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Virtual Education Sees Shift to Accountability

Virtual schooling is in the era of a fundamental shift in its development that should be embraced, not feared, said authors and sponsors of the 2011 version of the Keeping Pace annual report on virtual schooling here at the Virtual School Symposium in Indianapolis Thursday.

While most virtual school advocates in the past may have focused on gaining exposure for their programs, they should shift toward emphasizing accountability and transparency in those programs to a community at-large becoming more aware of virtual education, the panel said. And despite some recent negative press about online schooling's benefit or lack thereof, they agreed that many virtual providers are doing this.

"When these programs started, they started out of a point of pain," said Andy Scantland, the vice president of sales and marketing for Advanced Academics Inc., the Oklahoma City-based provider of public and private online programs, and a sponsor of the report from the Evergreen Group of Durango, Colo. "As a result, there wasn't a lot of measurability or a lot of accountability. I think that's changed a lot, and the report reflects that."

Scantland said some recent pushback reflects the movement of virtual schooling toward the mainstream. That movement is also reflected in one of the report's central findings—that single-district schools are the fastest-growing sector of the virtual school landscape.

"Accountability and measurability is good for all of us," Scantland said. "I think it's a responsibility and an obligation for this group to begin to tell this story in this way. ... The Keeping Pace report suggests looking at it against a broad array of attributes."

John Canuel, the vice president of global K-12 education strategy at Washington-based Blackboard Inc., another sponsor of the report and a well-known provider of learning management systems, said he's seen the focus on results increase even in the most recently expanding single-district sector of virtual education.

"Many of them got into this work from a financial standpoint," Canuel said. "They were saying, 'We're losing our students [and our funding] to those schools.' We're now seeing the conversation shift to, 'This is our work and we need to get in the game.' It is changing the dynamics."

John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Group, said increasing accountability in virtual schools is essential to determine whether the virtual movement is serving its purpose.

"There's the increasing recognition that [virtual schools are] here or that they're coming, depending on which state you're in," Watson said. "The question we're trying to pivot on is, will they be transformative?"

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