South Carolina officials are planning for a major expansion of course offerings through the state's virtual school, a step that they say will help meet rising demand from a broad range of students—not just those who have fallen behind on academic credits.
Previously, students seeking to take courses through the state-run virtual school were only allowed to take three credits per year, or 12 credits over their entire high school career.
But a new law, which easily cleared the state legislature this year and was signed by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, eliminated those restrictions and allows students to take as many online courses through the South Carolina Virtual School as they want, as long as their home districts approves of them doing so.
There are 27 state-run virtual schools in operation around the country, which have an estimated 620,000 course enrollments, according to the 2012 "Keeping Pace With K-12 Online and Blended Learning" report, published by the Evergreen Education Group.
In South Carolina, the state's action was in large measure a response to a steady growth in interest in the program, said Bradley Mitchell, the director of the state's office of virtual education. In the most recent year, the state had more than 24,000 requests from students to take courses, and was able to fulfill only about half of them. (See the state's estimates of demand over time, below.).
The state relies on 27 full-time teachers, in addition to part-time instructors, to teach the various classes on the menu.
When the state launched the virtual school as a pilot program in 2006, the main focus was helping students who had fallen behind on credits and were at risk of dropping out, so they could catch up, Mitchell said.
Currently, the most popular courses offered through the online program are economics, physical education, and government.
Today, the state still wants the program to serve those students, but it's also aimed at bringing a wider array of course options to students from all kinds of academic backgrounds, offering them classes in English, math, and foreign languages, as well as college-prep courses, such as AP and honors classes, he said.
State officials expect that some students will pursue a courseload that is almost entirely online, while others will take a handful of courses to meet their needs.
"We can expand into more advanced, elective courses [that] students wouldn't necessarily have been able to take in their brick-and-mortar settings," Mitchell said.