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Study Finds That Technology Isn’t the Biggest Challenge for Virtual Schools

By Cait Etherington
June 22, 2019

A recent study by two University of the Pacific researchers has found that contrary to popular belief, technology may not be the biggest obstacle for new virtual schools. Somewhat surprisingly, Brett Drushal Taylor and Delores E. McNair found that the greatest challenge may be overcoming an entire host of other administrative obstacles.

Taylor and McNair examined the founding of three California virtual schools in established California school districts. Their research discovered that a host of other factors from establishing a founder to district support to staff and teacher selection are much larger obstacles than those obstacles posed by technology. The constant need to change and adapt also posed a challenge to new virtual schools.

Method and Case Schools

Three schools were part of Taylor and McNair’s study. Manchester is a K-12 virtual school located in southern California. Branford is a virtual charter based in central California. The third school in their study was Field Haven based in northern California. All the schools were three to five years old at the time Taylor and McNair’s study. For their study, they drew on data collected from each of the schools, as well as observations and interviews with key stakeholders.

Common Challenges When Founding Virtual Schools

Taylor and McNair’s study identifies six common challenges that face new virtual schools. These challenges include:

  • Establishing a Founder: A strong founder–someone committed to the vision of the school with the skills required to lead it through the startup phase–was viewed as a key factor.
  • District support and commitment: Two of the three schools in Taylor and McNair’s study emphasized that finding district support was critical to their survival and success. Startup funding was considered especially critical.
  • Preliminary research: All of the districts in Taylor and McNair’s study were also engaged in research during the startup phase. The data is critical to developing best practices and securing the funding needed for expansion.
  • Staff selection: Not surprising, staff selection also emerged as a key factor. The ability to freely hire teachers and not simply take those with seniority and in need of a job was critical since teaching in virtual schools naturally requires a specific set of experiences and skills.
  • Financial Evaluation: Taylor and McNair found that it is important that virtual schools not be viewed as “extra” programs or cost-recovery programs. Securing adequate funding is a key part of any virtual school’s success.
  • Curricular Decisions: While most virtual schools ranked curricular matters as important early on, once the schools were up and running, Taylor and McNair found that curricular matters were not as important as whether or not the school site had confidence in their curriculum. In other words, the implementation of a curriculum appeared to be as important as the specific curriculum chosen for the school.

Surprising Findings

In addition to the shared challenges outlined above, Taylor and McNair’s study yielded a few notable surprises.

First, the study found that by and large, virtual schools, even when part of an established district, operated quite autonomously. Indeed, Taylor and McNair  describe the schools as “self-sustaining entities,” despite the fact that they continue to received funding from their districts like any brick-and-mortar school.

Second, the study found that for virtual change as a constant, especially during the first six years of operation.

Third, the study found that at times virtual schools were somewhat compromised by the need to accommodate the needs of the large district. For example, one of the schools in their study was forced to take on a district-wide credit recovery programs.

Finally, Taylor and McNair’s research reveals that despite their unique challenges, organizational strategies found to be effective in virtual schools can be applied to other schools and vice versa.  In other words, virtual schools may both be a notable exception and not nearly as unlike brick-and-mortar schools as one might expect.

Taylor and McNair’s complete study can be found online.

Photo by Haidan on Unsplash.

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