Digital classrooms save taxpayer costs, while offering personalized instruction

Online charter schools that have accepted Louisiana students for the upcoming fall semester are in position to democratize education and offer specialized learning experiences, according to some of the top officials connected with those institutions.

The Louisiana Connections Academy and the Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy can enroll students from any part of the state. So far, demand has exceeded the number of open slots, school figures show. The Louisiana Connections Academy, which is part of a larger chain based in Baltimore, Md., has received 1,900 applications for 600 openings. Caroline Wood, the school’s principal, has petitioned the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to allow for additional enrollment. The Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy has received 1,400 applications, but can only accept up to 1,320 students.

Jeff Kwitowski, the vice-president of communications for K12, a technology-based company that develops online education curriculum, anticipates that the demand for virtual classrooms will continue to grow in Louisiana as parents continue to seek educational opportunities that are well suited to their own unique situations. K12 is partnered with the Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy.

“Online education is just getting off the ground in Louisiana and that’s good for everyone,” he said. “Families with special needs will find they have more opportunities and more options. We see this with military families that travel a lot and we also have families with medical conditions that find this model very appealing.”

That point about military families is not lost on Wood, the Louisiana Connections Academy principal, as she was an “army brat” herself. The flexibility attached to online learning can offer students who are constantly on the move a seamless transition.

“Louisiana has tapped into a segment of the population that can thrive in virtual classrooms for a whole variety of reasons,” Wood said. “Some students perform better outside of the `brick and mortar’ environment.”

The curriculum that has been developed for virtual schools includes courses that are not widely available in conventional settings, Kwitowski noted. Furthermore, lessons can be adjusted to accommodate to provide for additional instruction when needed to encourage students pursue any special areas of interest, he added.

“We’ve built one of the most innovative and engaging curriculum offerings,” he said. “For example we can offer world language courses down to the third grade level, which is not something you find in a lot of school districts.”

The K12 curriculum is designed to “bring lessons to life” with a mix of online and offline teaching material, which include interactive animations, printed books, CDs and videos. The lessons plans for different subjects are also coordinated. This means a student who is reading literature from a certain time period would also by studying art or history from that same period.

Each student’s progress is carefully assessed and measured after each lesson to ensure that they have fully comprehended the material before moving on to new coursework. The specialized attention and individualization that goes in hand with online learning will have a transformative influence on education, Kwitowski suggested.

Furthermore, there is no reason to put restrictions on enrollments since there is no “brick and mortar capacity” that by design can only accommodate a certain number of students, he explained.

Although Louisiana state officials decided to limit the number of open spaces for new online schools, Kwitowski said these restraints could be lifted in the near future.

“That’s the state policy framework we have now in Louisiana, but in reality there is no reason the students who want to enroll can’t and that’s a really powerful feature of online instruction and it’s also very democratic,” he said. “We have the ability to give any student across the state regardless of where they live and regardless of their socioeconomic status the ability to access a public school. That’s why online charter schools have been described as the most public of all public schools.”

As an added benefit, online schools also save taxpayer dollars, Kwitowski  observed. Since there is very little infrastructure involved, the building and maintenance costs that are attached to other public schools are cut out. Furthermore, online schools are better equipped to adjust to budget cuts that might otherwise impact programs, he maintained.

“There are a number of steps that can be taken in the online world to augment and back up programs  that come under financial strain,” Kwitowski said. “We can be the incubators of innovation and this was the whole idea behind charter schools. Where online schools are already in existence they are driving reform in their districts. Louisiana is part of a growing movement.”

Digital Learning Now, a national campaign set up in 2010 to integrate current and future technological advancements into public education, will issue a report card later this year that evaluates learning initiatives in all 50 states.

Former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Bob Wise of West Virginia, who co-chair the campaign, will release the report card at the 2011 Excellence in Action National Summit on Education Reform on Oct. 13 in San Francisco, Calif. The idea is to grade each state based on the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning that Bush and Wise presented at the 2010 national summit in Washington D.C.
In a joint letter addressed to attendees, Bush and Wise outlined their vision for online education.

They wrote:

“Digital learning can customize and personalize education so all students learn in their own style at their own pace, which maximizes their chances for success in school and beyond. With digital learning, every student –from rural communities to inner cities – can access high quality and rigorous courses in every subject, including foreign languages, math and science. Digital learning can also be the catalyst for transformational change in education.”

The concept of “personalized learning” figures prominently within the program Bush and Wise have advanced nationwide.

“In today’s world learning doesn’t have to start when a student enters the classroom and end when the school bell rings,” a report on the 10 Elements of Digital Learning, explains. “Students can access digital learning virtually whenever and wherever they are both physically and figuratively.”

Louisiana stands out nationally in its “adoption and application” of new technology that can be used to enhance the educational experience, Rene Greer, director of communications for the Louisiana Department of Education, said. The “demonstrated success” of the Louisiana Virtual School (LVS) “is a testament to the state’s commitment to enrich traditional learning models with effective virtual technology,” she added. The program has experienced robust growth since 2000, state figures show.
There were 130 students in the 2001-01 school year in comparison to 4,589 for the 2010-11 school year.

LVS intermixes online material with traditional classroom instruction at the high school level. Students have the option to enroll part-time in online courses that complement classroom curriculum, Greer explained. Each year, an external evaluator hired by the state’s Board f Elementary and Secondary Education, measures the program’s success. Thus far, it has received high marks.
Louisiana is also one of nine states that received a perfect score of 100 an an “A” grade for its use of technology in “Education Week’s 2009 Technology Counts Report. Louisiana also ranked 6th in the Center for Digital Education’s 2009 survey of states’ online learning policy and practice. Louisiana also received an “A” in technology in a United States Chamber of Commerce (November 2009) survey. The LVA program contributed to the ranking.

Student achievement number are another sign of encouragement, Greer points out.

“There is significant evidence that the Louisiana Virtual School is producing the desired outcomes for the students of Louisiana,” she said.

Seventy-six percent of LVS students are making an A, B, or C in their courses, according to school figures.

Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter.