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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