Until recent times, schools have been characterized by the physical presence of teachers and students together. Usually, a building is used for instruction, and teaching materials such as books or blackboards are often in evidence. In the 20th century, alternatives to what may be called “bricks-and-mortar” schools emerged. These were forms of distance education, where children could learn without attending classes on a regular basis. The technologies used included mail, for correspondence schools, and the 20th century technologies of radio and television. Virtual schools can be seen as a variant of distance education. Russell (2004) argued that they emerged in the closing years of the 20th century and can be understood as a form of schooling that uses online computers to provide some or all of a student’s education. Typically, spatial and temporal distancing is employed, and this results in students being able to use their computers at convenient times in their homes or elsewhere, rather than being subject to meeting at an agreed upon time in a school building.
Russell (2005) has argued that the principal factors that account for the growth of virtual schools include globalization, technological change, availability of information technology (IT), economic rationalism, the model provided by higher education, perceptions about traditional schools, and the vested interests of those involved in them.
The first of these factors, globalization, refers to a process in which traditional geographic boundaries are bypassed by international businesses that use IT for globally oriented companies. It is now possible for curriculum to be delivered remotely from across state and national borders. Educational administrators can purchase online units of work for their school, and parents in developed countries can sometimes choose between a traditional school and its virtual counterpart.
As IT continues to develop, there is a correspondingly increased capacity to deliver relevant curricula online. As broadband connections become more common, students will be less likely to encounter prolonged delays while Web pages load or other information is downloaded. Advances in computers and software design have led to developments such as full-motion video clips, animations, desktop videoconferencing, and online music. Collectively, what is referred to as the Internet is already very different from the simple slow-loading Web pages of the early 1990s.