A study of the nature of instruction and community in a virtual high school
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The two-fold purposes of this study were: to determine the nature of instruction required in the virtual school context and student responses to that instruction; and, to determine the nature and parameters of community that develop in the virtual school context. A case study in one Western-Canadian virtual high school was conducted in two phases. Phase I focussed on the perceptions of faculty and included interviews with four administrators, seven teacher/ developers, and four developers. Phase II focussed on the perceptions of students and included an on-line survey and four focus group interviews. Phase I data were analysed using content analysis procedures. Phase II textual data were analysed using content analysis while the descriptive statistics from the survey data were obtained using SPSS. The conceptual framework for analysis was derived from Mitchell and Sackney's (2001) model of the learning community in which they suggested that a learning community must build capacity in three arenas: interpersonal, personal, and organisational. This study found that, due to factors including a lack of course development time, a paucity of technical and software support, and insufficient pedagogical training for the teacher/developers, this on-line high school looked very much like a traditional high school with the exception that its classes took place on the Internet. Instruction was typically teacher-led and context-driven. It consisted primarily of static text-based web-pages delivered to students via the Internet. Students indicated that they chose to enroll in this on-line school for several reasons including: the desire for a flexible schedule to facilitate work, athletics, or child care needs; the desire to take extra classes that were either not available at their home schools or were impossible to include in their timetables due to school scheduling inflexibility; or, the desire to try something new. A surprising finding was that many female students had enrolled in the on-line school courses because they had become frustrated with instruction in their regular school classes. They indicated that there were two particular sources of frustration: they did not approve of many of their fellow students' off-task behaviours and teachers' responses to that behaviour and they felt that there were too many cooperative learning activities and group projects in their regular courses and that they wished to be able to work alone more often. However, it was also found that there was a very high drop out rate and a high level of student disengagement within this virtual school. It was also found that the existence of a virtual school had exerted considerable pressure on the other schools and teachers in the school division to make changes. Students had begun to demand a more interactive and flexible learning environment in their regular classes and the school division's faculty associations had begun to focus on the use of technology in face-to-face classroom settings in their professional development activities. In addition, the existence of particular virtual school classes had become a point of contention within the school division as teachers of the regular face-to-face versions of the courses objected to the existence of on-line versions of their courses. This study surfaced key implications for theory such as: in the initial stages, an on-line course will look much like a typical face-to-face course unless adequate course development time and sufficient pedagogical and technological training for teachers are provided, the traditional bureaucratic management style does not fit well with a cyberschool project, and the cyberschool appears to have a positive impact on student learning. In addition, implications for practise included the need to address the high student drop out and disengagement rates as well as the students' desire for more structured community and course procedures. Implications for further research included the need to develop an effective screening process for prospective on-line students, a further examination of the administrative structures necessary for effective management of on-line schools, and a longitudinal study of virtual school operation to develop a set of correlates of virtual school effectiveness. A reconceptualisation of the theoretical framework was offered indicating that the metaphor of a learning community was an apt description of an on-line school but, the traditional models of learning communities did not go far enough. The learning community, for the on-line school context, needs to account for greater student input and must reframe the student-teacher relationship in terms of being co-learners. Finally, the potential future directions of on-line learning such as the proliferation of on-line learning objects and hybrid schools were explored.