In the fall of 2000, the Pittsburgh area was introduced to a new, though largely unwelcome, educational venue when Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School opened, allowing students to attend school online from home.
That statewide school -- now known as Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School and based in Midland, Beaver County -- attracted 505 students, and another cyber charter, Susq-Cyber, more localized around Bloomsburg, Columbia County, enrolled 77.
This fall, enrollment in 16 cyber charter schools -- including four new ones -- is expected to grow beyond last year's 32,000, demonstrating the increasing popularity of online education among families of children in grades K-12.
The popularity mirrors a national trend of expanding online demand. Nationally, an estimated 250,000 students were enrolled in full-time online K-12 schools in 2010-11, up from 40,000 to 50,000 students enrolled a decade ago, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
"It's being driven by student demand," said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the online learning association. "Students want the flexibility that online learning gives them."
Pennsylvania is among the 30 states and District of Columbia to have full-time online schools, the association stated. Seven states require students to take at least one online course before high school graduation.
The growth of enrollment in cyber charter schools has created tensions with traditional school districts, which lose students and tuition dollars to the cyber alternatives. To compete, a number of school districts are starting their own cyber programs aimed at retrieving students and tuition money.
"Pennsylvania has been on the forefront of cyber education. We are one of the first states to have it expand rapidly," said Carol Mintus, a teacher in the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's STREAM Academy Cyber Charter School, being launched this fall, and president of the Pennsylvania Online Education Association, the union that represents STREAM teachers.
Charter schools, which became legal in Pennsylvania in 1997, are public schools open to students from throughout the state. Home school districts pay a fee set by the state.
By definition, cyber charter schools provide a "significant portion" of their curriculum and instruction through the Internet or other electronic means, said state Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller.
All charters initially were chartered by a home school district, but later that authority for cyber charters was given to the state.
With cyber charter schools organized far outside a district's boundaries, districts initially protested against having to pay.
But after the Pennsylvania School Boards Association lost a challenge in 2001, the state now deducts payments from reluctant school districts' state subsidies. Some 200 districts today still refuse to pay cyber charters directly.
Students attracted to the online venue are those who either can't or don't want to attend traditional public schools for health, social or other reasons or those with high-caliber athletic or artistic pursuits who need time for travel, training and practice.
It's also a favored option for families who home-school and an alternative for students who have been removed from their home districts for disciplinary reasons.
While Susq-Cyber has remained small with about 200 students in grades 9-12, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, known as PA Cyber, has grown from several hundred to about 11,500 students in grades K-12, making it the largest cyber charter in the state.
Changing with technology
In the early years of cyber charter education, technology didn't allow for easy video conferencing, computer equipment was slow and feedback was often given on a delayed basis.
"We weren't much more than a correspondence school," said Fred Miller, PA Cyber spokesman.
But as technology has improved over the years, it has allowed cyber schools to offer real-time interactive courses, which means the students can sit at their kitchen table with a laptop and attend a virtual class and interact with an instructor teaching via webcam and with other students, usually via talk or text. Many schools don't video students during class for privacy reasons.
Classes taught in the live virtual classroom format are referred to as "synchronous" classes, which means they are held at set times and students work at the pace set by the instructor.
Students can work at their own pace in "asynchronous" classes that don't involve real-time instruction.
Mr. Miller said PA Cyber officials have been surprised at the popularity of the virtual classroom courses. He said about 60 percent of PA Cyber's classes are synchronous.
Mrs. Mintus said the virtual classroom has proven to be popular and a more effective way to teach many courses.
"I think everybody pretty much started out with the asynchronous models, some where the classes were pretty much canned curriculum and teachers monitored students.
"As cybers evolved, we found there needs to be more interaction between teachers and students for students to be successful," said Mrs. Mintus, who taught in the AIU's former charter school, Pennsylvania Learners Online, known as PALO.
The roots of cyber school can be traced to correspondence courses, the earliest of which were conducted via the U.S. Postal Service and the telephone. With the advent of the Internet, distance learning became more convenient, catching on first in higher education.
"Online learning really had its genesis at the college level," said Anthony Picciano, education professor at City University of New York. "It continues to be incredibly successful for mature, adult students who are driven by career opportunities, professional advancement."
Proponents of cyber education say it offers opportunities to students who don't succeed in traditional classrooms.
In addition, they say, cyber charter schools help to equalize education by offering a standard curriculum and resources to all students in the state as opposed to local districts where the quality often varies with a community's wealth.
Cyber schools also allow students to work at their own pace, providing more time for students who struggle, but the opportunity to move ahead for those who grasp concepts quickly.
Proponents say that students who may be attending cyber school may be more inclined to participate in a class online, where they can post their comments or answers, than in a traditional classroom where they would have to speak in front of the class.
In addition, proponents also argue that it costs less to educate a cyber student than a student in a traditional school. But it's hard to determine because the state Department of Education numbers on the cost of educating students in traditional public schools includes its payments to charter schools.
Cyber students generally receive laptops, printers and Internet connections and can attend school from wherever they are on a given day, whether it's home or an out-of-state athletic competition.
Some cyber schools offer students opportunities to meet on-site for hands-on or collaborative learning with others, but it is not required. Some also hold social functions for students to meet their peers and teachers.
Criticism of cyber charters
Opponents to cyber charter schools say students attending them lack the socialization experiences that students attending traditional brick-and-mortar charter schools get.
Critics also question academic achievement, pointing to state standardized tests scores that show just three of the state's 12 cyber charter schools made Adequate Yearly Progress, known as AYP, in 2011, as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said a change in the way state test scores are calculated for cyber charters for 2012 could mean more meet their targets because they now can make AYP on a grade span, not necessarily the whole school.
A 2011 study of Pennsylvania charter schools done by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students in cyber charter schools in grades 3-8 performed significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts in reading and math. The study looked at data from the years 2006-07 to 2009-10.
Proponents of cyber charter schools say that achievement may be lower among cyber students because many come to the schools after falling behind academically in traditional schools. In addition, they say, cyber students tend to be a fluid group, staying for short periods of time and then moving on.
"I think the reality, in many cases, is that they are temporary solutions," said Alan Lesgold, professor and dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. "You are throwing up your hands and maybe your kid is getting bullied at school and you've got a solution on the Internet and a year or two later they are in something else. The shortest escape path is a cyber charter."
Mr. Fayfich also said that cyber charter schools often don't keep students for long periods of time. He said when test scores are broken out for students who stay at the schools for two or three years or longer, "they are significantly higher."
There have been several black marks on cyber education in Pennsylvania over the summer.
First, the board of Frontier Virtual Charter School in Philadelphia voted to surrender its charter to the state Department of Education in July after the state filed charges to have the charter revoked because of severe academic and financial problems.
Then, a study released by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, concluded that students in K12 Inc. programs are falling behind. It focused on seven full-time virtual schools with two of them in Pennsylvania -- Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, with more than 3,300 students, and Agora Cyber Charter School, which has more than 9,000 students statewide. Frontier also had used the K12 curriculum before it closed.
The report said just 27.7 percent of K-12 schools in the study met the standards for AYP in 2010-11, compared with 52 percent of public schools.
In addition, on July 13, agents from the FBI, criminal investigation division of the IRS and the U.S. Department of Education's inspector general's unit searched the executive office of PA Cyber.
The U.S. Attorney's office said the cyber school "as an entity is not a current target of the investigation."
The use of taxpayer funds is reported to be the focus of the federal investigation.
One of the biggest objections opponents have to cyber charter schools and their bricks-and-mortar counterparts is that home school districts must pay tuition set by the state for each of its students attending charter schools.
Because the tuition is based on each district's per-pupil spending, each district pays a different fee even for the same cyber charter school.
To compete, a number of school districts, including Pittsburgh Public Schools, are starting their own full-time cyber schools in an attempt to lure students -- and their tuition money -- back to their home districts.
Some districts also offer their bricks-and-mortar students some online high school courses.
A recent collaboration between Mt. Lebanon and Peters Township school districts will allow Peters students to take a Mt. Lebanon linear algebra course online for a $600 fee.
Preparing to teach online
With more students seeking to take online courses, more teachers need to know how to design and teach them.
At Duquesne University's School of Education, seniors this year will be piloting a cyber training program in which they will work with teachers from a local school district to help create online courses, said David Carbonara, director of instructional technology and assistant professor in Duquesne's school of education. In addition, seniors will take a course online.
The goal is that eventually online training will become part of the curriculum for all levels of education students.
Mr. Carbonara said the training is essential given the steady increase in the number of K-12 students interested in online education.
"We are going to have 10 million K-12 students taking some kind of online courses by 2013, and that's a lot of kids," he said.
At the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education, professors are receiving training on using online resources and technology in their courses, but students are still receiving instruction geared to teaching in a traditional classroom.
"We are increasing training of students and faculty in the best available ways to use technology for improving instruction. We don't focus specifically on essentially replacing personal contact," said Mr. Lesgold.
Many educators, including state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, predict the future expansion of online education will be in blended learning -- part online, part on-site.
"I think the days of old when you go to a school and [are told] 'here's your teacher, here's your textbook and curriculum' are over," Mr. Tomalis said. "I think blended learning will be more the norm in the future. It really individualizes learning. Technology allows us to have a platform that has a large reach."