. And so, here is the column about another type of alternative school, with my thanks.
VIRTUAL HIGH SCHOOL MAKING THE GRADE IN A BIG WAY
By Cathy Cove
Freelance to the Goderich Signal Star
At a time when we’ve been deluged with media reports on the looming crisis in public education as a result of a predicted decline in student enrolments it was a breath of fresh air to be introduced to the Bayfield Ontario-based Virtual High School (VHS).
The school’s administration hub occupies a modest 1,000 square foot space at the north end of Bayfield.
Officially begun in 1995, VHS Principal Steve Baker speaks proudly of how the whole concept of virtual learning was actually pioneered right here in Huron County at GDCI under the Huron County Board of Education. As a matter of fact the GDCI Grade 11 biology course taught that same year was the first online courses to be taught in Canada.
The philosophy Principal Baker sees as the backbone of the VHS is that it’s a school that fits the student rather than forcing the student to fit the school. “Not all kids do well in a traditional classroom setting. The Virtual High School allows for a student to receive a fluid and flexible education at his/her own pace,” said Baker.“We don’t do any formal advertising. The students find us through the internet,” he explained.
Enrolment at the time of this interview stands at 3500 students from as far away as Thailand, with students from Ontario making up the bulk of the VHS student body. Students can take one course, upgrade a mark, pick up a course to meet a post-secondary requirement or earn their high-school diploma fully online.Students may start a course at any time during the year and progress at their own pace.
Cost to the student is per course and could range anywhere from $400 to $600 depending on the course.
VHS meets the educational needs of students with special needs, homeschooled students, students who have been bullied, and students who require more tailored and flexible learning. The VHS is accessible to students 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, opening up lines of communication between teachers and students that further enhance the on-line learning experience.
Students are evaluated on an on-going basis and are able to get test results immediately as well as feedback from the teacher.Final exams are closed book proctored tests usually written on a day and place chosen by the student who also is responsible for arranging for a proctor to observe the student during the test period.
Certified teachers at VHS are free to develop their own programs and are expected to be available to students around the clock. They must be multi-faceted and anticipate the needs of the student in a very student -centric way. Teachers are paid per student and are judged on the basis of the student results. “We have the ability to let teachers go who don’t fit our requirements,” said Mr. Baker.
Responding to the criticism that virtual learning students suffer from lack of real-time social interaction, VHS teacher Vance McPherson doesn’t see it. As a teacher who has worked in a traditional classroom setting, McPherson finds the nature of teacher/student relationships much broader and deeper through virtual learning. “All students are equal at VHS. It’s very comfortable and a much more relaxed relationship with students who wouldn’t normally get noticed in a regular class setting,” he added.
Virtual learning requires a much different skill set and self-discipline from the students. “Students are empowered because virtual learning encourages them to be their own advocates of their learning,” teacher McPherson said. Learning at VHS is not isolated at all. Teachers and students have many different avenues for self-expression and interaction through online discussions and focus-group activities.
“The Virtual High School demonstrates as do other exceptional schools that all students can learn to a high standard,” says Malkin Dare, President of the Society of Quality Education.
Looking to the future Principal Baker shared that the school will be setting up its permanent administration centre on Main St. in Bayfield. Baker is also looking to expand virtual learning to elementary level programs.
Having choices in education through schools like the Virtual High School means that choice is no longer the luxury afforded to urban centres. In Canada, schools like VHS are opening up minds and possibilities to those thousands of students who feel that online learning meets their needs best.
And to think that it was pioneered right here in Huron County serves as a credit to those who saw its potential and acted on it.
Endnote: GDCI stands for Goderich District Collegiate Institute.