School 2.0: Kids Go Online to Learn

Online education continues to gain in popularity, but this trend is not just taking hold among college students. Though some have reservations about the idea, much younger students are now discovering the convenience and low cost of virtual learning.

Seven-year-old Alexandria Jenkins is in the second grade and attends public school at a computer in her family's living room. She's a student at the Georgia Virtual Academy, an online K-8 grade school.

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On a recent day, the lesson was about synonyms. Alexandria's teacher, Danyelle Lynch, was 50 miles away, but could be heard over the Jenkins' computer speaker.

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Lynch asked, "What did we say synonyms are?"

Speaking into a microphone, Alexandria answered, "Synonyms are same."

The back-and-forth continued effortlessly for hours as the teacher interacted with her student on the computer screen.

It's all possible thanks to fast Internet connections and computer software sent to each family.

Kelly Morando, a former brick-and-mortar teacher, now works for the Georgia Virtual Academy supervising Alexandria's teacher and dozens of others. She, too, works from home, in Cumming, Ga., some 40 miles away from the Jenkins family and 70 miles from Alexandria's teacher.

"We have students from all over the state, so we're really seeing a true picture of what students in Georgia look like, because there is no other school that can say that," Morando said.

"You are not dealing with that daily discipline issue," she added. "That's probably the biggest difference, just the noise. The noise factor isn't there."

Morando said that not having to deal with discipline issues, teachers have more time to focus on learning.

"Then you're not spending your time disciplining and redirecting students to behave correctly, so you're really being able to focus all of your attention on just teaching and not worrying about kids needing to use the rest room, get up to sharpen their pencil," Morando said. "It's all about just teaching."

And the school is popular. The Georgia Virtual Academy has quickly become the largest public school in Georgia, with 4,400 students. No other public school in the state -- grade school or high school -- has more students.

Parents 'Absolutely Love It'

Alexandria's parents, My'rna and William Jenkins, say they "absolutely love it."

"You are not pressured with time. They also make sure the children know the subject before they move on," said William Jenkins. "One of the things that I was kind of wondering about is this -- whether it was like home schooling. And it's not home schooling. You're actually in an academy. It's just virtual."

There are a growing number of educators who believe this type of learning will replace a significant number of traditional classrooms. In the last few weeks, school systems in Hawaii, Salt Lake City and Chicago have gone ahead with plans to offer Internet classes to families.

"We have attendance requirements," said Matt Arkin, the head of school, which is like a principal, at the Georgia Virtual Academy. "Our students have to attend classes for 180 days. During the school year, they have to attend classes for between 4.5 and 5.5 hours during the day."

Using Tax Dollars for Online Education

There are now 22 states that allow parents to send their children to these schools, using tax dollars, as if they were attending school just around the corner. The money also helps pay for field trips, where students learn to interact with kids their own age.

Recently, one of those trips was to the Atlanta aquarium, where nearly 200 Internet students and their families attended. The parents told ABC News that the virtual academy is easy on their pocketbooks, and a great deal.

"I expected that I was going to have to pay almost as much or as much as any of the private schools around here," said Susan Kuse, "and when I found out this was free, I just I couldn't stop smiling for weeks."

Kuse's daughter, Gabrielle, is an amateur figure skater, and in the sixth grade.

"I do my school work, and then around 12:00 I have lunch, I get ready for skating," Gabrielle Kuse said. "I will skate for maybe one or two sessions, which is about 45 minutes each, and then I just go home. And if I haven't finished my school work yet, I can finish some more."

The Georgia Virtual Academy currently receives only state funds, and is counting on the state to allow its students to receive local tax dollars as well. That could happen next year, when a state charter school commission is expected to change the rules.

Test Scores Worry Some Educators

But virtual schools are not for everyone. There is one significant requirement: Each student is required to have a full-time learning coach -- usually, a parent.

Lisa LaCava, who has two children in the program, said, "I would not advise a parent who thinks it's going to require less involvement to take this approach."

"You are not going to park your child in front of a computer and abandon them for the day," she said. "You still have a responsibility as the learning coach, although you're not their teacher. You don't just leave them there. You have to be aware, just like you do in a brick-and-mortar school, as to what's going on."

And in Georgia, they're also worried that the online students are having trouble with state tests.

"In terms of their standardized test scores, I think they did fairly well in the English and language arts area, but the virtual academy did struggle with their math content scores, and so that's something we have some concerns about," said Andrew Broy, associate state superintendent for policy and external affairs. "We're watching to make sure they have a system in place to remediate students who didn't meet standards, and can actually move those students forward."

The academy believes that test scores will rise. Students and families believe this is working. And with growing demand, the academy hopes to begin serving high school students online within the next two years.