Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
By the time Benjamin Marvin rolls out of bed, his peers at Payson Junior High have already been in class for two hours. But the 14-year-old won't be skipping breakfast. He won't be rushing to get ready. He won't be slinking sheepishly past a disapproving teacher to find his seat.
All he has to do to get to class is log on to the Internet.
"That's the beauty of virtual school," said Marvin, who lives in Santaquin. "I get to decide when and where I want to do my school work."
More than 3,000 Utah elementary, junior high and high school students, like Marvin, attend school online. Some students earn credit toward a diploma using distance learning programs monitored by school districts. Others study at virtual schools complete with principals and teachers. All the children, whose education is funded by the government, get credit for attending public school.
"I'm just like any regular student," Marvin said. "My teacher just talks to me on the Internet."
Online schooling — not to be confused with home schooling, insist teachers and administrators — is fairly new for K-12 students, but about 30 percent more parents are choosing it over traditional brick and mortar schools every year. By 2019, researchers at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning estimate public schools nationwide will deliver about 50 percent of their courses over the Internet.
Utah's online schools serve athletes, concert pianists and aspiring actors and actresses, among others. Gifted students and children with learning disabilities also gravitate toward virtual learning because the curriculum is completed as it is mastered, not on a schedule.
Ben Cleverly, who is now a second-grader at Washington Online in Washington County School District, had difficulty sitting through class at a brick and mortar school because of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"The teacher wasn't being very nice to me," Cleverly said. "If I did anything she would get really mad at me and make me stay in for recess."
Because he was always in trouble, Cleverly started to think of himself as a bad boy. His grades were low. His teachers suggested he start taking resource classes.
Now that Cleverly goes to school on the Internet, however, he's speeding through his reading and math lessons.
"In a traditional classroom you don't get to do a lot of hands on stuff," said his mother, Carisa Holden. "The online lessons have lots of different graphics and little games the kids can play. He feels like he's playing video games on the computer but they're calling it school."
For Cleverly, virtual school was a perfect fit. But even proponents of online learning admit the teaching method doesn't work for everyone.
Some students need the structure of a traditional classroom, said David Wiley, founder of Utah Open High School, which is scheduled to start offering classes this fall. Some children need to eat lunch with their friends and work on projects in groups.
"I don't see online learning as some kind of miracle cure for everything wrong with public education," he said. "Online is just another option. It will be great for some people and poor for other people."
Wave of the future?
"Quite simply, the Internet is the future of schooling," said Jeff Herr, head of school for Utah Virtual Academy, which is wrapping up its inaugural year.
Instead of building a school house, the academy supplies students with a computer system. The school's 17 teachers live throughout the state and keep in touch with students using cell phones, instant messages and e-mail. Most teachers have a chat room-type Web site where they host office hours and class.
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