Bukem Reitmayer ditched the idea of textbooks, uniforms, cramming for tests and jockeying for the teacher's attention to attend high school on her own terms.
As one of more than 2,800 students with the Ontario-based Virtual High School (VHS), which calls itself the largest online private high school in Canada, Ms. Reitmayer is earning her diploma without ever having been in a classroom.
For the 18-year-old Montreal resident and others "attending" one of the many schools in the virtual world, there are pros and cons to not opting for classes at a traditional bricks-and-mortar institution.
"The biggest advantage is I can access my school anywhere," says Ms. Reitmayer, who is finishing VHS this fall and has her sights set on taking journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa or psychology at McGill University in Montreal.
Much of her education experience in Nunavut, British Columbia and James Bay in northern Quebec has consisted of home schooling and studying online with B.C.'s Fraser Valley Distance Education School. She has taken her entire high school course load with VHS because living on the Cree Nation of Chisasibi in Quebec, she said, "I don't know if I could have gotten a good education where my family was, although, the whole not having peers thing has been a downside. But I manage to compensate by doing extracurricular activities."
The advantages of taking high school courses with a click of the mouse are many: You can study, and do assignments and tests whenever you want, and never have to worry about what to wear, running into traffic, being distracted by classmates or having a teacher breathing down your back.
A big downside is there's no in-person interaction — meaning no face-to-face brainstorming or group projects, for example — and virtual schooling requires a load of self-discipline.
In Canada, besides VHS and virtual schools in B.C., there's also the Alberta Distance Learning Centre, a provincially funded school for Grade 1 to 12 students in Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, as well as around the world. Many U.S. states also have their own virtual schools, some with thousands of students, and there are online courses offered from other parts of the world.
VHS, for one, is fully accredited through Ontario's Ministry of Education, meaning it passes government standards for its courses to be used toward a high school diploma.
"We don't do any advertising," says principal Stephen Baker, who works out of a 1,000-square-foot building in Bayfield, an hour north of London, Ont., along with about eight other administrators. His pupils live as far away as Thailand. "Many times, students looking for virtual courses just use Google; they would find us and sign up for a course. They pay tuition online and we get their records, check them out to make sure they have the right prerequisites, and then they go through the course independently."
Although students can earn their high school diplomas fully online, most just take the odd course — to upgrade a mark or add a subject, such as to complete secondary school or for entry to post-secondary school or a specific program, says Mr. Baker, who taught one of the first online courses in Canada — Grade 11 biology in 1995, with the Huron County Board of Education. Around 2000, he set up VHS, which became accredited two years later by the Ministry of Education. VHS has grown from about 15 courses a decade ago to about 70 today.
Young athletes, students with special needs, students living in remote areas or who need more flexible learning because of jobs or other commitments are among those choosing the virtual school route. While 90 per cent of VHS students are from Ontario, enrollees in other provinces, with which Ontario has reciprocal education agreements, as well as internationally can easily take courses offered at VHS and have them considered as credits toward their diploma.
Cost per course — ranging from Grade 9 comprehensive arts to Grade 12 physics — is about $400 to $600. Students can begin a course any time in the year and progress at their own pace. They write open-book tests whenever and wherever they want, and take a proctored final exam — a closed-book test written on a day and at a place chosen by the student, who must arrange for a proctor (such as a teacher, librarian, nurse, minister or chartered account) to observe the student during the writing of the exam.
Mr. Baker says that, while most virtual schools require students to purchase textbooks, VHS's course content has been written by teachers and is all online. Students submit assignments electronically to teachers who log in to a special program that alerts them when assignments need to be marked, and there's an online grade book.
Virtual learning is no licence to slack off: the principal keeps attendance records and students who have not finished a course within 18 months will be "expelled" (although a typical course takes about four months to complete).
One of the first questions students and parents ask is whether VHS's 40 or so educators are readily available for guidance and help while doing a course.
Dan Strutt, a math teacher based in London, Ont., who is part-time with VHS but also teaches at a regular private school offering junior kindergarten to Grade 12, says virtual students can always communicate with teachers and other students through various forums, and by e-mail and chat, for instance.
"We try to make it as easy as we can for students to discuss things with each other because a lot of learning comes from talking about the issues and discussing it with students," says Mr. Strutt, whose wife, Dawn Ruddick, teaches world religions and a social studies course at VHS, while also being a Grade 2 teacher at a public elementary school.
Mr. Strutt and Ms. Ruddick, who have two young children, enjoy the flexibility of virtual teaching as much as students embrace being able to learn at their own pace and from wherever they want.
Despite the possibility of completing a course without ever having communicated with another person, Mr. Strutt says he advises students to connect with their peers and teachers as much as possible.
"You do get the odd student who just wants to pay their money, do the assignments and get their credit," he says. "From other students, I get 200-300 e-mails from them by the time their course is done, and you'll make a real personal connection with them as well, just like in a real school."
Ms. Reitmayer says she constantly e-mailed her biology and English teachers, especially, but likes to rely mostly on herself in her virtual learning world.
"I find [online education]harder than a real school, but, if anything, it has helped me build more skills and taught me to do a lot of research on my own that will help me in university."
Special to The Globe andMail