The promise and the challenges of virtual schools

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According to UNESCO, there are 262 Million children out of school, mostly in low and middle income countries. And of those who are in school, too many are not learning, according to the World Bank Global Development Report of 2018.  There are many challenges, including a lack of schools, inability to go to school due to conflict or disaster and not having enough trained teachers (and in some cases, having no teachers at all).

What do you do when there are no schools or not enough teachers? Or even when you don’t have enough money to build all the schools and hire all the teachers that you need? Could so-called 'virtual schools' play a role, and if so: how?

A number of countries have sought answers to such questions through the development of ‘virtual schools’, where students learn all (or most) of the time online, outside of a physical school building. Virtual schools are in some ways a natural extension of many longstanding ‘distance learning’ initiatives around the world that have utilized (aided by technologies such as radio and television), updated for the Internet Age. A recent European report on virtual schools observes that, ”Increasingly, daily life provides numerous examples including banking, travel, higher education, shopping, services and commerce, where people can choose a virtual environment if they wish.” Can ‘virtualizing’ the school improve education service delivery? Can virtual schools contribute to solving some of the intractable challenges facing education in the developed and developing world today?

Virtual education has been around for several decades, evolving from correspondence schools that sought to serve remote or rural populations to today’s fully online schools. Propelled by improvements in Internet access speed and coverage, virtual schools (sometimes referred to as ‘online’ or ‘blended’ schools) are growing and can now be found on every continent. The US has led the way with virtual schools, with a recent report claiming that, “In 2017, the United States held a market share of 93.2%, followed by Canada with 3.8%. European Union nations held less than 1% of the total market share for virtual schools during this period.” However, the study does note that virtual schools are beginning to gain popularity in both Japan and China. By some estimates, there are at least 2.7 million  K-12 students taking some sort of online course in the U.S. – most at state-funded schools -- and that over one-third of U.S. higher education students have taken at least one online course.

What problems do virtual schools attempt to solve?

Based on U.S. experience, there are a few primary drivers for the increase in virtual schools:

  1. Not enough teachers: State governments in the U.S. turn to the use of streaming technology or virtual classrooms to alleviate the shortage of teachers in general in some specific subjects. In Uruguay, the government is using the Internet to bring English teachers from abroad into classrooms across the country.
  2. Reaching “at risk” students: Students at risk of dropping out of school or performing poorly can be supported by virtual classroom technologies, especially if their use is combined with face-to-face interaction as part of a ‘blended’ approach.
  3. Reaching distant populations: Large countries with dispersed populations like Canada and Australia (and some extent the United States) often turn to virtual schools to reach distant populations where is not economical to build schools or post teachers

These problems are endemic in low income countries across Africa.

Virtual Schools … in Africa?

An EU funded report that looked at virtual schools around the world found that “It is only in Africa where we found fewer than we expected, except for some across Mediterranean Africa and in Southern Africa. It seems that despite much rhetoric and many advances in school education in Africa (including low-cost and innovative solutions from business and social entrepreneurs), there is little actually on the ground.” The study also found lower than expected virtual schools in the Middle East, India and in many small island states in the Caribbean, as well as in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The report highlights 2 home-grown large-scale initiatives in Africa:

There are other virtual education projects (mostly pilots) that have demonstrated potential to address lack of schools or teachers, including the eLearning Sudan pilot project carried out in 2012-2015 and the XPRIZE competition in Tanzania.

Challenges with Virtual Schools

You bet there are many challenges of virtual schools!

  1. Students under-perform: The research in the U.S. consistently shows that virtual schools under-perform regular face-to-face schools. Some factors leading to underperformance can be attributed to policy and design choices. And yet despite this rather consistent finding, virtual schools continue to grow. This may be because of the potential of virtual schools to solve problems of teacher shortages. According to at least  one study, virtual schools may be more economical” than regular schools.
  2. Technology trying to replace teachers: This is a perennial criticism of EdTech. It is further propelled by some past initiatives and common practice where teachers are neither consulted, trained or even involved.
  3. Kids miss out on social aspects: This is another criticism of many pure online courses.
  4. Low engagement, high dropout, low completion, low retention rates: this is a known challenge of any distance education program. Perhaps this challenge is best exemplified by recent reports on MOOCs that note that there is very low completion and retention and that democratization of “high quality” higher education extending to low income countries has not happened. On the other hand, the major MOOCs barely had any engaging courses at the start. As noted by this article “The early elite providers merely presented videos of lecture hall courses taught by their superstars” and that “Current providers have abandoned the sage-on-the-stage videos. They require more offline individual work and small group interaction.” Long established distance education research shows that students need to be highly motivated and the courses engaging and interactive to retain students.

This article has an a balanced take on the promise and challenges of virtual schools. Among the challenges cited are its easy to fall behind, there is no social life, there isn’t enough supervision, they aim to privatize education and so forth. If a ministry were to decide to develop a virtual school, it would pay to consider these lessons from other countries.

For many developing countries such as those in Africa, other challenges with developing virtual schools relate to Internet connectivity, electricity and access to digital devices. Indeed, the study of virtual schools around the world noted above concluded that the low numbers of virtual schools in Africa could be attributed to the “current needs of many countries and their issues with infrastructure (especially electric power) [that are] are more intractable in some ways than networking, due to advances in mobile communications.”

Many past posts on the World Bank’s EduTech Blog have looked at issues related to school connectivity, including one on Expanding the conversation in education around 'access' to the Internet. As that blog post notes, there are numerous large-scale initiatives to address school connectivity issues around the world. There are also many public-private programs such as Power Africa and the Global Infrastructure Connectivity Alliance that are making strides to connect a variety of institutions, including schools, to the electrical grid. At the World Bank, there are concerted ongoing efforts to bring broadband to everyone, as well as several related energy programs.   

Despite these concerted efforts to address power and connectivity challenges in many countries across Africa, representatives from the education sector are often missing from related conversations. The use of educational technologies, including to support virtual schools, is simply not feasible on a large scale if the “pre-conditions” of adequate power and connectivity are not addressed. For this to happen, closer collaboration between ministries of education and other government ministries responsible for energy and connectivity, is critical.

Moving forward with virtual schools

If a country wants to explore starting a virtual school, the EU-funded study, Virtual schools and colleges. Providing alternatives for successful learning. Volume 2 has synthesized a number of best practices that cover:

  • Policy frameworks and emerging standards to guide program development;
  • Costing models that can inform program design;
  • Teacher preparation and training, which is key to successful programs (teachers are still required to facilitate online courses);
  • Content development and instructional design practices, so that the content is relevant and tailored for effective delivery in a virtual school;
  • Technologies to consider, and what works and doesn’t seem to work; and
  • Critical success factors, including leadership and a focus on defining and assessing learning outcomes, which can increase chances for success.

So far most virtual schools have appeared in the United States. As connectivity improves around the world, and digital devices proliferate, many countries have been trying to learn from related U.S. experience, in order to determine whether online schooling models might be helpful as they try to tackle numerous educational challenges. How, and when, might virtual schooling models be relevant for consideration across many educational contexts in Africa?  Only time will tell – but such a time might be coming in a few places sooner than you think.

 Note: The image used at the top of this blog post comes courtesy of Pixabay and is used according to the terms of the Pixabay license.


Alex Twinomugisha

Senior Education Technology Specialist

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