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Understanding How Virtual Schools Tick

After covering education for more than a year, I began to notice more and more San Diego County teachers are using technology to teach. That got me thinking about how technology is changing the classroom and lives of students. I decided to tackle the topic by producing a three-part series called Classroom 2.0: High Tech Takes A Seat .

One of the reports in that series focuses on virtual schools . I wanted to find out what makes them tick, so I visited the headquarters of National University Virtual High School in La Jolla. Teacher Kimberly Kopps was gracious enough to give me a tour of the virtual campus, which started at the school's main Web page . We quickly clicked our way through some of the online classes such as English and marine biology. Not bad, I thought, but where are the teachers and how do they interact with their students?

Kopps says cyber teachers are "at school" just like teachers at traditional schools except they're sitting by their computer at all times, answering students questions, tutoring online, sending emails, and grading written assignments. Kopps admits the chances are slim-to-none that she'll actually meet any of her students, but she does give students her home phone number and she posts photos of herself that go along with class announcements.


The question that kept nagging me, however, was: How do the students interact? Believe me, everyone has their high school horror stories but I think that's where teens build a sense of self, make friends and develop school spirit. Kopps argued that cyber students socialize too -- it's just done differently. She pointed me to the virtual school's Student Lounge, a web page where students can "hang out" and post and respond to messages. Kopps also took me to one of the many discussion boards where students can turn to if they have questions on particular assignments.

It was all beyond my understanding, seeing how I come from a generation that still used libraries for high school assignments and learned about computers in a separate class. But there's no denying the numbers: The National Council for Online Learning says more than one million students are expected to take at least one online course per year. And more and more virtual schools are springing up all around the country.