One of the most interesting discussions in education right now is about how our schools and students can best take advantage of the potential learning opportunities of virtual, or online, schooling. Only the most blindly committed Luddite could look at the potential for online learning and think that there was nothing to be gained. But, as my Ed Sector colleagues Erin Dillon and Bill Tucker have cautioned, “until policymakers, educators, and advocates pay as much attention to quality as they do to expansion, virtual education will not be ready for a lead role in education reform.”
Would that New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel had moved that discussion forward in his front page article in today’s edition. The article’s headline–”More Pupils are Learning Online, Fueling Debate About Quality”–promises to do just that. Instead, Gabriel offers up a hackneyed “fer-it or agin it” formulation. Who’s in favor? Those bad corporations and Republican elected officials who just want to grab public money. Who’s opposed? Teacher unions. “The big corporations want to make money off the backs of our children,” one union official laments.
Also suspect are green-eyeshade school administrators worried about efficiency in a time of tight state budgets. “It’s a cheap education, not because it benefits the students,” another union official says. (To continue the ad hominem attack on online learning Gabriel quotes Alex Molnar, whose National Education Policy Center receives funding from the National Education Association. ) As one example of this, Gabriel tells us that Reza Namin, the superintendent in Westbrook, Maine, can’t justify paying a fulltime teacher to teach the 10 students who want to learn Chinese. So, instead, the district contracts with the Virtual High School Global Consortium. It goes unmentioned that the school also makes available to the 800 Westbrook High students Spanish, German, Latin, Portuguese and Russian, in addition to Chinese–a range of choices that no school of that size could possibly offer in traditional classroom settings. Namin has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics, a masters and doctorate in math and science education, and advanced training in geometric modeling. It’s hard to imagine someone with that background being willing to skimp on quality just to save a buck.
Another problem with the story, as Daniela Fairchild notes on The Flypaper, is that Gabriel lumps together credit recovery programs, online AP classes, supplemental math programs and virtual schooling as if they’re all the same. A far more interesting story would have been to look at how educators are trying to figure out not whether students should be given chances to learn on line but how. That is what this article entitled “Future Schools” does. Another interesting and informative discussion of the quality of online credit recovery is here, a joint effort of The Hechinger Report’s Sarah Butrymowicz and the Texas Tribune.
It’s true, as the article notes, that research has not shown definitively that teaching high school students virtually is better than teaching them in classrooms. And there certainly is the potential for online learning to be a scam. So that’s why it’s important for educators, parents, state policy experts, the companies themselves and even journalists to pay attention to quality, in virtual schools as well as traditional ones. But let’s not reject the idea of online learning just because it’s different from what we do now.
For many years, newspapers failed to recognize the potential of the Internet and digital media for engaging new audiences and delivering content in exciting new ways. Hopefully, educators will be quicker to figure out that, inescapably, online learning will be part of schooling in the future. Now’s the time to make sure it is serving the interests of the students.