In the eyes of the NCAA, there’s no difference between traditional, online or home-school classes — so long as they receive approval from the NCAA’s Eligibility Center.
“High school students in general — not just student-athletes — complete more online and/or blended courses than before,” NCAA spokesperson Michelle Hosick said.
College basketball player Marvin Bagley III has done that, completing four online classes during the summer to reclassify to enter Duke as a freshman in August instead of going through a senior year at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, Calif.
In North Carolina, N.C. Virtual Academy and N.C. Connections Academy are the two sources of online learning offered to the public, as approved by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
Connections opened in 2015 with a four- year charter, originally enrolling 1,500 students and since growing to 2,100, with more on a waiting list according to superintendent Nathan Currie.
In particular, Currie said, Connections and online education caters to high-level athletes, actors, dancers and other performers who have other constraints in pursuing their interests outside of school.
“Those kids have a very tedious schedule,” Currie said. “Those high-level, engaged athletes come to us just because of the flexibility of being able to work around that traditional sort of barrier of school, 8 to 3 Monday through Friday.
“We can do school on the road, we can do school on Sunday when there is no practice or events going on.”
There is no typical day for a student who uses virtual education, with students joining live lectures that allow students and teachers to talk via webcam and sharing their screens if their schedule allows.
If the student is unable to make a lecture, they can log in later and watch a recording, complete with interactions from classmates.
That’s the appeal of Connections Academy for former Wake Forest star Delaney Rudd, who runs the N.C. Basketball Academy out of Kernersville. Students are enrolled in online classes through Connections and play a national basketball schedule as Westridge Academy.
Rudd’s first venture into high-level basketball began at New Hope Christian Academy in Thomasville, with a mix of traditional and online education, but has now gone to an all-online model with Westridge.
“When I started doing this, people told me I was crazy, it was the craziest idea ever and I’ve got kids playing all over the country that have done right,” he said. “They have worked their butts off in basketball, they’ve taken care of their academics, and nobody is sitting in the SAT or ACT room with them.”
Rudd estimated that he has helped “hundreds” of players earn college opportunities, including his daughter, Lucky Rudd, a sophomore guard at N.C. State.
Currie said Connections is subject to all of the same requirements of any other public education in the state.
“We certainly don’t question the rigor,” Currie said. “We don’t at all feel that our curriculum is watered down; we feel like it’s very rigorous and it goes through annual reviews.”
Drew Elliott, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, said Connections adheres to the state’s Standard Course of Study.
“These standards define what students know and should be able to do,” Elliott said. “With these standards as the foundation, local school leaders make decisions about the comprehensive curriculum that they choose to deliver to students so that they can reach the content standards for every grade and subject.”
Connections in North Carolina opened in August 2015 with a four-year charter and includes students in 94 counties. Instruction is provided by 65 state-certified teachers based in Durham.
For the 2016-17 school year, Connections met its end-of-grade testing growth target with a “B” rating in reading but fell short with a “D” in math.
Still, Steve Farmer, the vice provost for undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said it’s too early to draw conclusions about the quality of online education vs. traditional education.
“Just as some traditional schools are high-performing while others are struggling, some online courses offer great preparation and others don’t,” he said. “And the quality of the course notwithstanding, a lot depends on how hard a student works and what he or she draws from the experience. For all these reasons, we think we need to evaluate students individually and on the whole of their circumstances.”
Bagley’s progression through high school included only one full summer of online classes, but it could be a preview of what’s to come for some blue-chip basketball recruits, allowing them to maximize their skill development at a specialized academy, while also taking care of their academic work on their own schedule.
“With the plethora of education alternatives available, it seems ‘elite’ athletes will make decisions they think are in their best interests,” said Dr. Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.
“In many ways, this is no different than an academic prodigy going to college early. This will not be that common, but reflects some parents and athletes viewing athletics as a business, which it surely is.”