Throughout southwestern Virginia, high school students are participating in an increasing number of online courses. A variety of online curricular opportunities are available to academically advanced students in our region, including A. Linwood Holton Governor’s School, Virtual Virginia, and Elite Learning. Elite Learning was established eight years ago as a service of the Southwest Virginia Education and Training Network (SVETN) consortium. Through Elite Learning, fourteen online courses are available to junior and senior students. Currently, twenty-one high schools participate in this program, including students from the counties of Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Dickenson, Scott, Wythe, Wise, and the City of Norton.
All Elite Learning courses are dual-enrollment, which means students have the opportunity to receive both high school credit and college credit for the same coursework. Students who successfully complete courses receive college credit from their local community college. Elite Learning courses are delivered by using the Internet. Students communicate with their teacher through online messages, emails, phone calls and the occasional visit from the instructor. All teachers live and work in this region, and most also teach full time in a local school division.
Enrollment in Elite Learning has grown exponentially, from 95 students in 2007, to 371 students in the current school year. Smyth County Schools have had the largest number of enrolled students for several years. During the current school year, Smyth County students will earn a total of 672 college credits. The financial savings is tremendous for families. At the standard rate of tuition ($121 per credit), students would have paid $81,312, but Smyth County Schools provided this opportunity to students at no cost. This is possible because of Smyth County Schools’ participation with local community colleges which reimburse a substantial amount of tuition back to the school system.
Ryan Comer, a 2009 graduate of Northwood High School, earned 52 transferable college credits by participating in online courses. Ryan states that, “participation in dual enrollment greatly reduced my time in college. I graduated in 5 semesters, as opposed to the typical 8-10 semesters. Graduating early saved a significant amount of money – 3 full semesters worth of tuition, books, housing, food, and other general expenses. A modest estimate would be upwards of $30,000 saved.” Participating in online courses is also excellent preparation for future college students. Ryan indicated that the majority of the college classes that he later took had some sort of online component: “I encountered several students who struggled with the online component, but because of my experience with online dual credit courses in high school, I was very comfortable working in that format.”
The ideal online learning student is a junior or senior who has shown academic excellence and dedication to his or her school work. Because all Elite Learning courses are online, it is important for students to be self-motivated and able to work without face-to-face interaction with the teacher. Students must also meet the eligibility requirements set by each school and college, as well as receive a recommendation from the school’s guidance department.
As Ryan explains, “there were several very important benefits to taking online courses. For one, I accumulated college credit that allowed me to graduate early, saving my family money. I was also acclimated to working in an online format, a skill necessary for college. Online courses also contributed to my early intellectual development, by exposing me to a variety of college-level courses I would otherwise never have had the opportunity to take.” Currently, Ryan is taking a year off from school and working as a substitute teacher in the Smyth County School District. This upcoming fall, he plans to attend law school and hopes to eventually work as a policy advisor on environmental law issues in the state of Virginia.