Education around the globe is going through a period of rapid transition ever since the turn of the new century.
Propelled by advancement in technology and easy internet accessibility, teaching and learning in physical brick-and-mortar classrooms has now shifted to virtual schools. For many educators and learners across the world, teaching and learning in a physical school building has become a thing of the past and doesn’t exist anymore. Virtual or online learning is the trend now, globally! No wonder, many schools and universities around the globe have now migrated to an online learning environment or virtual schools.
According to a report, the Global Virtual Schools Market was valued at 2,390 million USD in 2018 and is expected to reach 4,920 million USD by the end of 2024, growing at a CAGR of 12.8% between 2019 and 2024. The report pointed US as the leader in the virtual school business, taking the market share of 93.2% in 2017, followed by Canada with 3.8% and European Union with 0.83%, despite several market players. Japan and China have also started the virtual school business and they are beginning to gain popularity in the two countries. According to some estimates, at least 2.7 million K-12 students are taking some sort of online course in the U.S. and over one-third of U.S. higher education students have taken at least one online course.
Well, considering its popularity in disrupting the traditional education system, here we take a look at the global trends and problems in virtual schooling.
Benefits of virtual learning or schooling
Virtual schooling offers several benefits as compared to traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms. It offers flexibility in learning. Students have the flexibility to learn whenever and wherever they want. They aren’t bound by the strict routine or schedule as those in the traditional school. Virtual learning is affordable in nature. It is cheaper compared to classroom learning as students don’t have to pay for infrastructure, maintenance, library, sports, medical etc. It offers personalized learning and students receive more attention and assistance on areas where they need help. It prepares students for career and their future by teaching them 21st century skills that will help them grow in life. Besides, virtual schools help students cover the missed classes which are not possible in traditional classes, have the flexibility to expand courses, and most importantly, help students learn at their own pace.
Global trends in the growth of virtual schools
Looking at the trend, there is a continued expansion in the number of virtual schools across the world – from virtual high schools to virtual K-12 schools in North America, and the growth of virtual schools in other parts of the world. Research indicated that more virtual schools began their operations in the United States during the period 2000-2001 (43%) than in the previous four years combined. There is also evidence of growing for virtual schools in Canada. The implications of the trends from North America toward an increased number of virtual schools and the extension of virtual schooling to K-12 indicates there will be increased attention devoted to solving problems associated with virtual schooling.
Virtual schools have also continued to develop in other parts of the world. Study indicated new trend in the evolution of virtual schools in Europe. Countries like UK are trailing a type of virtual school that aims to re-engage school-age students into learning who have previously been out of more traditional educational systems. The project (Notschool, 2006) aims to establish a virtual community and develop students’ self-esteem using new technology and community support.
In China, study indicated thousands of students have been enrolled in virtual schools, with many of them sponsored by enterprises. In Australia, virtual schools have been established in Qld (VSS, 2006) and Tasmania (Distance Education Tasmania, 2006) by the relevant educational authorities. These schools use conventional schools and they elect to receive or provide instruction in designated subject areas.
Key Problems of Virtual School
Virtual schools face a number of challenges related to the way that teaching and learning are implemented in online environments. Some of the major problems include authenticity, interactivity, socialization, experiential learning, teacher training, responsibility and accountability, accreditation, student suitability, equity, etc.
Authenticity: The first and foremost problem of a virtual school is the authenticity of the work of students. Teachers have no idea whether the assignments and tests given by virtual school are actually done by students themselves or by someone else. Though virtual school may assign students a secure ID and password to use over the internet, but it doesn’t guarantee that students won’t share it with their parent or tutor, who can work and complete task on their behalf.
Interactivity: Interactivity describes the relationship between learners and the educational environment. In any teaching-learning process, it requires active engagement and participation from both the parties. In virtual school, interaction between a student and teacher is being carried out all electronically. If a student is directed to a static web page containing a teacher’s lecture notes, learning may be less effective, unless other teaching methods are used to supplement it.
Socialization: Knowing how to socialize or get along well with others is necessary for living in a civilized community. In virtual school, students rarely get a chance to make friends or socialize with their peers, unlike in conventional schools. For kids who want to engage in sports, meetings, clubs, and the social world, virtual schooling is totally out of option for them. If schools don’t organize sports or field trips or get together from time to time, virtual school can cause isolation and confine students to their own space making them unsocial and lonely.
Experiential learning: In conventional schools, there are certain teaching activities referred to as experiential, where some form of hands-on activity or physical interaction with others is involved. However, that is completely absent in virtual schools.
Teacher training: Teacher training is a major area of concern for virtual schools. Unlike in traditional schools, virtual teachers will find that some new skills are required, while others are less important. For example, class management skills in a face-to-face environment will differ from their online equivalents, so will other teaching practices. There will be a constant need to use technological skills and to apply these skills to an appropriate educational context. However, it is unlikely that many colleges and other providers of trained teachers have modified their courses to reflect these changes, as mainstream teacher training is still focused on conventional school education.
Shift in responsibility, accountability: In traditional schools, teachers are held responsible for almost everything, from students’ performance to the prevention of physical injury, accountability for using appropriate teaching techniques and what not. But in virtual school, there is a change in notions of responsibility, accountability, and student discipline. Teachers are unable to exercise some of their accustomed responsibilities. Much of the responsibility shifts to students; as they have to take the ownership of their learning; and parents and suppliers of the online materials.
Cover use of unqualified teachers: While parents normally expect that virtual teacher working with their child must be a competent online teacher and be certified or registered with the corresponding school system. However, as students are working from home, and the principal contact with the teacher is by e-mail, the anonymity of the communication mode could conceivably cover the use of unqualified teachers in virtual schools.
Digital divide: Globally, 3.6 billion people do not have access to the affordable internet, with most of the disconnected group belonging to the least developed or developing countries. When it comes to virtual schooling, the existing digital divide makes it really harder for the disadvantaged population to reap its benefits.
Besides the above, there are also other issues like certification, class sizes, student suitability, lesser supervision of teachers, untested curriculum, lack of disciplinary rules, irregularity by students and more.
While virtual schooling may be called a natural extension of long-existing distance education system and may involve a number of problems and challenges in implementing it, the mode of teaching and learning has undoubtedly brought a tremendous change in the entire education world. It has increased the opportunities for students to explore alternatives to traditional school education. Considering its growth trend, it is seeing that there will be an increase in the number of virtual schools and that they will continue to attract students.