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Online courses aren't just for home-schoolers anymore

Small schools use them to broaden class offerings; Michigan aims to mandate them.

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What Alex Keller likes most about taking all of his classes online is that there's no homework, really. He works on his classes at least four hours a day in his home south of Knoxville, Tenn., then does his chores and goes out to play with his border collie puppy.

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Alex is completing seventh grade through Florida Virtual School because his family moved to Tennessee soon after the school year began. This way his studies have been uninterrupted, says his mom, Mindy Keller, who teaches an AP composition class for Florida Virtual School. But Alex is looking forward to next fall. "I'd like to make some friends for once," he says.

Online learning programs vary widely. Some are like old-fashioned correspondence courses, where the student rarely interacts with teacher or classmates. Others are highly interactive and include online discussions and frequent e-mail communication between teachers and students. For state- sponsored programs, the cost is free to those in state. Tuitions for out-of-state students, and for students at for-profit virtual schools, cost hundreds per course.

Many advocates say it makes sense to provide education to the millennial generation in a format they've grown up using. "They're very much accustomed to using it for recreation, for communication," says Liz Pape, CEO of Virtual High School, a Massachusetts nonprofit that provides online courses to K-12 schools around the world. "So now, if we train our teachers properly, they can use technology as a tool for delivering engaging education."

Proponents of K-12 online learning also say students can interact more with each other and experience deeper relationships with teachers in such classes. Some students have formed statewide poetry or world language clubs online. Florida Virtual School students produce an online newspaper.

From a small public high school in Forks, Wash., Liz Sanchez teaches a poetry-writing course to students all over the country as well as in Paraguay and China. Ms. Sanchez says her students communicate with each other about what's going on in their lives and cultures.

"There's a depth to it that doesn't always happen in the face-to-face class," Sanchez says. "Here they are in different time zones and different regions. I'm so continually moved by their ability to connect with each other. They do so quite honestly and respectfully."

"Choice" is another refrain online educators frequently use. "Why shouldn't a kid be able to take a class in contemporary Irish literature?" Sanchez says. "With the choices of technology, why shouldn't one of my students have that same opportunity?"

But the quality of K-12 online education varies just as its traditional equivalent does, says Parker of the North American Council for Online Learning. "We must ensure that our online offerings are the highest quality," she says. "We don't want to take the same old musty textbook, scan it, and put it up as an online course."

Funding online programs has caused controversy in some parts of the country in the past few years, especially in places where online enrollment siphons money from school districts.

In Colorado, for example, the state is currently auditing one school district's online program that has grown rapidly since it opened this school year. Critics are concerned that a few fast-growing online programs are unmonitored and that some districts are taking state money away from others by attracting students with online courses. Jane Urschel, a director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, calls the growth a "cyber land grab" and says the entrepreneurial impulse of smaller, struggling school districts is understandable but needs regulation.