Bit by Bit

Virtual Schools Can Transform Nevada Public Education

By Patrick R. Gibbons
  • Monday, May 17, 2010

Executive Summary

Computer technology began penetrating K-12 classrooms across the United States in the 1980s. In 1994, just 3 percent of all schools had a dedicated computer lab. A decade later, 94 percent of schools had computer labs. Unfortunately, the rapid rise in classroom technology did not result in a corresponding improvement in student achievement. Instead, computers remained largely unused, with many merely decorating the backs of classrooms.

Although public education's adoption of technology has been largely superficial, technological innovation has nevertheless matured enough to benefit students and communities. Current technology allows students to learn from anywhere, at any time and at any pace. Student performance can be assessed constantly, allowing teachers to quickly understand where students succeed or where they struggle. Existing technology also makes teachers available to students from miles away, with programs increasingly allowing live, real-time communication between teachers and students. And even when no teacher is present, computer programs can help students learn.

Virtual schools are significantly more cost-effective than traditional public schools, offering major capital-cost and transportation savings. Because the technology can help teachers become more effective, it also has the potential to reduce the primary cost of public education: labor. Virtual schools provide tremendous benefits for rural students, homeschooled students, special-needs students, students pursuing early graduation and even students who simply wish to catch up.

At the rapid rate at which the technology is maturing, the virtual school is poised to be the 21st Century's model for public education. Fortunately, Nevada has several virtual schools, some constituted as charter schools and some as district schools. Today more than 6,000 children attend full-time virtual schools in Nevada, including at least one student from each of the state's 17 counties.

Regrettably, Nevada has in place several regulations that make it difficult to start and operate virtual schools. The state is behind the curve relative to some of its neighbors. One-third of students in Utah, a state with a population density similar to Nevada's, took at least one online course in 2007.

If the appropriate reforms are made, virtual education can significantly benefit the Silver State's fiscal health while simultaneously advancing student achievement.

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