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.