Stanford Online High School grants diplomas to academically advanced students
Powerhouse high schools hardly bring to mind virtual spaces, but an online high school operated by Stanford could alter that perception.
The Stanford Online High School (OHS), previously called the Education Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY), was established in 2006 and currently serves more than 400 students, including both full- and part-time students.
EPGY was founded to provide classes that academically talented students could use to supplement their regular high school curriculum.
“Typically students who come to us are students who haven’t been able to get [a] level of challenge academically wherever they have been,” said Jovana Knezevic, OHS director of information and communication.”
“It is also students for whom this schedule is far more appealing and conducive,” she added. “They have no illusions about the amount of time they’re going to spend doing their work but at least they can take it with
them wherever they go.”
In 2006, EPGY expanded into a fully accredited, independent school and updated its name. The standard class holds sessions for two hours per week, conducted through real-time video conferences. Raymond Ravaglia, the executive director of EPGY, compared the classes to undergraduate seminars.
Students and the teachers all log in to a central system that is similar to the video conferencing program Skype, adapted to a teaching environment.
Within the video chat, there is a whiteboard on which the teacher and students can write. The teacher can also upload slides, as in a PowerPoint presentation. There are icons for the students to press that are the equivalent of raising their hands, or answering yes or no to a question. Additionally, there is a text chat that students use to make short contributions to the class discussion.
“We’re looking for academically advanced students who are looking for a rigorous course of study,” Ravaglia said. “The thing they all have in common is that they are academically advanced [and] serious minded in their studies.”
OHS senior Nick Benson made the decision to attend because the schedule was more flexible and therefore better able to accommodate his acting career.
“I’ve done alternative online programs simply because I need flexibility in school,” Benson said. “The online nature got me to look at the school but it also seemed like it would be a quality education.”
The Stanford Online High School emphasizes the quality of its education, like the institution from which it takes its name.
“Students who come and think this is an easy alternative — that illusion is quickly dispelled,” Knezevic said. “The work is very hard. The students who do best are students who are intellectually curious, students who really do like to learn.”
One of the biggest differences between an online high school such as this one and a typical brick-and-mortar school is the social experience. Not only are all of the classes and extracurricular activities online, but students also attend from around the world, making it difficult to “hang out” like normal high school students.
Instead, students have to find alternative ways to socialize.
“Skype is the unofficial social hub of OHS,” Benson said. “That and Facebook.”
“There are clubs and other sorts of online social things where we bring the kids in to interact with each other,” Ravaglia said.
“They spend a lot of time on Facebook, Google Chat, things like that,” he added. “They develop a sense of rich personal social experience. The friends they’re making are the best friends they have anywhere.”
Knezevic echoed a similar sentiment.
“Because the instruction and the academic experience takes place in these online seminars, a sense of online community gets started in the classroom and then it spills beyond the classroom,” she said.
Benson also emphasized that having a social experience so centered around the Internet means that there is nearly always something to do or someone to talk to.
“For me, the social experience is really always on,” he said.
According to Benson, he and his friends can do all sorts of things online that would normally be done in person. In a process he described as “simul-watching,” students will pull up a movie on Netflix or YouTube and watch it at the same time, talking over the Internet as it plays.
Benson conceded that this sort of high school experience might be hard for some people to handle.
“That sort of distance and the limitations that come with it is not for everybody,” he said.
While there are many online high schools around the nation, Stanford is the first university of its caliber to sponsor such a program. Knezevic emphasized that this program is very different from what normally comes to mind when one thinks of online schools.
“People hear online and they think of using technology to increase efficiency,” she said. “But the technology isn’t the focal point of what we do, it enables what we do. We use technology to bring students together that otherwise wouldn’t have access to the education and wouldn’t have access to each other.”
Knezevic also noted that OHS teachers are often unique among their peers.
“Close to 70 percent of the teachers have doctorates in their disciplines,” she said. “They’re really in a position to challenge students, to model for them the kind of scholarship and the kind of engagement with the material and discipline that’s done at the professional level.”