With over a week of in-class instruction lost to two blizzards and many Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland schools forced to contemplate longer school years, a few Maryland teachers found an effective, online alternative to letting snow drifts reduce student achievement. Even as record snowfalls threatened most lesson plans, online learning proved to be an efficient tool for academic instruction for the few students and teachers fortunate enough to participate.

As The Washington Post reports, the accessibility of virtual chat rooms, whiteboards, and quizzes allowed some students to keep up with class readings and assignments despite prolonged classroom absence. Patricia Lynch Carballo, a history teacher at Maryland’s Albert Einstein High School, utilized online learning to help her students stay on track for the standardized International Baccalaureate exam. She remarked on the experience:

‘In some cases, the quality [of the responses] is even better’ online, Carballo said. ‘They have a little more time to think about it.. It’s not unlike what we’d do in class. We’re just doing it online.’

Virtual learning has become a successful alternative to traditional classroom instruction, whether through a fulltime online school, a blended virtual learning program, or an impromptu snow day class. The Department of Education’s recent meta-analysis of online schools and virtual programs echoes Ms. Carballo’s sentiments regarding online learning, reporting significant success in student achievement and test scores:

…students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.

K-12 online education has a lot to offer: greater teacher and student flexibility, increased availability of classes, better individual customization to students’ needs, and a more efficient, productive use of education funds. With over 1 million students taking some form of online instruction in the 2007-08 school year, students, teachers, and school districts across the country are already benefiting from virtual learning.

While the effectiveness of a virtual classroom kept some Maryland students on track for standardized testing last week, most students in the D.C. Metro area and throughout the East Coast will spend the next few weeks trying to make up for lost time. With many schools considering longer days and shorter summers, even in the face of state budget shortfalls, the cost to teachers, parents, students, and taxpayers for schools to meet state demands for minimum academic instruction should factor into future availability of online classes. The efficient, cost-effective nature of virtual learning’s easily accessible instruction should give school districts a good reason to provide online classes throughout the year and to all students, regardless of the snow forecast.