Virtual School Glossary

Virtual School Glossary

by Mark Sivy


During my dissertation writing process last year, I noted several terms associated with virtual schools that needed clear descriptions. The following terms are defined within the context of the study:

At-a-Distance – interaction between individuals occurring over a geographic or time separation, usually technology mediated.

Digital – technology that uses discrete values (binary code) to transmit and process data.

Distance Education – the use of teaching methods and media (whether audio, visual or digital technology) to produce learning when instructors and students are not physically present in the same location at the same time.

Distributed Leadership – at-a-distance leadership that is shared among multiple individuals.

Educational Technology – technology for teaching, learning, and academic support purposes. This can include instructional development and deployment, communication, visualization and social media technology.

E-Learning – electronically supported and mediated teaching and learning, usually being computer or web-based. It is not synonymous with online learning, which is rather a subset of e-learning.

Full-time Program – these virtual school programs provide courses to student who are enrolled primarily or only in the virtual school.

Home School – the physical school at which a student is an enrolled member. Associated with students who are usually taking one or two courses through a virtual school.

Instructional Technology – refers to the use of specific technologies that facilitate instruction.

Leader – an individual who inspires or influences an individual or group of individuals to accomplish common goals and tasks.

Online – a state of connectivity that exists via the Internet and that is accessed through a digital processor-based technology such as a computer or mobile device.

Online School Program – a program that provides supplemental courses to students who are enrolled full-time in a traditional school.

Online Education –a major subgroup of distance education that uses the Internet for teaching and learning.

Personalized Virtual Learning – developing curriculum and instruction for a virtual school that enables learners to progress at their own pace, within limitations and as gauged by mastery of learning objectives.

State-led Virtual Schools – virtual schools that are authorized by a state-level governing body that often structures the school, determines policy, and provides a financial model.

Technology-facilitated – using technology in a manner to help bring about a desired outcome.

Traditional School (brick and mortar school) – a school housed and operated within a physically constructed space.

Virtual – an existence or extension of existence that is created, simulated, presented, or experienced using interconnected computers via networks and related technologies.

Virtual Education – teaching and learning that occurs through interconnected computers via networks and related technologies.

Virtual School (cyber school, fully online charter school) – an educational organization that entirely offers its courses and services for students who are at-a-distance via the Internet using web-based content, tools and methods.

Web-based – that which uses the attributes and resources of the World Wide Web.

World Wide Web – the global system of interlinked hypertext documents that are accessed through the Internet and viewed using a web browser.


One of the greatest issues I’ve found during my recent career experiences and education is the great variety of uses and definitions of common terminology associated with online / virtual education. This can be a challenge in the United States, and is be even more of an issue internationally. With this awareness, misunderstandings can be kept to a minimum.

There are many other terms and phrases associated with virtual schooling. Additional resources for these can be found at:

Reflection Point – “You must learn to talk clearly. The jargon of scientific terminology which rolls off your tongues is mental garbage.”     ~Martin H Fischer


Virtual School Leader Processes

Virtual School Leader Profile

by Mark Sivy

At the core of a virtual school ecosystem is its leader. These leaders guide the school’s culture, processes, operations and outcomes. As a result of recent research interviews with virtual school leaders, much information was gathered about their personal leadership traits and styles. When asking questions related to these topics, rather than talking about themselves, the leaders typically resorted to citing practical examples about their school’s operations and the interactions they have had with their staff. The following were the four central themes that resulted:


Most leaders brought up this topic when they expressed having a lack of authority or input regarding state and local school district policies related to the virtual school and the use of its services. Other comments were made concerning the use of their authority within the virtual schools. In these instances, the leaders preferred to work with and make determinations and resolutions as a team, but that they would step in as the decision maker when needed.

Virtual School Leader

Forward Thinking

Both directly and indirectly, the leaders made statements about monitoring trends and innovations, preparing for the future, and looking for new opportunities. Also brought up was the concept of being a change agent. In this role, the leader would be open to creativity, new ideas, different directions, and calculated risks.

Personal Motivations and Interests

Leadership InterestThe most consistent and heartfelt motivation for these leaders was their dedication to the students. These leaders were authentically concerned about the students, their learning, and their well-being. Some of the leaders expressed the fulfillment they previously had as a classroom teacher in a traditional school and saw their current positions as a continuation of that role. Others stated that they wished they had the opportunity to teach in an online setting. Other intrinsic incentives were the leadership role itself, working with curriculum and instruction, being on a leading edge of education, and facilitating education using technology.

Role Approach

These leaders maintained an arsenal of personal tactics, strategies, and methodologies that were used in addressing the large number of different leadership challenges and responsibilities. Their approaches were determined by the people, circumstances, limitations, and resources that were involved. In addressing the leadership demands, the most common characteristics were for the leaders to be dynamic, adaptable, open, and agile.

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”   ~John F. Kennedy

Virtual School Policy

Virtual School Policy

by Mark Sivy

Policy has and is playing an important role in the adoption and evolution of virtual schools. Fulton and Kober (2002) recommend that during the process of designing and developing virtual school policy, policymakers should develop indicators that not only can be used to guide virtual schools, but that can also be used in the evaluation of virtual education.

virtual school policyBased upon the Digital Learning Council’s 2011 Digital Learning Now! Roadmap for Reform report, policy should address and support student success, the availability of quality learning options, and a digital learning infrastructure. Student success can be facilitated by ensuring equal access, removing access barriers, personalizing learning, and cultivating learning achievement and advancement (Digital Learning Council, 2011; Rice, 2009). In terms of quality learning options, considerations must be made for high quality content, instruction, choices, programs and interactions (Digital Learning Council, 2011). This involves upholding the rigor of said elements and establishing and maintaining a means of assessment and accountability. Finally, digital learning infrastructure focuses on the virtual school’s underpinnings and the factors that contribute to sustainability. These include funding, stakeholder input, technology infrastructure and its reliability, support, training, research, and evaluation (Digital Learning Council, 2011; Rice, 2009).

Reflection Point – “Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.” ~Ronald Reagan



Digital Learning Council. (2011). Digital learning now! Roadmap for reform.

Fulton, K. & Kober, N. (2002). Preserving principles of public education in an online world: What policymakers should be asking about virtual schools. Center on Education Policy Report.

Rice, K. (2009). Priorities in k-12 distance education: A Delphi study examining multiple perspectives on policy, practice, and research. Educational Technology & Society 12(3), 163-177.


Capital Resources

Virtual School Capital Resources

by Mark Sivy

One constant, whether for a virtual school or traditional school, are the concerns associated with acquiring and maintaining capital resources. In a recent study I performed, leaders indicated that budgeting and planning for virtual school capital resources and growth is more challenging than that for a traditional school. This was largely due to variable changes in enrollment and having operating funds that were either static or unpredictable. Some schools have received per-student funds, which lessens a few of their concerns.

Communication resources

social mediaTo facilitate the assortment of external and internal communications, the study participants had an array of available options. For external communication, phones and email systems were most often used. Internally, the virtual school leaders reported using a greater diversity of resources types that were purpose specific. Online messaging and chat were the common choice for informal exchanges, online meetings for group discussions, online collaboration tools for team projects, and emails for formal communications. For surveys and feedback, online tools were used.

Many of the tools and systems were licensed from vendors or were school owned and managed. These types were closed systems that were restricted to use by the virtual school. Other product types were online consumer communication systems and social media that are publicly used.

Learning systems

learning management systemAt the core of the virtual school’s mission are the resources that host the course content and enable the management of student learning and related data. The leaders expressed using a variety of systems for this. The larger virtual schools hosted their systems in-house and had staff to install and maintain them. The smaller schools elected to use systems that were hosted by vendors. The common reason for electing vendor hosting was the inability to amortize the costs that would be required for internal infrastructure, maintenance, and staff. Two of the leaders who were using externally hosted systems were in the process of reconsidering their choice of vendors and learning management systems.

Enterprise systems

Registration systems, student information systems, and financial systems are other technologies that leaders employed in the operation of their virtual school. Half of the leaders reported using systems that had been custom developed for their school from the onset of operations. These leaders were nearing a point where they would retire their aging systems and replace them with commercial options. The other leaders who were already using off-the-shelf systems seemed to be overall satisfied with their choices and the having the systems supported and updated by the vendor.

Technology infrastructure

data centerBased upon leader decisions, state mandates, and the resources that were available, the technology infrastructure varied from school to school. For instance in one school, the only significant technology infrastructure expenses that they had were the central office computers, peripheral equipment, a self-contained server for the state registration system and Internet connectivity. At the other end of the spectrum was a school that, in addition to standard office technologies, had a server room with emergency power, multiple servers, failover systems, firewalls, a data center, backup systems, and a network backbone to support the technologies. Regardless of the technology, infrastructure, and where it was located, the leaders’ primary concern was for the systems to perform consistently and reliably.

Reflection Point – “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.” ~Henry Miller

Virtual School Work Environment

Virtual Schools Have Unique Work Environments

by Mark Sivy

virtual schoolThis post content was taken from my dissertation study and findings surrounding virtual school leadership. What I found was that interview responses concerning the work environment were generally similar from one leader to the next. Differences in the findings were usually due to the number and type of staff and their geographic proximity to one another.

External Work Processes

There were multiple discussions of the leaders interacting with individuals outside their virtual school for the purpose of assuring the school’s operation and success. The most frequent reference was dealing with the school districts that the virtual school served. The leaders often found themselves in role of working with school principals or district administrators to set the foundation for smooth interactions between the schools. Occasionally a virtual school leader was involved with negotiating special arrangements being made with a specific school district in terms of course content or instruction.

Beyond this, there was a mix of external involvement. Many of the leaders worked with online service vendors and course content providers to ensure cost-effective, dependable, and user-friendly services and systems for the school. The leaders also mentioned their participation in a variety of committees and professional groups where they worked on behalf of their virtual school on common topics and solutions to issues and challenges.

virtual school leader

Internal Work Processes

The requirements for and purposes of these processes are similar to those within a traditional school, but how they are carried out can vary widely due to the virtual setting. Even though many processes have been touched upon throughout the other themes, the leaders did directly discuss others that are included in this section.

One ongoing responsibility for the leaders was to position the organization to be capable of dealing with problems, changes, and new trends. This involved establishing flexible strategic plans and adaptable school goals and objectives. The leaders commonly accomplished this through teamwork and other collaborative efforts within the school.

To facilitate internal school operations, the leaders used an assortment of online, face-to-face, and hybrid gatherings to bring the stakeholders or project teams together. Some of these were strictly planning meetings, certain ones served as progress checkpoints, and others were interactive work sessions. Unless an executive decision was needed, the leaders tended to let project managers, team leaders, and the teams organize themselves and lead the progress.

virtual team

Internal Work Structure

Each school had their unique organizational pattern and hierarchy, distribution of work responsibilities, and employee work locations. This was often determined by funding, state-level directives, and the leader’s discretion. The first two created limitations, but the latter gave the leader latitude in making organizational decisions and assignments.

The individual styles, characteristics, and choices of the leaders are what gave the schools their personality and culture. The sense of trust and confidence that the leaders had to place upon their staff, mainly as a result of having so many working at-a-distance, enabled the organizational structures to remain functional and intact.

Reflection Point – “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” ~ Albert Einstein

Virtual School History Brief

Virtual Schools – Their Beginnings and Growth

by Mark Sivy

Made possible by the public availability of the World Wide Web in 1991, the digital facilitation of web-based education was born, giving eventual rise to online learning and virtual schools. Within three years, an education event known as the Virtual Summer School (VSS) for Open University was held and it hosted a web-based undergraduate psychology course. The earliest recognized web-based high school curriculum was made available through CALCampus, which began its operations in 1994-1995. Shortly thereafter the first virtual school, titled Virtual High School, was launched in 1996 and is still in operation today. In 1997, Florida established the first statewide web-based virtual public high school, which recently served an estimated 240,000 students in the 2012-2013 school year (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin & Rapp, 2013).

Tim Berners-Lee

Time Berners-Lee – Founder of the World Wide Web

Clark (2001) defined a virtual high school as “a state approved and/or regionally accredited school that offers secondary credit courses through distance learning methods that include Internet-based delivery” (p. i). Extending the definition beyond the high school level, United States virtual schools now offer curriculum, programs, and services for all K-12 grades. The operation of these virtual schools does not take place within a traditional “brick and mortar” educational facility, but rather through electronically connected students, teachers, administrators, parents and communities who are separated by geographic location and/or time. Clark (2001) identified six types of virtual schools based upon to the founding organization: university-based, state-led, consortium, local education agency, charter school, and private school.

Since their debut in the late 1990s, virtual schools have had notable increases in terms of the number of schools and their course enrollments. For example, according to Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, and Rapp (2013), state-led virtual schools existed in 26 states in the 2012-2013 school year and had 740,000 course enrollments. Based upon Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, and Rapp’s previous annual course enrollment numbers, this is an increase of over 19% compared to the 2011-2012 school year, over 38% compared to the 2010-2011 school year, over 64% compared to the 2009-2010 school year, and over 131% compared to the 2008-2009 school year. For the 2007-2008 academic year, Picciano and Seaman (2009) estimated over one million K-12 students used an online course, which was a 47% increase over the estimate was made two years prior. Based upon current rates, Mincberg (2010) projects that it is possible by 2020 for 50% of all high school classes to be delivered online.

Virtual SchoolThe need to improve learning outcomes and to address educational standards and policy have been important motivators in the development of virtual schools. An early catalyst for virtual schools was that they offered an array of courses and related services that otherwise would not be available to students or that would not fit into the usual school or student schedule (Patrick, 2007; Russell, 2004). At the national level, the expansion of virtual schools has been encouraged by the advent of two policies, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the 2004 National Educational Technology Plan (NETP) (Archambault, Crippen, & Lukemeyer, 2007). Since then other proclamations concerning U.S. education such as the 2010 National Educational Technology Plan and the Common Core State Standards have continued to motivate the growth and acceptance of virtual schools (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin & Rapp, 2011). Currently, most virtual schools offer courses that supplement traditional school offerings, with learners being accounted for as members of their home school rather than the virtual school.

Virtual LearningThe desire and necessity to document and address the many challenges, issues, and requirements of virtual schools has resulted in a budding body of related academic research on topics such as pedagogy, communications, students, policy, technologies, funding, leadership, learning outcomes, and teacher professional development. Due to the relative infancy of these schools and the fact that they are undergoing fairly rapid adaptation and evolution as they mature, the body of research on these topics is in its formative stages. Saba (2005) described the condition of distance education research as a whole to be “one of confusion”. In the specific realm of virtual school research, there is currently a similar condition and a recognized need for a much better developed base of research (Archambault & Crippen, 2009; Barbour, 2010; Searson, Jones, & Wold, 2011).

Reflection Point – Friction and misunderstandings often occur when communicating across generations. It gets even more challenging when working across virtual settings. ~Raymond Arroyo



Archambault, L. & Crippen, K. (2009). K-12 distance educators at work: Who’s teaching online across the United States. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 41, 363–391.

Archambault, L., Crippen, K., & Lukemeyer, A. (2007). The impact of U.S. national and state level policy on the nature and scope of k-12 virtual schooling. Proceedings of World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education 2007, 2185-2193.

Barbour, M. K. (2010). Researching K-12 online learning: What do we know and what should we examine. Distance Learning, 7(2), 6–12.

Clark, T. (2000). Virtual high schools, state of the states: A study of virtual high school planning and operation in the United States.

Mincberg, C. (2010). Is online learning a solution in search of a problem?

Patrick, S. T. (2007). Preface. In J. Watson, A National Primer on K-12 Online Learning (pp. i4-i5).

Picciano, A. G., & Seaman, J. (2009). K-12 online learning: A 2008 follow-up of the survey of U.S. school district administrators.

Russell, G. (2004). Virtual schools: A critical view. In C. Cavanaugh (Ed.), Development and management of virtual schools: Issues and trends (pp. 1-25). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Saba, F. (2005). Critical issues in distance education: A report from the United States. Distance Education 2, 255-272.

Searson, M. Jones, W. M., & Wold, K. (2011). Editorial: Reimagining schools: The potential of virtual education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42, 363-371.

Watson, J., Murin, A., Vashaw, L., Gemin, B., & Rapp, C. (2011). Keeping pace with K-12 online learning: An annual review of policy and practice.

Watson, J., Murin, A., Vashaw, L., Gemin, B., & Rapp, C. (2013). Keeping pace with K-12 online & blended learning: An annual review of policy and practice.

Virtual Reference Library

A Follow-up to My Posts on Digital Libraries

by Mark Sivy

For those of you who have been following my blog posts about digital libraries, I came across this article today on THE Journal website. It discusses a virtual reference library that has been made available to all Texas students. To see the full article with comments, please go to All Texas Public Schools Get Virtual Reference Libraries, Historic Archives.

Digital Library

Texas Public Schools Get Virtual Reference Libraries, Historic Archives

Beginning in mid-June, more than 9,000 schools in Texas will have free access to a virtual reference library and other resources, including two historic primary source archives from Adam Matthew Digital and 16 collections from Gale.

According to information released by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, the resources will be free to schools through the 2014–2015 school year, after which access will require schools to pay at a rate of $0.22 per pupil, should the choose to continue their subscriptions. The deal was made possible through funding from the Texas state legislature, which allowed TSL to reinstate the statewide program.

The resources include Adam Matthew’s The American West and American Indian Histories and Cultures; and Gale’s Student Resources in Context, GreenR, Literature Resource Center, Health & Wellness Resource Center, Gale Virtual Reference Library, InfoTrac Newsstand, National Geographic Kids, ¡Informe!, Opposing Viewpoints in Context, Kids InfoBits, Academic OneFile, Scribner Writers Series, Educator’s Reference Complete, Student Resource Center Junior, General OneFile and Twayne’s Authors Series.

Schools will be able to apply for free access beginning this month.

Additional details for Texas schools can be found on TSL’s site.

To see comments made on David’s article, please visit: All Texas Public Schools Get Virtual Reference Libraries, Historic Archives