February 8th, 2012

DISCUSS: Is Online Learning Beneficial For Students?




Is online schooling beneficial for students, or just a fad within education? You can start thinking about the question by watching the video above, which is from the February 23, 2012 edition of PBS NewsHour and addresses the question in a televised report handled by our own John Tulenko.

We encourage you to get involved with the discussion as well. Please post comments below.


Ali Carr-Chellman, Penn State University

At what cost does innovation come?

Ali Carr-Chellman, Ph.D. is Head of the Learning and Performance Systems Department in the College of Education at Penn State University. She has been a school teacher, consultant, instructional designer, university professor, researcher, and is the mother of three young children. Her research interests include diffusion of innovations, systemic change, the impact of technology on school reform, e-learning, and cyber charters.

I have been teaching in an online environment for many years. But it wasn’t without great trepidation that I approached the enterprise of online learning in higher education. The research here is pretty clear: meta analyses of empirical research studies have shown that really there is “no significant difference” between online and face-to-face in traditional measures of achievement in most contexts. This is good news, it means that online learning is “working.”

While this may be true, there is a great deal of research on the other side suggesting that it will bring on the downfall of the university or school system. David Noble is among my favorite critics of online learning in terms of ways that this enterprise may serve to hasten some very nasty potential results, particularly for the “life of the mind” that has been the hallmark of university life. His text, Digital Diploma Mills, is brilliant, and should be required reading for anyone embarking on the online learning journey.

I believe that the research will show likewise — that K-12 online learning, when we carefully compare similar groups of children in terms of their achievement scores on standardized tests, will be very similar. We’ll find again that there is little or “no significant difference” between the online mode and the face-to-face mode of delivery. But the question, particularly for our public schools goes far beyond whether it “works.” Is it good for us as a society, as a community?

Online learning in K-12 settings is a significant boon for Olympic level skaters, severe asthmatics, and some ADHD children who really cannot exist within the confines of a traditional school setting for a variety of reasons. And for certain specific applications I can definitely understand the usefulness of this approach and medium. However, I’ve been exploring a number of concerns within cyber charters and am quite concerned by several important issues. Did you know some of the following?

  • Cyber charter schools have no limitations on the amount of money they can spend to advertise and/or lobby politicians (and these expenditures allow them to remain non-profit)?
  • Cyber charter populations tend to be bimodal rather than similar to the larger general schooling population with a large number of high achievement and special needs learners?
  • Traditional public schools must pay cyber charters for every child who leaves their school for a cyber charter and in PA alone, this amount now approaches $1 billion (with a B) leaving underfunded traditional K-12 schools.
  • There is no real regulation on the ability of parents to include religious education in the regular school day, or to link religious lessons throughout the curriculum of a cyber charter if they wish to. That is, the separation of church and state in these schools cannot realistically be policed?
  • Cyber charter schools use a great deal of their money on expensive curricular materials, which are generally published by the same company that owns the “non-profit” cyber charter school?
  • There is very little ability of cyber charter schools to monitor cheating.
  • Exercising choice for individual achievement in the form of cyber charter schooling will likely leave our most vulnerable children behind in underfunded schools. Research on school choice indicates that parents with more education and better resources are the most likely to exercise choice in any form.
  • The CEO of the largest provider of cyber charter curriculum, sold specifically to their own non-profit schools, made more than $28 million last year.

These facts make me very concerned. Is capitalism really the way we want a publicly funded school system to function? I do believe that schools where significant losses of students have led to innovations of their own represent an exciting possibility for the future of school change. But I worry at what cost that innovation comes. If the trade-off is capitalist schooling models that create huge profits, religious education in public schools, unfettered lobbying and enormous advertising budgets within the realm of public schools, I fear we are no longer seeing any service of the public good from public schools, and instead are only concerned about our highest aspirations as individuals and not our greatest successes as a society.


Wendy Zacuto, Pacific Point Academy

Speaking from personal experience

Wendy Zacuto is currently the Director of Pacific Point Academy in Santa Monica, an independent school serving students with mild to moderate learning challenges through an innovative, transdisciplinary design. Wendy’s career spans 25 years, as a preschool through high school teacher. She has spent 12 years in school administration in charter, public, and independent schools.

Online education took me by surprise. Already deeply entrenched in my chosen profession as a school principal, I was offered the opportunity to earn a Master’s Degree through some NCLB funding. As I surveyed options, I realized that the scope of my job would be best served by earning my degree online.

The experience opened doors for me professionally, both as a function of the degree and through the limitless networking enabled by online communication. Unlike a brick and mortar university, online university enabled class colleagues throughout the nation and worldwide. I am now engaged in earning an online Ed. D.

A firm proponent of constructivist learning (preschool and elementary), I saw the theory first-hand in my own online learning. Now the principal of a school for students with learning challenges and dedicated to differentiated learning, I see online learning as one effective tool to allow innovative educators to tailor instruction to meet student needs.


Quick discussion break: Here’s a YouTube-exclusive video we produced documenting the experience of students in cyber schools:


Scott McLeod, University of Kentucky

Online schooling is here to stay

Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Kentucky. He also is the Founding Director of the UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE), the nation’s only academic center dedicated to the technology needs of school administrators, and was a co-creator of the wildly popular video series, Did You Know? (Shift Happens).

Online learning opportunities for K-12 students are growing by leaps and bounds. The most recent Keeping Pace report for the U.S. shows that over a million students already are taking at least some online classes. Last year the Florida Virtual School alone provided 260,000 online course enrollments. Harvard professor Clayton Christensen estimates that by 2019 about half of all high school courses will be delivered virtually. Online learning opportunities that formerly were reserved for working adults or college students have rapidly filtered all the way down to elementary children.

As online enrollments have rapidly expanded, so too have accompanying concerns. Educators and parents worry about losing the nurturing intimacy of teachers and students who are connected with each other in face-to-face classrooms. Pundits opine that our youth are losing their ability to interact with live humans instead of screens. Journalists report that online schooling providers are raking in tens of millions of dollars while providing substandard, perhaps even fraudulent, educational experiences. Superintendents gripe that other districts’ provision of online courses results in interdistrict ‘theft’ of students and state funding.

Perhaps all of this is just expected shakeout and pushback as we transition to more technology-mediated learning environments. Maybe these concerns are just temporary, necessary bumps as we learn how to create better instructional and quality assurance mechanisms for online education. Or maybe they’re deep-rooted problems inherent to virtual schooling.

Should we be concerned, as is the National Education Policy Center, about the rapid growth of online learning or is its very expansion tangible testimony to its power and possibility? Is it possible that online learning is okay for adults but not for younger students? Online learning is here to stay, however: the question now is how we approach it for our children.


Audie Rubin, Provost Academy Colorado

Three key benefits exist

Executive Director Audie Rubin leads Provost Academy Colorado not only with his years of experience in education as both an administrator and teacher, but also with his background of leadership and vision as a pioneer in the use of online education technology to open the classroom to the world and accelerate learning for Colorado students.

Online is a valuable education choice for many Colorado students and their families seeking an alternative to the traditional high school setting, whether because a need for more challenging classes, family circumstances or the need for flexibility. For many students, virtual high schools have meant the difference between giving up on school altogether and earning a high school diploma.

There are three primary benefits you should know about online learning:

Individualized learning plans tailored to students’ unique learning styles and levels: Every student learns differently. Some learn quickly while others learn more slowly. Some learn visually while others learn by reading textbooks. Online education can tailor a learning plan to meet the unique needs of each learner.

Flexible scheduling: High school students today have a lot going on in their lives. Many students work to support themselves and their families, while others engage in time-consuming extracurricular activities like competitive sports. Online education gives students a flexible option that allows them to do what they need to do and graduate from high school at the same time. Online education provides this option as it can be completed anytime and anywhere.

Real-time monitoring of student progress and success: Online education leverages a web-based curriculum that tracks progress and success using high touch methods, instantly illustrating what work you’ve done, what information you know as a result and what you still need to learn to graduate on time.

In a traditional school, time is fixed and learning is variable. The flexible, web-based curriculum offered through online education has flipped this dated approach, making learning fixed and time variable to meet the specific learning needs of each student.


Quick discussion break: Here’s another YouTube-exclusive video we produced, documenting the experiences of teachers in cyber schools:


Tom Carroll, NCTAF

It’s effective when used as a cornerstone of collaboration, building

Tom Carroll, President, oversees NCTAF’s research, policy, and implementation projects, develops and maintains strategic partnerships, and provides thought leadership about transforming schools from teaching organizations into learning organizations.

Debates over online learning effectiveness are fraught with confusion over purpose and mode. Online learning is least effective when the purpose is knowledge consumer and the learning mode is knowledge transfer and retrieval. When online learning emulates traditional schooling, where teachers download and distribute knowledge and information and when the learner’s primary purpose is to access knowledge and information, it is difficult to show significant effectiveness gains over traditional teaching and learning that is not mediated by digital technology.

Online learning becomes more effective when the purpose is knowledge collaboration and application in a wiki-like environment. In this mode, the learners are not just consumers of information, but collaborators who work together to develop a collectively built body of knowledge and information. This learning mode achieves significant gains over traditional knowledge transfer and distribution modes (as a wide spectrum of publishers from textbooks to newspapers are rapidly discovering).

Online learning becomes most effective when the purpose is to create new knowledge in a crowd-sourcing mode that gives the learners an opportunity to build off of each other’s concepts, strategies and responses as they develop new responses to complex learning challenges. When the learners become co-creators, they simultaneously deepen their personal knowledge and skill as they expand the universe of information and understanding that is available to others. It is regrettable that although this is the most powerful mode of online learning, it is least often used in traditional school settings. It’s time to transform schools into 21st century learning organizations, where we fully embrace all three learning purposes and modes.


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56 comments

All due respect to Dr. Carr-Chellman, but I fail to understand how decades of publisher-controlled and poorly conceived textbook roll outs (at a cost of $50 or more per book) seems to be fine with her and others who think similarly, yet these same folks feel queasy about the millions potentially to be earned by online producers. It is a basic matter of economics. It is often less expensive per pupil to do things virtually, although start up costs are likely higher, the annual or periodic updates or changes do not require the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars for a district. And since charters are underfunded significantly across the country–we don’t all have generous donations from the various foundations–the inclusion of virtual materials is a huge cost savings.

Another point she hit on is the same old saw against most reform efforts. And it seemed as if she wanted to suggest, since all choice options are so flush with hedgefunder money, that charters and virtual programs can market themselves better or more. Really? That seems to be quite a stretch. The schools I have run have depended on word-of-mouth because we have even tighter budgets when state or federal funding is cut or otherwise reduced.

Finally, the fact that a CEO of a virtual K-12 company makes a great deal of money but does not translate to higher achievement for kids does not mean that any and every being involved with virtual education is that particular CEO. It is fine that there are numerous folks in any aspect of life who are out to make the highest amount of money without honoring their obligations because they are a very small, though highly visible minority.

There are no silver bullets with regards to student achievement. There are various models and practices in use throughout the country that do seem to work and level the playing field and, most critically, close the gaps. However, no one way seems to do it all for all kids. And parents consistently give high approval of choice options, so there has to be a great deal more to all of this than meets the eye.

Otherwise, thanks for a great spread of ideas, concerns and the promise of possibilities for all kids.

Correction to my own paragraph… the third to be exact. It is not fine that there are these sorts of people like that CEO, but they do exist. They also happen to be a minority. Those of us in education who are not afraid of innovation and who stick with doing what we feel is best for kids overwhelm the folks just in it for a buck because they only see money to be made and we see it as investments for the future success of all students. Their day in the sun is short-lived. My point that not all of us involved with virtual education are the same, not do we want to be. (Unless by making that sort of money, we have increased student achievement!) Sorry to not have edited the previous tome better!

http://www.KhanAcademy.org alone is worth getting students online at school or home.

I have participated in on-line learning for my master’s degree and I have experienced what it s like to be in a “class” with people who are not disciplined enough to take an independent study type class without the structure of a real-time classroom and teacher. Those I have been in on-line classes with are adults and some of them have difficulty structuring their time for class, class material and assignments. There are those, and a lot of people are in this category, who do not have the discipline necessary for the on-line environment and these are adults in graduate degree classes. I definitely do not feel it appropriate for the k-12 population as a substitute or replacement for the school and classroom environment. I support on-line learning for young adults who have dropped out of school and want a GED without going back into the school environment. Many young people have been in situations that motivated them to drop out of school. Time on the streets and without future employment opportunities helps them to see the need to finish school and could encourage them to move forward and obtain a trade. When a person has small children and that’s the reason they discontinued their education to begin with, I support them having an alternative method to reach the goal of completing their education and obtaining a high school diploma or GED. Even under these circumstances, the young adult has to understand that success will occur only with discipline and follow-through, something I do not think will occur with the average child. The k-12 population should not be encoraged topursue on-line learning as an avenue for quality education. There is much to be said about the sharing of ideas and the positive affects of learning to work together in groups in the traditional classroom…something that is difficult to achieve on-line. When I read about the different advantages on-line learning has when it comes to money, obtaining funding, supporting lobbyists and politicians financially, it becomes clear that the move towards supporting on-line learning over a building and a teacher is all about moving the money around, supporting different aspects of “education” by the think tanks in an effort to change the direction of where the money goes to supply education as a commodity….the shell game again. Moving the money towards those the powers that be Want the money to go to as opposed to supporting the traditional school boards, teacher unions, community supported school environments that currently exist.

Hey guys — thanks for the comments so far. Try to spread the link around (if you have any time) so that hopefully more people can comment as well. We are, of course, familiar with Khan Academy and other models — so thank you, Rick. Wanda , your thoughts are very powerful and we thank you for sharing them.

I have been teaching fully online courses at the University of OKlahoma for over 10 years, and I keep my materials online to share with others - http://mythfolklore.net - I think it’s important for those of us who have extensive experience with online education to share our experiences with others (esp. if those others have little/no experience with online learning)… for me, the experience has been ALL GOOD - I would never go back to teach in a classroom again. The limited time-space of the classroom is just too constrained for the goals I have as a teacher! :-)

What are the other drawbacks to the “brick and mortar” system, Laura?

Every child 9-12 needs to have at least 1 online learning experience before graduation. Whether college, tech school or work force they will likely have to develop skills in an online forum.

I’ve done my 2nd masters online from an accredited state university. It has been a great experience, and the only way with 2 young children I could have done it.

Thanks for the thoughts, Nathan. We tend to agree that the development of skills online is very important — and no matter what job you end up in, you’ll have to do a good portion of your work online. What about the social experience? Does it do harm there?

It is important to remember that online is a delivery method. The selection of the best learning environment for the student is the responsibility of the parent/student. The benefits of the online option is that most parents are able to have a view into the classroom that traditional environments do not provide, most also provide the flexibility that the traditional bells system does not, the technology based delivery is just that a delivery method. It is critical to understand learning styles and align the best delivery method for the student, once a student learns how to learn and the benefit for them they are in the drivers seat. If online is the best delivery method for a set of students then their advancement of learning is within their control.

Judith, this is a valid point. Would you favor online for, say, a hyper-active student?

I think Judith has a very important point. Online course work is just one out of many tools available to educators and students. Online education is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Some students will succeed with the tool and some will not. I have both taught and attended online courses. Yes, there are students who do not have the skills or discipline to succeed in an less supervised, online structure. There are also students who do not have the skills or discipline to succeed in a traditional classroom setting. This goes for both child and adult learners. They may monopolize the discussion, act out, not participate at all, be better morning learners, be better afternoon or evening learners, need to move faster, need to move slower, get some concepts quickly, or get some concepts slowly. Online learning is one tool in our vast arsenal. Like all the others, it needs to be used appropriately for the benefit of the individual student.

We need to remember that our current educational system was set up to mirror that of an assembly line. Students are “batched” by age and moved along through the grades as learned is “installed” to meet certain standards. Is this the model we want to use going forward? Does it still make sense based on all we know about learning theory and personal development? I’m fairly sure that if we had to build a new educational system from the ground up today, it would look VERY different than it currently does. It would probably work better also.

Gloria, GREAT comment! Does the model still make sense?

Discussing whether online learning is beneficial to students rather like discussing whether television is beneficial to the public. Daffy Duck, The News Hour, and Home Shopping Network may each be beneficial to a particular audience in a particular context, but their content is vastly different.

Even if one simply distinguishes asynchronous and synchronus online learning, we’re still left with a vast range of different experiences.

The area of New York State in which I live was a national leader in distance education in the 1980s. The program was allowed to die. The BOCES serving the area is starting an online program now, apparently without realizing it’s not new here. I ran that distance learning program in the pre-Internet era. I saw some wonderful online teaching and some that was less than wonderful. The variable that made the difference was the teacher. Some teachers understood how to use the medium’s strengths as a lever to boost learning; others fought against the medium in a futile attempt to replicate their familiar face-to-face environments.
Online education is a different learning environment, not simply a different learning technology.

Sidenote: ERIC document ED317205 “Summer Telelearning for Academic Renewal. A Team-Taught Audiographic Distance Learning Program for At-Risk Eighth Graders,” which I wrote, is one of the few surviving documents of the DCMO BOCES distance learning program. Reading through the report last week, I was struck by how little, other than technology, had changed since 1989.

Linda, that’s a very good point — the discussion is not “one size fits all,” but it’s still a very important discussion to have, regardless.

As other posters have pointed out, asking whether online learning is more beneficial than classroom learning is asking the wrong question. We need to get beyond the “one size fits all” and “search for a panacea” mentalities that have guided educational policy and reform for far too long.

The bigger questions are who is being better served by which system? Perhaps online programs are good options for students who want to work at an accelerated pace, students who want to work at a slower pace, students who have special health, social, or scheduling needs, and students who are self-motivated and can work well independently. Perhaps “brick and mortar” classrooms are good options for students who learn well through face-to-face interactions, students who learn well collaboratively, students who need a person to motivate them and keep them on task, and students who don’t have a safe or productive place to work independently. If so, we need to ask whether we are offering options to fit the needs of all kinds of learners. We need to try new approaches, gather data, and re-evaluate according to results. We need to make sure that users of all educational formats are being held accountable, and that newer programs aren’t given a pass on addressing student accountability simply because they’re newer and presumably “innovative.”

We also need to do a cost evaluation of each type of program we offer. Does an online course cost as much to operate as a brick and mortar classroom? If not, maybe we need to create a separate funding structure for that system instead of perhaps unnecessarily funding it “equally.”

Finally, whatever the format, we need to independently evaluate the materials and programs we’re using. We need to ensure that “innovation” doesn’t simply become another publicly-funded corporate handout.

When I talk to parents, what I hear is that they’re not overly concerned about having schools “compete,” or even about the test scores on school report cards. They simply want more options for their own children because they recognize that traditional schools — like any institution — fit the needs of some students but not all. So a less centralized and more varied educational “system” is probably in our country’s future. Our challenge is going to make sure that the choices are meaningful and equitable.

Suzie, thanks so much for your thoughts and comments. They are always appreciated. We agree, especially with the last paragraph — it’s all about choices and varying to the needs. But HOW do we make sure that choices are meaningful and equitable? Does anyone have ideas here?

I really agree with Suzie’s remarks on this topic. I teach online and hybrid classes for a rural community college. I work with high school students and adult learners, and some are better served in face-to-face settings; while others blossom in the virtual environment. The other side of that equation, of course, are the teachers. Instructors’ ability to teach in online settings is not a constant, but constantly changing, also. Part of determining the “meaningful and equitable” choices will be matching students/teachers and supports available for both.

I hope the expansion of learning platforms or delivery methods leads to a long overdue focus on individual learner’s strengths and needs and development of more individualized learning programs (even as students continue to participate in classes or other social groupings) that include a rich curriculum offered through a variety of platforms, by a cooperating team of educators and support personnel.

When my colleagues and I discussed the future of the teaching profession in our work on the book, Teaching 2030, we envisioned these types of scenarios. We anticipate and advocate for the development of highly accomplished teacher leaders (we call them teacherpreneurs)who, in addition to their teaching roles, might serve to help students and their families navigate these new teaching/learning scenarios in a number of new roles. One of our co-authors gave the example of teacher leaders who serve as “learning concierge”; other ideas included: personal education advisors, gaming experts, assessment designers–all effective teachers with hybrid, expanded roles. These futuristic ideas may be nearer than we think.

Banning online learning should be future step. ADHD really an excuse. I could have been diagnosed with that as a youth, but that was more than 20 years ago for this Computer Science person. I realize funding schools is a problem but in a system that really rises from Capitalism for any form of socialization as Marx states. I have to ask has any one thought about forcing the profits of a bank back to the communities they server? Or making a bank where the profits go to funding Schools and Hospitals. These are only ideas I seem to want to champion. But This is part of a bigger over-all “system” overhaul. I think the classroom experience is what kept me focused enough to keep my ADHD in check without medication.

Shawn and Renee, thank you for your comments. We appreciate them. Check out those two videos — we added them over the last couple of days — and see what you think of those as well.

I think that one of the best parts of online learning is the opportunity for reflection time. The student can think about their responses before posting and even during posting. This is very different from the “instant’ response time in a face-to-face class where you have the pressure to respond within a few seconds.

Welda, thanks for this. Really appreciate you getting involved in this discussion. Interesting thoughts, too. While the reflection time argument is valid, what about the lack of ability for teachers to actually SEE their students?

From SkyLearnBrazil, our friends on Twitter: It is incredible that there is one vital thing missing from this impressive video. Where are the children? The teachers can’t see them!

(We concur. That does seem like a major impediment.)

In this digital age with ever advancing technology at our fingertips & not having to encounter traffic jams through cyberspace, I find it incredible that there is one vital thing missing from this impressive video, where are the children? I can´t see them! We have the technology to enable us to teach & for students to learn with an amazing ariety of resources but I do hope not at the expense of losing the humans

I’d like to respond to the question of “not seeing” the children in online school.
Our school, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, decided early on to disable the webcam on student laptops, choosing to err on the side of student safety and privacy. Unfortunately this limits the ability of a student to visually demonstrate something to the teacher or the rest of the class, so in future this blanket policy may change in limited situations.
Teachers of virtual classes at our school say they can “see” and get to know their students in more ways than just visually. Those who have taught in both classrooms and online have told me that in online classes they have more control, and are more assured that each individual student is engaged and understands the lesson before moving on.
By way of disclosure, please note that PA Cyber Charter School teachers and students are featured in the videos on this page. Our school will be part of John Tulenko’s upcoming report on cyber schools for PBS News Hour. I had the pleasure of working with John, and I appreciate the thoughtful dialogue his work has generated.

Fred, really glad you jumped in this discussion. The piece is actually airing tonight — Thursday, 2/23 — on PBS, so you should check it out. Thank you so much for answering back some of these other commenters’ concerns, though.

There is a for-profit Charter school company “White Hat Management” headed by David Brennan in Northeast Ohio (Akron particularly), and neighboring states. It has been under scrutiny lately. I believe it is one that you should look into……

Regarding Fred Miller’s comment:

My son attends PA Cyber and loves the anonymity of not being seen. While he is only ten years old, he is taking high school courses. He loves the fact that the other students (and perhaps some of the teachers) don’t realize he is younger. He doesn’t want to be treated any differently. The cyber school allows him to feel less “freakish” (his term).

I imagine there are many kids who appreciate not being treated differently because of their clothes, their physical disability, or the color of their skin.

One of the best things about cyber-school is that the inner city student, the farm kid, the bullied child, the ADHD kid, and the physically disabled student can all be in the same class and get the same education without any of the social problems.

Ed, that’s a really powerful first-hand account. Thank you.

Agree with Fred’s comments. I’m with K12, an online learning provider to schools and school districts nationwide. A lot of misconceptions exist on the teacher-student relationships and interaction in online schools. There are compelling reasons why every year more teachers are choosing to teach in online schools — for both professional and personal reasons — and why many are celebrating how these new education innovations enable them to serve the individual needs of students, and create real relationships with students and parents that are critical to learning. Listening to online school teachers share their stories is very compelling. This does not mean that online is the best way, any more than traditional schooling is the best way for all kids. But for some teachers and students, online schools are the right choice.

Also important to note there are new innovations taking place within online schools every year, including blended programs that give online school students additional support in safe and effective learning settings. See this video of a cyber charter school’s blended learning program in Philadelphia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fsheKs0avK4

For many families, online schools are the only public school alternative available to them. Online schools provide customized learning and help students gain access to courses and programs that may not be offered in their assigned school. This is one of the primary reasons for the increased demand in online learning from administrators, teachers, and families. In PA, there is a lot of online learning activity, which is providing new options for kids and more choices for parents.

I have taken 3 online courses as well as 3 on-campus courses that offered the option of the lecture portion being done online (with in-person labs) — all six courses were in life sciences, nursing sciences or computer sciences. I learned a LOT from the on-campus/lecture-optional classes. The amount learned from the optional lecture courses is not attributable to the in-person labs (2 of the 3 were a waste of time / busy work from which I learned almost nothing).

My experience with (3) online only courses has been that there simply isn’t enough structure to motivate me (or many of my classmates) to learn the material. The exams (open book, open resources) could be completed for a very satisfactory grade without viewing instructor PowerPoint presentations, without reading the text and without studying prior to the day of the exam. One simply had to be good at quickly looking up answers in the text.

I believe that instructors could write more thoughtful exam questions that can’t simply be looked up. However, because schools can’t be sure of the quality of the exams/instruction given by online instructors, I wish that the state’s community college and university systems would for a network/partnership that would allow instructors to require closed book (computer-based) exams that could be taken at the nearest community college/university campus “human monitored, computerized testing lab” by showing your university ID and driver’s license. I believe that closed book exams would be a much better measure of the student’s mastery of the material (at least as good as the exams given in traditional on-campus classes), and they would have the added benefit of encouraging students to really LEARN the material.

I take responsibility for how little I learned during the online courses in which I received A’s (and am currently teaching myself the materials because they are critical to my future career plans that will be completed in on-campus courses). However, I do wonder how many people are able to “earn” their credentials by simply being very fast at looking up correct answers to multiple choice exam questions and never really learn the material.

You keep bringing up the downfall of not seeing your students. As having an experience in both a traditional school setting and a cyber school, I don’t see a downfall. Yes I may not see my students or know what they look like, but in a traditional school setting do I actually KNOW my students? There were the select few that I felt I got to know and others who were complete strangers, but I could point them out in the grocery store. In my class now, no I couldn’t point my students out in a grocery store. However, I could tell you their interests, favorite colors, hobbies, etc. You get to know your students on a different level, enough that you can notice a difference in your student if something is wrong and bring it to the attention of others. You are still able to develop that connection with the student, as stated in the video, we just need to work that much harder to establish it.
Also, in assigning projects and allowing my students to embrace their creativity I have actually been able to ’see’ some of my students. They have created videos for their projects involving themselves and friends. Others have taken pictures with projects that they have created and sent those to me. With PSSA’s approaching as a cyber school we travel to the sites and I will get to meet students there as well.
In my personal opinion, it does not matter to me if I see my students or not. What really matters to me is that my students feel comfortable enough in my classroom to share their thoughts and opinions about classroom material, as well as personal experiences.

Where are the libraries in charter schools? Have the people who run this type of school not read the research, conducted in many states, indicating that achievement and test scores rise when there is a substantial library program (with a librarian) in place? Where are the independent reading materials that students should be reading, so that they become lifelong learners and not just test passers? Public libraries are not set up to support curricula, nor to provide the depth of reading material on many subjects that interest students?

The last sentence is a statement; apologies for the question mark at the end. Public libraries are not set up, nor funded to be school libraries.

Any of you guys interested in doing a “Google Hangout” on this topic, say next Tuesday or Wednesday? We’d get a couple of cyber school admins if you’d like. Might be interesting to speak about all these issues face-to-face too. Hit us back if interested.

hey u rock austin

Joanna is correct that there are not traditional school libraries for cyber charter schools. However, my children have become adept at searching online, going to .gov and .edu sites for research as well as being able to go to various magazine and journal sources that traditional libraries do not have on hand while writing papers. We often use the public library and local college libraries. I’m not sure what Joanna means about independent reading materials, but our home library is bursting with books, Our kids are constantly reading (for pleasure and for school) and if we don’t have a book they are interested in we can get to the library. Our cyber school, Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School (PAVCS) uses the K12 curriculum and it has very thorough courses. The younger grades (K-6) have wonderful cross-overs between Literature, History, and Art allowing the students to experience more than just a dry text. If a student craves a more in-depth study of a particular subject, the cyber school affords a less rigid time slot for the student to delve into that subject. I am very appreciative of libraries and their staff, but I’m equally thrilled with the “global libraries” that exist online via access to college libraries, journals, newspapers, magazines, and more.

On a different note, many have brought up the topic of lower test scores. From personal experience, I’m friends with many families that have pulled their students from traditional brick and mortar schools because their children were slipping through the cracks in one way or another-dyslexia, ADHD, other learning or behavioral issues. In tracking these students’ test scores longitudinally, their individual scores have generally risen over the years of being in a cyber charter school. So, while the school may seem to have lower test scores, it’s important to note that many families are switching from traditional brick and mortar schools to cyber charter schools to help their children who would have been among the lower scoring students in their local district.

@Learning Matters. yes. I would be happy to help organize some online school administrators, online teachers that would be very glad to participate.

I’d be happy to participate and maybe answer two important questions that went unanswered in the piece that Fred Miller mentioned. First, why there’s a cyber school located in the small Western Pennsylvania town of Midland. Second why there are 30,000 full time students enrolled in online cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania. Find out why and you’ll understand so much more about this shift in public education. By the way, isn’t this entire discussion proof that online learning works and can play a role in education. The comments here are generally well thought out (one exception) and the moderator is doing a good job of encouraging the exchange of ideas using a sort of online Socratic method. Online education is a game changer whether you like it or not. The fact that those opposed view this as a threat is a good thing. Their comfort zones have been unchallenged for too long. Today you better up your game or be ready to be replaced with a new model that is user focused and not status quo driven. Jeff, hope you organize the chat.

My daughter has been doing well in PA Cyber. After having 3 children in the public school system for years, my husband and I looked for an alternative with our 4th child.
Thank God for PA Cyber

I’d like to point out that PA Cyber took a risk in allowing John Tulenko unfettered access to our staff, students and facilities during four days of taping. I can’t say I’m 100 percent satisfied with his report, though most was fair and informative, but I am buoyed by the many positive comments and by the two videos above. The parent testimonials are especially appreciated, and I assure you are typical of the feedback we receive here at the school.
What would I change about the segment?
I wouldn’t let that superintendent get away with saying his school has to remediate those who return to his district from cyber schools. The student profiled was in our school for two months, compared to 11 years in his home district. Our exit data shows most who return to classrooms after trying out cyber school found the work harder than expected, they miss their friends, or they lack the self-discipline required.
We absolutely are the ones who have to remediate their failures, and not the other way around. That also explains why cyber test scores are lower, by the way.
I wouldn’t let that superintendent get away with using the word “profit.” PA Cyber is a public school. It has no owners or shareholders, and neither does the nonprofit foundation which it spun off to share online curriculum and management expertise.
John said cyber charters in Pa. are “allowed to charge different amounts based on what the districts themselves spend.” The districts themselves set the tuition rate that charter schools receive, which is 70-75% of what they spend, per-pupil, according to legislative formula. Funding inequity from district to district is a long-standing problem in Pennsylvania that cybers do not control.
In answer to the criticism of building new or renovating vacant buildings in Midland to house staff, where else would they be built? PA Cyber gets no state funding for buildings, it cannot levy taxes for capital construction. Part of tuition money must be set aside for capital projects.
Bottom line, districts have had guaranteed funding sources and pools of captive students, and in too many respects have ill-served their clients. That’s why some families switch if they have the choice.

I’ve been cyber schooling since 8th grade and I do not regret my choice in doing so. I am now in 11th grade and this is my first year in PA Cyber. I cannot express how happy and grateful for this school. I’m learning what I need to and more. I get just the right amount of work and education so I can balance out my extracurricular activities. I’m challenged, but it’s powering and I love to take on these challenges. Cyber schools have a very negative perspective from those who are not part of our internet-based “family”. I wish those who do put us in a negative light would be able to take the time and listen to each and every one of the students testimonies. Because we all have a story. I, without a doubt, believe their perspectives would shift, even the slightest bit. I cannot say enough how much cyber school has helped me- I don’t know where I’d be today if I had to go to public school. Being in cyber school allows me to focus on MY own schoolwork and education rather than having the never ending distractions of public school.

I am a mom and Learning Coach to my three children, who attend Agora Cyber Charter School. I have been with Agora for 4 years now, and I love it. Two of my children have AS, a form of autism, and were very poorly served in their local brick-and-mortar school. My third child joined us in Agora after begging not to have to go back to the local school anymore. (She had enjoyed a private school until it was too costly for us to continue to send her there.) Now, reading this, you may suppose that we live in a rough area and have an underfunded local school. The truth, however, is that we live in a comfortable outlying suburban area, in a school district that is great at building new school buildings, but is notorious for making the education of special needs kids into a battleground between parents and administrators. Here at Agora, the administration has offered us all the adaptations we need, and I as Learning Coach am able to implement my own modifications as I see fit. It is a breath of fresh air for all of us, and as a former teacher, I enjoy finding ways to educate these interesting minds!
We just did not fit into the “round holes” our local district had drilled for our “square peg” family. And while each of my children suffered differently, they certainly suffered.
Here at Agora we are happy. Here we can work at our own pace, delve in deeply to topics of interest–for example, we are known to teach spelling to our stuffed animals, or to make parallel lines and transversals out of Fruit By The Foot. There is no shortage of learning, as our school has a strong curriculum and wonderful daily synchronous classes, but I do admit that a lot of learning takes place while in our jammies. The jammies are a huge bonus, as my daughter has now started battling Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthrits, and is often bedridden with pain and illness.
In a perfect world, everyone would be allowed to learn in cyberschool, or as a homeschooler, or in a brick-and-mortar school where she or he is valued and honored. Our kids need to learn in whatever environment best meets the goal: educating the child and ensuring the child’s healthy development.
And if the district is really so sorry to lose the funding for my child, then perhaps they could have shown a genuine willingness to help my children succeed in spite of their special needs. But it was instead a constant, emotionally draining battle that left the kids to play the role of troublesome misfit, and I am so happy to have this positive alternative to such a negative experience.

I am a mom and a learning coach to my 2 children who currently attend PA Virtual Charter School and have for the passed 6.5 years. We started with PA Virtual, when my oldest son, who graduated in 2009, was in the middle of his 9th grade year. After struggling for several years through middle school and putting up with more educational problems in the 9th grade, my husband and I decided that we really need to take our childrens education into our own hands. That’s what we did. If we would have left our oldest son in the brick and mortar public school, he would have dropped out of school, but instead he graduated with a GPA of 3.89. Currently I still have 2 children enrolled at PA Virtual Charter School and would not have it any other way. I feel that the charter school helps them to become more self sufficient individuals and prepares them to be better people. They still are involved in sports through the district and have a very fluent social life. However, when they start their school day, they are focused on school and not who’s saying what, or wearing what, or gossiping about this person or that person. The drama in school today is ridiculous and I can honestly say, that there isn’t anyway that I would allowed my children to enroll back in the brick and mortar school system.

I have 3 children. Two of my children are in PA Cyber and 1 attends our local B&M school. We gave PA Cyber a try with my oldest son 4 years ago. We found that our local B&M school just wasn’t meeting his needs. We meet with the principal and teachers at our local B&M to try to come to some solution. They had some good ideas. It was all talk and no action. The next year we enrolled my son in PA Cyber and it has been the perfect fit for him. He loves PA Cyber and has no intention of ever returning to our B&M school. He has had so many opportunities that he wouldn’t have had in our local B&M school. My middle son has no desire to attend cyber school. He does well at our local B&M school. As long as it serves him well, I can’t see moving him. My youngest is trying PA Cyber this year and loves it. I think that cyber schooling is not for every child. Most cyber schools realize this. The cyber schools are fine with that fact. The B&M schools do not seem to understand that they are not a match for every student. As a parent, I am so glad that I have choices in education. I believe the B&M schools need to do a better job at meeting each student’s needs.

I experienced so many bad things with several B&m schools. My daughter was sexually harrassed at the ripe old age of 6. My son with Autism was placed in Autistic classrooms waiting to learn from them for years. Anything academic was always next year. Well, next year never comes. I was having to buy the materials and homeschool him after school. What was the point of sending him? The final straw was when they school caused a severe regression that he hasn’t totaslly recovered from yet. Then, they had the nerve to call me into an IEP meeting after not only not following his IEP, but causing all that mental damage. He worked so long to learn how to handle his problems and in less than one year a school destroyed all his work. I thank god for PAcyber because the sight of the local school gives him panic attacks. He was terrified the first time he stepped into PAcyber Greensburg center. He was terrified that they would be “monsters” like the local school. Everyone there has been exceptionally patient and kind to him. He can now walk in there standing tall and not be afraid. In every way PAcyber has been a godsend. Each of my three kids can work at a pace they can handle and feel confident.

I would say that it would be very difficult to evaluate the per student cost. The student can choose to do the bare miunimum or they can add extra courses, center classes or attend virtual or in-person tutoring. The more they work the more classes they can take.

I have 4 children in Agora Cyber Charter School.
It’s the best decision I have ever made in regards to my kids’ education!
The only education the Philadelphia School District seems to offer in their Public School System, is to be bullied, assaulted and neglected!!!
My children experienced them all, not just occasionally but on a regular basis. That’s why I decided to go with Cyber School. My kids can actually learn because they are not being ignored by a Teacher who is so worried about her personal life that she doesn’t pay attention to a kid’s struggles until the year is 3/4 over and fails my kid.
My Daughter doesn’t have to worry about being assaulted by a gang of girls in the hall because one of the girl’s “boyfriend’s” asks my daughter about an assignment after class and the other girl is jealous that my Daughter talks to the boy and accuses my Daighter of ‘trying to steal her man’.
My Son doesn’t have to wet his pants on the way home since there are no Teachers forbidding him to use the rest-room despite written verification from his Dr that if he has to go..HE HAS TO GO!! He will also never again have the experience of getting his nose and shoulder broken on school property by 4 kids from a DIFFERENT school while nobody tries to help him in any way.
Sadly, my children were in MIDDLE SCHOOL when these incidences occurred!!
Granted there are SOME decent Teachers’ in B&M schools but they are so afraid for their own safety, that they can not provide an adequate, safe learning environment for the children.
In public school, my Daughter struggled severely with reading which made every subject impossible for her to pass. With-in the first year of being in Agora, my Daughter went from being 3 grade levels behind in her reading to being right on track with her peers. This is our 3rd year with Agora and my daughter is ahead of her class in LAC and just completed a writing assignment for her class that astonished the teacher who said my Daughter’s paper was so well written, with proper spelling, punctuation and capitalization that it read more like the mind of a freshman in COLLEGE, rather than High School. This is a girl who HATED reading but once I had the power to be so involved in her education, I helped her learn to love reading, I introduced her to writing poetry, and she has been writing her own book.
Now I see so many people disputing the cost of online education…I guess I am born in the wrong era because to me, a kid getting a decent education that will take them somewhere besides the local prison or graveyard is PRICELESS.
Part of what makes online education succeed or fail is the willingness and determinination of the parent/learning coach to divulge their own time into it, which influences the outcome for the child.
If people don’t agree with it, they don’t have to utilize it for their child but instead of fighting so hard against something that is a success for so many, maybe they should concentrate their efforts on helping to re-stabalize a failing, life-threatening school environment that exists in many of the neighborhoods so parents who care about their kids can actually send their kids to LEARN.
If we as adults have the mentality of “It’s easier to fight with a group for something wrong, than to stand alone for something that is right” then how can we expect any kind of a decent future for anyone?
My youngest is in Kindergarten and people complain to me that I am depriving her of ‘Social Skills’ by using online education. My Daghter is Epileptic and my thoughts are “If the public school system wouldn’t protect my children who do not have medical conditions, how can they protect my child who has a medical condition that if ignored could result in severe brain damage or worse?”
It seems that B&M education requires more focus on protection than it does actually learning. At home my kids are protected and getting educated.

Hello, I am the father of the Smith Family that was in the PBS Newshour feature. I am very happy to see dialogue regarding Cyber Schools. But, I must say I am disappointed in how we were portrayed in the feature. The PBS crew spent 5 hours at our home filming and interviewing. They interviewed my wife and I, for 1 hour, about our choice to educate our 4 children through PA Cyber. We had many positive comments. But the only one small part of our interview was aired about a comment my wife made about the technology being an occassional problem. We believe we were portayed as being very concerned about technology problems. Let me now be clear that there is seldom any tech issues. Maybe once a month a video the teacher is showing may freeze or one of my children may loose internet connectivity for a minute. These tech problems are very rare. We are very pleased with PA Cyber. My children do very well as they recieved straight A’s last year and score at and above average on their PSSA’s. The public school superintendent’s in the feature acted as if Cyber Charter School’s are taking there money. EXCUSE ME but it is not your money. It is my tax dollars. Cyber schools receive, on average, about 73% of what a traditional school district spends to educate a student according to the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives. In other words, the public needs to know that THEIR TAX DOLLARS are educating children in a much more efficient way. Look, I never wanted this feature to be a “us verses them” piece. I am not against traditional schools. But I am against anynone who wants to shut Cyber Charter Schools down because it threatens the status quo. Competetion is always good. It makes us better. Causing traditional schools to compete for our children can only make them better. Sincerely, Mark, A happy PA Cyber parent.

In the article which led off this discussion thread, Penn State Professor Dr. Carr-Chellman said she believes students learn equally well in online and classroom situations. However, the concerns she expressed about how cyber schools operate are rife with misinformation.
I’ll summarize first, then discuss points in detail.
The dollar figure she cites for cyber charter tuition in Pennsylvania is off by $700 million. She said companies own cyber charter schools. They do not. She said cyber schools make profits. They cannot. She said cyber school populations are composed mainly of high- and low-end students. They are not. She doesn’t think cybers should advertise or hire lobbyists. They must, and should. It is good, not bad, that cybers spend a lot for curriculum. Cheating in cyber schools is not hard to detect and is not a problem. And finally, the idea that someone should “police” whether parents might be adding religious instruction to cyber school lessons taught to their own children in their own homes is a truly frightening step toward George Orwell’s “1984.”
Dr. Carr-Chellman said school districts in Pennsylvania pay a billion dollars a year in tuition to cyber schools. The correct figure is about $300 million. There are 137 brick and mortar charter schools in Pennsylvania and 13 cyber charters. The $1 billion she cites is the tuition cost for all charters.
She said cybers tend to enroll bimodal populations composed mainly of either special needs students or high achievers. Our school, PA Cyber Charter, includes 8 percent gifted-talented and 12 percent special needs students. Aside from the fact that each student had some compelling reason to leave or shun traditional schooling, our 11,000 students are fairly typical of a general school population.
She is concerned that cybers are allowed to spend “unlimited” funds on lobbyists and advertising.
Cyber schools are mandated to advertise; that was written into charter school law from the beginning. The legislature understood that these schools have no captive student populations, and need to tell the public who they are and what they do. PA Cyber allocates a modest 1 to 2 percent of its budget for advertising to cover the entire state.
Cyber charter school advocates walk the halls of government because their opponents are already there in force. I assure you that Pittsburgh and Philadelphia school districts, the state school boards association and teacher unions are well-represented in Harrisburg; as is, I might add, Dr. Carr-Chellman’s employer, Penn State, with a governmental affairs staff of four.
Dr. Carr-Chellman is concerned that cyber schools spend a lot for “expensive curricular materials” especially if they are published by the company which manages the school. (She said “owns” but private companies cannot own public schools.) Quality online curriculum is proprietary, and is expensive to develop, maintain and service. Cybers buy or develop good curriculum because if they don’t, their students will go elsewhere.
Was Dr. Carr-Chellman serious when she complained that cyber schools have no way to regulate “the ability of parents to include religious education in the regular school day, or to link religious lessons throughout the curriculum of a cyber charter”? In cyber school, the “school” ends at the student’s computer.
There is zero evidence, statistical or anecdotal, that cheating is any more a problem in online than in classroom schools. In our school, online teachers get to know their students. So do the Instructional Supervisors. An IS is a certificated teacher assigned to each student as adviser, monitor and link between the family and school. (The IS has no counterpart in traditional schools. Too bad.) Like classroom teachers, online teachers know when a student turns in work that does not jibe with past performance. It probably is easier to detect and prove cheating in online schools because so much student work is digitally recorded, analyzed and stored.
Educational management companies cannot own a public cyber charter school, but they can sell it curriculum and services such as teaching and administration. PA Cyber differs from most cyber charter schools in that it purchases curriculum and some management services from a nonprofit foundation expressly created for this purpose. This foundation has no owners or shareholders, and gives away excess revenues for charitable, primarily educational, purposes.
There is truth in Dr. Carr-Chellman’s fear that the most vulnerable students are being left behind in underfunded schools, but inequity in funding between districts is the root cause, not cybers. Cyber schools are part of the solution. In cyber school, students receive the same quality education regardless of the zip code in which they happen to reside. Cyber schools are a refuge for students made vulnerable by educational malpractice.

I have talked with several students at the B&M school my kids would have attended. They are permitted to cheat. They are allowed to write all their notes for a test on a large note card and use it during tests. She says this allows her to do more sports because she does not have to study. I have heard the bathroom comments before. I’ve seen schools go so far as to cause medical hard, use the bloody mary story or let them have accidents. My kids and I have both experienced the lights off and scary tape (CD) method. My daughter sat in an accident til she got home because she was afraid to ask to go to the bathroom. I have had a nephew get dragged into the magistrate because he blocked a punch.

Studies of how often coauthored academic journal papers are cited show a strong correlation between the number of citations and the physical proximity of the co-authors, all the way down to 3 meters but not closer. However, I believe this is mostly due to a symptom of not learning effective telework skills and therefore online education will in fact help in the long run.

In the short run, state legislatures need to get the money from poorly performing online schools back to the teachers, or be voted out by the taxpayers. Who is working to make that happen?

Online learning do have its advantages. Most students already know how to use a computer, less discipline is needed, and less cost for the school district and for the parents. I would recommend online learning for students in 7th grade and up who are trying hard but struggling in a real class. However I feel that younger students should not take online classes. These kinds of students need the discipline and social interaction of a real teacher and classroom. Online learning should not be used to bail out grade-school students or students who don’t want to learn at all.

Distance or online learning is an increasing trend. Online learning has many advantages over traditional one the biggest being that of cost. We all know that how costly traditional education has been and recently there this topic has been in news as well. I have written many articles on this arising issue click here to read one of my best piece of writing.

As a tutor I’ve been hired to help students who’ve done online high school due to living abroad, religious reasons, or social problems in high school.
Although bright, these kids are not on-level. Not a single one. Their thinking is narrow and flat, with huge gaps and strange idiosyncratic misunderstandings. They can pass the tests, sure, but they’re like that person who learns PowerPoint in a tutorial, passes with flying colors, but can’t really use it.
The tests didn’t catch problems like the kid who really only knew one book. He knew it very well. But he thought one book was sufficient.
The tests also didn’t catch the kid whose essays were entirely about Christian theology. His points were esoteric, but he didn’t know how to draw on any other source of information besides the bible. He also had no clue that not everyone would be convinced by the argument “according to the bible.” He thought it was universal. The online classes he took were not Christian-oriented, but he was.
Another high school student just didn’t have the discipline and motivation to keep up with the classes.
I make money trying to fill in the gaps that online classes leave, but I feel sorry for these kids.

I teach face-to-face and online. Online learning to a certain extent has become a form of Hollywood edutainment. Frankly, I am tired of it. My online students come trained by other online courses to read text, post once make 2 replies, complete quiz, and done, so not only to have to fight this learned behavior, but I have to struggle with the constant “well, my life is busy; my “learning” should be at my own time, and therefore I should not have to meet your deadlines,” type of mentality. Forget that the instructor, me, also has a life and a family to support. I am supposed to be accomodating at all times, because numbers are so important. Goodness forbid, we ask our graduate students to take personal responsibility for their learning. The students whom I instruct will be classroom teachers, and school personnel. They need to learn to ask questions, they need learn to work together, and then need to apply what they learn beyond a quiz or a test. Yet, all I get is what about my grade, not what about my learning and application which is so critical to work with the special populations I ask them to work with. I feel more connected with my face-to face students; I feel more productive and less of grade giver in my face to face classes. Online learning has been sold as learn what you want when you want, and I can tell exactly which students who will never apply what they learn outside of our online class and which ones will; how sad.




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