If you can shop, make appointments or register your car via the Internet from the convenience of your home -- or from halfway around the world, for that matter -- why can't you get your education in the same manner?

These days, many students can.

Not only are continuing education and college students completing courses at times and places convenient for them, but in recent years, more and more high-school, middle-school and even grade-school students do so as well.

At least 15 states have distance education programs for public school students, according to the U.S. Department of Education's 2004 report, Toward a New Golden Age in American Education -- How the Internet, the Law and Today's Students Are Revolutionizing Expectations. A deluge of regional and districtwide programs exist as well, and new programs are cropping up all the time.

Within the next decade, the report predicted, every state and most schools will offer some form of virtual schooling.

Virtual schools offer students and their families scheduling flexibility, course options, varied learning formats and experience that will benefit them beyond their schooling. Each program, however, is not for everybody, and a wide variety of virtual schools have emerged to cater to the varying needs of both students and the educational systems in which they learn. Though this next evolution in education shows no sign of slowing, some kinks must be worked out -- such as questions about funding and oversight in a school system that no longer fits within previously delineated geographic boundaries.

"It's relatively new even at this point," said David Griffith, spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), comparing virtual schools -- in existence for only about 10 years -- to charter schools. "Even [with] charter schools, there's a physical location, and the geographic area where students -- the attendance -- would be pulled from is somehow limited and finite. With virtual schools, that's not the case.

"You could have students living in one part of the state attending a virtual school in another," he continued. "And one of the things we've seen is it's a question of who pays, and determining which is the student's location for the purposes of making funding calculations and that sort of thing."

In many cases, this situation has created friction among virtual and traditional schools, as per-pupil funds are drawn away from traditional schools along with students choosing to attend a virtual or charter school. In Ohio, many public school entities have begun offering online courses to compete with charter schools.

Virtual schools have also raised questions about oversight, said Griffith. "If it's removed from the local community, then who is able to guarantee the services are being delivered and students are making the educational progress they should? The local district? The virtual school on the other side of the state? The local district in which the school is being operated? Is it the state, because it does cross district boundaries? These are all issues as we move forward that are going to have to be figured out."

Virtual Learning Put to Use

For years, Florida has used virtual schools to offer students and families more options. The state has several statewide programs -- including two full-time K-8 pilots aimed at reducing class sizes and the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), a supplemental program that caters to middle- and high-school students.

Florida's Legislature has taken virtual schooling in hand and created mechanisms to fund its three statewide programs, as well as a handful of district-level programs.

"What we're providing for students is really a choice of how they receive their education," said Bruce Friend, chief administrative officer for the FLVS. "The traditional classroom environment model is not the best learning environment

Emily Montandon  |  Staff Writer/Copy Editor