Virginia classrooms prepare to go digital

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WASHINGTON – As the world marketplace continues to go digital, high schools throughout Virginia are taking the plunge into virtual education.

A law passed by the Virginia General Assembly last spring requires incoming freshmen to take at least one online course in order to graduate.

It will affect students entering the ninth grade in 2013 and beyond. The classes do not have to be for credit, and can be combined with another provision requiring students to take at least one class in personal or economic finance.

Virginia joins several other states, like Florida and Idaho, that have incorporated virtual education into graduation requirements. But many districts in the state already have embraced technology in the classroom, and some see the new requirements as merely streamlining what is already in place.

Alexandria City Public Schools has been doling out laptops to each high school student since 2003 for personal use during the academic year. In 2005, the district integrated Blackboards — electronic screens — into classrooms.

“Students communicate with each other, collaborate with each other, outside the school walls differently than they traditionally do inside,” says Elizabeth Hoover, chief technology officer for the school system.

“It has allowed us to use tools that students use in their personal lives for their instruction.”

Students in Alexandria are not thrown in front of a computer screen and expected to simply absorb information that way, Hoover says. They receive additional support from teachers, who interact with the students on a personal basis.

Hoover says the key is to think about online learning as a hybrid of traditional teaching and virtual education. It is not meant to displace humans.

“It’s more about integrating technology,” she says.

Fairfax County also has been incorporating online courses for several years. The county currently has about 50 virtual classes, Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman John Torre says.

“Online learning is something we’ve been doing for quite some time,” he says.

Lower-income students whose parents might not be able to afford their own computer equipment can take out loaners from the libraries.

Arlington Public Schools also has been at the forefront of this trend. The county offered 25 classes in the 2012-2013 academic year, and 400 students enrolled in them classes, ARLnow reports.

Most of those courses were in foreign languages, but the district plans to expand the offerings in order to meet the new state requirements.

While many educators applaud integrating technology into the classroom, some students still prefer learning the traditional way.

“I would have learned better in a classroom environment,” recent high school graduate Brittany O’Grady tells ARLnow. “I really enjoy making connections with people. The material becomes more engaging.”

Expanding virtual education has been a key part of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s education agenda. He says the online course requirement will better prepare students for the “job market of the 21st century.”

The state already offers online classes through a website called Virtual Virginia, which provides everything from advanced placement to foreign language instruction.

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