Online learning: Before we rush down that path, make sure we know where we are going

I have been researching online/distance/virtual learning because our General Assembly was attempting to mandate it as part of the high school graduation requirements.

Last week, the bill was changed so online high school courses are not mandated, but encouraged.

And that was a good thing, given what I have been finding in talking to researchers and reading the research about online education.

I fear that uninformed investments in expanded online learning will lead Georgia down the same dead end that technology spending did 20 years ago. As a state, we wasted millions of dollars on impractical and unworkable technology because we allowed the vendors to tell us what schools needed.

School systems had computers they couldn’t operate. Stuff sat in boxes. Nothing connected. Lacking staff expertise, systems trusted the vendors, forgetting that their first allegiance was to profit margins.

Now, Georgia is at risk of wasting millions  on online learning because the well-funded and marketing-savvy industry is telling us how great it is, how effective and how critical to the future. It has become the next best thing in education.

Georgia’s zeal for distance learning reminds me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a teenager who told me that he wanted the new iPad and planned to wait in line for it. Since he already owned an iPad, I asked the teen if the new model offered some innovation that he needed. He told me, “I don’t know what it does that’s different, but I know it’s better than what I’ve got.”

The evidence thus far shows that online learning works for some students, mostly those who are highly motivated and self-directed and who excel in any learning situation. Most of the studies on its success focused on those driven students who resorted to online programs to take advanced courses their schools didn’t offer.

The research emerging now shows that it does not work nearly as well for struggling students who require more direction, more personal attention and teachers who teach rather than facilitate or tutor.

I will be writing about this later in the week.

In the meantime, here is a great piece by Georgia Perimeter College professor Rob Jenkins from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and the author of “Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges.”

This is an except, but read the entire piece. His essay should be on the desk of every state legislator in Georgia:

I certainly agree that college completion is vital, both to our nation’s economy and to our efforts to maintain an informed and engaged citizenry. Yet I’m concerned that some two-year institutions and systems might be taking the wrong approach, one that may ultimately prove counterproductive. Specifically (and predictably enough), many state systems have said that a key component of their plans to raise graduation rates involves increasing online offerings, despite strong evidence that online classes may have just the opposite effect.

For example, according to a report by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Washington state’s Student Completion Initiative includes plans to “redesign … high-enrollment-gatekeeper and precollege courses into online classes.” A position paper on college completion produced by the National Conference of State Legislatures applauds Montana, among other states, for “expanding online learning options” and creating “a virtual community college as a low-cost option to expand access.” And in my own home state, the recently released Complete College Georgia plan calls for institutions to “increase the array of online programs … to enable all students … to effectively pursue college completion.” Those are just a few examples of what appears to be a national trend.

At first glance, the idea seems to make a lot of sense: Surely if we make it easier for students to get the credits they need by offering as many classes as possible online, more will finish. And no doubt that approach is cost-effective, at least in the short run. We can increase access without having to spend money upfront for infrastructure—money that, incidentally, we don’t have. We can also reach potential student populations whose only access to college courses comes via the Internet.

Unfortunately, we seem to have forgotten that access and completion are not the same thing. Simply getting more students to enroll isn’t going to help much if too few of them ever finish. In fact, given Secretary Duncan’s assertion that completion rates remain disappointing, even as enrollment grows, one might argue that we’re setting many of those students up for failure.

To counter that argument, online enthusiasts point to a 2009 “meta-analysis” by the U.S. Department of Education that, they say, shows that online courses are not only cheaper and more convenient but also better. The report looked at 99 individual studies of online learning conducted since 1996 and concluded that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

Nice try. But that study has serious flaws, especially as it pertains to community colleges. In the “Effectiveness of Fully Online Courses for College Students: Response to a Department of Education Meta-Analysis,” Shanna Smith Jaggers and Thomas Bailey of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University point out that only 28 of the 99 studies examined in the Education Department report focused on courses that were fully online. Furthermore, only seven looked at semester-long courses, as opposed to short-term online programs on narrow topics, “such as how to use an Internet search engine.”

In other words, out of all the studies reviewed by the Education Department, only a handful dealt with the kind of fully online, semester-long courses that are being touted as a means of increasing college-completion rates.

Even more alarming, for those of us on the front lines at community colleges, is the fact that all seven of those studies were conducted at midsize or large universities, five of which were rated as “selective” or “highly selective” by U.S. News & World Report. Those are not exactly the kinds of places that typically attract at-risk students—the ones least likely to complete their degrees. Community colleges do attract such students, and in large numbers.

Moreover, in six of the seven studies, withdrawal rates were not even mentioned, meaning that the research gauged only how well students performed after completing the course. The studies didn’t tell us anything about those students who didn’t complete the course.

Two other studies by researchers at Columbia’s Community College Research Center do shed light on the role that online courses play in college completion—and the news isn’t exactly good.

The more recent of the two, as reported by The Chronicle in July 2011, “followed the enrollment history of 51,000 community-college students in Washington state between 2004 and 2009 [and] found an eight percentage-point gap in completion rates between traditional and online courses.” That comes on the heels of a 2010 study that reached similar conclusions about community-college students in Virginia: “Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.” Did you catch that? According to the Columbia study, community-college students who take online courses are actually less likely to graduate or transfer.

Is it possible that we’re taking the wrong approach? Increasing access to college through more online offerings may indeed help with the first part of the completion equation: enrollment growth. But if, as the Columbia studies clearly show, the most at-risk students are less likely to finish when they “attend” classes online, then for that group of students this approach may actually do more harm than good.

That’s precisely what Jaggers and Bailey conclude in their response to the Education Department’s analysis: “While advocates argue that online learning is a promising means to increase access to college and to improve student progression through higher-education programs, the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.”

All of this reminds me of a television commercial I saw recently. I don’t even remember what product or company was being advertised. I just remember that the gist was, “If you’re tired of dealing with Web sites and automated phone systems, do business with us. We’ll give you the personal touch. You can even talk to a live person.” And I remember thinking, “Maybe this is the wave of the future. Maybe we’ve reached our saturation point with virtual communication, and the businesses that succeed in the next decade will be those that make you feel like a person interacting with another person rather than some disembodied collection of ones and zeroes.”

If that’s the case, then maybe this is one lesson that colleges—especially community colleges, the “people’s colleges”—can learn from the corporate world. Perhaps what the most at-risk students really need, instead of being herded into online courses, is the “personal touch.” Maybe they need more face-to-face interaction with instructors and other students; more conferences in their professors’ offices; more private, one-on-one tutoring sessions; more hanging out with their peers in the student center between classes.

Maybe allowing those students to sit at home, alone in front of their computers, with little in the way of emotional support—not to mention, in many cases, educational support—is actually a bad idea. Maybe instead of doing everything we can to encourage them to take as many of classes as possible online, we should be welcoming them to our campuses and into our classrooms.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

105 comments Add your comment

what's best for kids???

March 21st, 2012
12:53 pm

I can see many reasons why the legislature is interested in online learning:
1. Money: No facilities costs.
2. Money: No transportation costs.
3. Money: Teachers teach part time (full time really, but paid part time), so no insurance.
4. Money: Online with a television for many, many classes, and a cop/parapro in the classroom with live stream.
However, here are the cons:
1. Cheating: Having others do the homework, the classwork, the reading, and then taking the tests.
2. Lack of one on one instruction or human connection with the material. As a teacher, I can tell by the reactions I am getting in the classroom as to whether I am making any connection at all. At that time, I can change horses and try a different tact.
3. Isolation of the children so that they are unable to function in society (okay, that’s a little extreme, but still viable).
4. Did I mention cheating? Parents do projects for their children, homework for thier children, and research papers for their children. I’ve heard it before: “We worked really hard on that paper.” How do we know that the child has actually learned the standards when mom/dad/hired brain power is doing the work for them?

AHHHH…Glad to be back.

Stop Stealing Dreams

March 21st, 2012
1:06 pm

@Maureen, again you are misinforming your readers. May I suggest you read “Disrupting Class” by Michael Horn and Clayton Christensen? The reason why stuff “sat in boxes,” as you say, is because you can’t cram technology into schools! You need to train teachers and students how to use the learning tools, but more importantly, what good is investing in technology if you are not investing in the content that leverages the technology?

The print business has died because you can’t just slap your content onto a new medium and call it a digital strategy. You need to optimize the content to fit the two-way, interactive capabilities of the platform.

It is a shame that you are being given the opportunity to write an essay, without someone there to author a “rebuttal.” You are a digital immigrant – you did not grow up with a computer or game console in your hand.

Before you author this so called “essay,” may I strongly suggest you truly do some research on the subject you are going to write about, because digital learning does not mean that learning decreases or teachers lose their jobs! It is part of a “blended learning” environment and I think you are doing a MAJOR disservice to this community by writing this misinformed propaganda. I could write a pages and pages of validating rebuttals to your senseless argument that online learning is bad for schools.

It is so frustrating that folks like you continue to be given “bully pulpits” to communicate such nonsense. Again, I mean no disrespect personally. I just disagree 100% with your opinions about education technology and education reform.

Just do what you say you are going to do ...

March 21st, 2012
1:12 pm

It’s trendy and the latest … and we do love our technology even when we don’t know how to use it. a new way to “increase the enrollment” and pickup an enrollment fee. Who say education is not a business, that education sits at a higher plateau … it is always “all about the money”.

And so much for the schools/collegs argument of “Diversity” … as an intrinsic value of going to a brick & mortar school.

Happy Kine and The Mirth Makers

March 21st, 2012
1:14 pm

Geez…if we mandate online classes then perhaps we could mandate giving away “FREE” laptops, cphone, iPads, desktops and all sorts of needed things for those who refuse to pay their way.

Online learning…bad and costly idea.

No substitute for a human teacher

March 21st, 2012
1:22 pm

There is unequivocally, without-a-doubt, absolutely no better teacher than a human being. I’ve completed online learning and it is much more inferior than a good human teacher.
We need to invest our money in hiring excellent teachers, not wasting it by trying to replace the irreplaceable with gadgets.

Charter Schools Add To Financial Strain In Some Districts

March 21st, 2012
1:23 pm

Short news report video from Harrisburg, PA about charter school AND virtual school effect on traditional district schools.

Maureen Downey

March 21st, 2012
1:24 pm

@Stop Stealing, As for writing a rebuttal, it does not matter what I think about online learning or what you think. What we ought to go on is what the research from independent researchers is discovering. My statement that Georgia threw away millions of dollars on poorly thought-out technology investments is a fact. It is not a secret.
That we are rushing into online investments without a clear sense of effectiveness is a fact. That the research is not there to prove effectiveness of online learning for struggling students is a fact.
Where are your facts?
Also, are you in the industry? That’s something you ought to be telling us upfront.

Attentive Parent

March 21st, 2012
1:34 pm

Speaking of nonsense Stop Stealing Dreams, Christiansen, Michael Horn, and Chris Dede at Harvard as well all treat socialization via computer and MMOGs, Massive Multiplayer Online Gaming, as “learning”.

I frequently get asked by parents why their children have much more trouble with online textbooks vs print textbooks. Digital learning for someone who reads phonetically is simply another means for accessing information through written language. For many kids though I-Pads and E-Textbooks mean that the visuospatial portion of their brain is what is being engaged, not the abstract, analytical, thinking abilities.

Digital literacy is a huge crony capitalist scheme to these computer companies. Your tax money. EdWeek did a story a few months ago about Microsoft’s work and states mandating training on MS Office after MS donated software. The reporter then disclosed a huge number of new paying MS customers who would come in through the initial donation of software.

Did you know that Common Core says digital literacy and media literacy are as important as print literacy? Now only a paid lobbyist could make that assertion with a straight face but now it is mandated.


March 21st, 2012
1:35 pm


What do you mean “Before we rush down that path, make sure we know where we are going”?

Thoughtlessly rushing through complex issues and grasping at simplistic solutions is all we have. We’re the American public after all. We know there’s no problem that technology can’t solve. We know that replacing one failed school “reform” with another is all we have. Replace one math curriculum with another and then replace that one with the first one ad infinitum. We also know we can always place our faith in the private sector to come to the aid of the public sector.

Don’t take all this away from us. It’s all we have. Unless, of course, we really have the nerve to look in the mirror to see the real problem. No, not that! You need to know that if you take away knee-jerk reaction we don’t have anything.


March 21st, 2012
1:45 pm

(sigh). I remember when closed-circuit TV was going to be the answer to stupid teachers. Having been subjected to any number of TV courses in elementary school, I can testify that I remember nothing from any of them. I do, however, remember quite a bit from my face-to-face instruction in a live classroom, from my (not so stupid) teachers.
That being said, my guess is that this legislation is an effort to support home schooling. We should not forget what state we live in.

Stop Stealing Dreams

March 21st, 2012
1:48 pm

I can show you tons of facts. When you write your essay, I will rebut it with more facts than you can possibly imagine.

We are not rushing into online investments. There are tons of studies that show how online learning leads to successful learning outcomes, including goal setting, self-efficacy, cooperation, and feedback loops. If you looked at the Innosight Institute, they have done several case studies on effective implementation of blended learning. Note how I use the term “blended,” not “online”?

I have alerted the national thought leaders who are prepared to share countless research studies on the effectiveness of online learning. Next week, when I have the bandwidth, I will inundate your readers with extensive research studies that show the effectiveness of online learning, even for struggling students.

How about Khan Academy? Are you going to say that it isn’t working? What about Carpe Diem Schools? What about Quest to Learn? Digital Learning Now also has extensive research studies on the effectiveness of online learning. Again, we are talking about Online learning as part of a blended learning environment that includes physical learning as well. Online learning can help students who do NOT learn by traditional means. It’s called “differentiated instruction.”

As opposed to listing all of the studies here, I suggest you start with Digital Learning Now, and the Innosight Institute.

But keep denying your readers the full picture.

Attentive Parent

March 21st, 2012
1:52 pm

This is a link to a published paper on neomillenial learning from Harvard Professor Chris Dede

Is this the type of learning anyone envisions as what they want their children to be getting or what our property and sales taxes should be paying for?

There’s no transmission of knowledge here.

Why does it matter? Well Chris Dede is listed as the consultant on North Carolina’s digital learning initiative that is supposed to be the most advanced in the country. Neomillenial I suppose. It is described in their winning Race to the Top application.

Fulton County’s charter says it is implementing digital literacy and those SPLOST funds are going to buy the new technology. Super Avossa and his fellow Charlotte-Meck “We love technology so much we use layoff avoidance funds to buy I-Pads instead” keep pushing digital learning as a key component of the transition to a charter system.

Are they implementing Chris Dede’s vision in Fulton?

Is that how anyone envisioned closing the achievement gap?

Just do what you say you are going to do ...

March 21st, 2012
1:57 pm

Stealing the Dreams

Seriuosly, Are you a Lobbyist? What is your job/position?

Attentive Parent

March 21st, 2012
1:59 pm

When Michael Horn of the Innosight Institute came to Georgia last fall, Georgia Public Policy Foundation videoed his speech. About 3/4 of the way through, IIRC at about 48 minutes, he acknowledges that digital learning is not a different way to access content.

It is about a new, substantially different, definition of what constitutes learning.

Also much computerized learning keeps the student’s attention at the perceptual level, not the conceptual. Superficial. BF Skinner’s vision for the computerized teaching machine involved programming students via computer. Something for parents to at least be aware of.


March 21st, 2012
2:04 pm

Ah, “Stop Stealing Dreams,” still the shill for the online publishing industry that you were for Seth Godin’s hack job for Amazon, I see.

You recommend “Disrupting Class” at 1:06 pm. This is published by McGraw-Hill Books and, according to Amazon, “available for use as premiums and sales promotions, or for use in corporate training programs.” Not schools, I notice. Going to the website for McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., primarily a publisher of textbooks but not scholarship in the field, I find that the “Professional Categories” of its books include NOTHING on Education, but long divisions for Business and Computing.

You state above at 1:48 pm: “Next week, when I have the bandwidth, I will inundate your readers with extensive research studies that show the effectiveness of online learning, even for struggling students.” Be alerted Maureen… “moderation” will be the friend of us all.

East Cobb Parent

March 21st, 2012
2:06 pm

First hand experience with digital learning and digital text books. My son takes a few classes online. This year he had a digital textbook for the online class. He simply was not understanding the material. I located a print version of the book and purchased. His grade went from a C/D to A/B. I was amazed at the difference and spoke to the online teacher. She confessed that teachers were not supportive of the digital textbooks but they were much cheaper. She said many students were struggling in Science (the course with the digital textbook). She saw an improvement across the board in students that eventually purchased the printed version.
So I agree that this rush to digital online learning should be slowed.
Another tidbit, my older child does not do well with online courses. She told me she prefers to sit with other students and interact with the teacher. While she can do this somewhat in the online environment, she says it’s not the same.


March 21st, 2012
2:08 pm

@ Just do what you say you are going to do …March 21st, 1:57 pm :”Stealing the Dreams” Seriuosly, Are you a Lobbyist? What is your job/position?”

I suspect that we have in our midst the ILLUSTRIOUS, MULTIMILLIONAIRE Seth Godin himself!! Hoping to continue as one of America’s 1%.

Just do what you say you are going to do ...

March 21st, 2012
2:14 pm

Prof …

I know we have some intelligent folks on this sight BUT … this verbiage/speel was off the charts. How can one put together such “stuff” instantly. Sounded to “canned” to well prepared … Didn’t really realize that there is a “new spinners” on sites like this to bend/send and sell their product.

Thought this was just “information/idea sharing.


March 21st, 2012
2:17 pm

@ Stop Stealing Dreams

There are ALWAYS “studies” that show whatever is being sold is effective. Every silly idea that comes down the pike is supported by “objective” evidence of dubious worth. The authors almost ALWAYS seem to be independent experts but we should not take anything on face value. Healthy skepticism is central to a constructive response. Problem is that once you dive in beneath the surface claims there’s another layer of BS and then another after that. It’s tough out there and it’s easy to fall for anything.

No, we can’t be expert on everything. That’s especially challenging considering the people doing the selling are “experts” with a career or other financial interest. Plus, they often fool themselves.

Key is understanding your biases and trying your damndest to get to the bottom of things. Then, constantly re-examine everything you think you know. Daily.

Ex-Online Teacher

March 21st, 2012
2:19 pm

Well, I just must open my mouth now since I have personal experience in this area. Let me share my experience with you as an ‘online instructor’ in this very state, at one of the massive online Charter academies, that I darted away from after realizing its many woes.

As was mentioned above, students who naturally excel in traditional school had no problem adjusting to an online learning environment. They are typically self-starters, mature for their age, able to multitask and learn new technology, and handle the flexibility that online learning offers. HOWEVER – how many students really fit into this category? The top 10%? This, unfortunately, is the exception to the rule in education. The other 90% need guidance, one-on-one PERSONAL interactions with adult mentors (aka teachers), extra help, and a live body in front of them to keep them on track at all times. I can’t TELL YOU how many parents enroll their children in these online schools, and ditch them at home. It would blow your mind. We ended up being virtual babysitters, attempting to contact parents to make sure Johnny and Sally are ‘logging in’ and ‘attending our live sessions.’ I spent more time tracking down students than I did actually instructing!!

Another important note, as mentioned above as well. Just where will the money come from to fund this new silver bullet in education? Any student receiving free or reduced lunch is eligible for loaner laptops, printers, etc!! I had parents emailing me about how to have their internet paid for, upwards of 30 parents a YEAR asking about this, which apparently is another perk of online learning for them. If we mandate, or ‘encourage’ students to learn online… guess what. WE TAXPAYERS foot the bill for the millions of dollars of loaner equipment. And for what reason!? To give kids an experience of hearing their teacher on the computer? They don’t spend enough hours a day playing games and screwing around on FaceBook?!

Lastly… I have taken approximately 10 online courses myself. Some undergraduate, and some graduate level. And I can say, hands down, that I remember NOTHING from those classes. The ‘professors’ had us read textbooks, write papers, and then grade each others’ assignments. HA! I had no clue who my teacher was or who my classmates were. Discussions were a joke, as we were all required to ‘chime in’ on threads created by our lame professors as part of our grade. NOTHING can replace class dialogue and FACE TO FACE interactions between peers and teachers. Period.

Stop Stealing Dreams

March 21st, 2012
2:24 pm

Prof, you are way out of line by making a personal attack. I am not a lobbyist. I am just a well informed citizen who has spoken and written at length about education reform and have researched the evolving trends of disruptive innovation for several years. I am not going to give more specifics because I have created several successful nonprofit organizations in Atlanta and I am doing a great deal of social good. I have also studied media consumption habits for more than 20 years. I also grew up in a family of public school teachers, so I would consider myself a very credible resource in this area.

I look forward to inundating this blog with extensive research studies that show that online learning is here to stay. The problem with our public schools is that you can’t just throw new learning tools into the public schools if you do not implement appropriately. The “system” must be given incentives and training to incorporate such tools, assessment must be re-engineered, and sensible investments must be made. And time must be allotted to measure learning outcomes. The roadmap is there, if you have the courage to listen and learn.

Stop Stealing Dreams

March 21st, 2012
2:27 pm

MM, I strongly suggest you look at the book, “Disrupting Class.” Change is hard, especially for any established institution. The problem is not the amount of money our schools have. The problem is very clear. They were designed to function in the Industrial Revolution, and the mass-standardization approach will kill us in the digital revolution.

Just do what you say you are going to do ...

March 21st, 2012
2:31 pm

Stop Stealing Dreams

a lot of “I”’s … no we’s or our’s … interesting verbaige. These are of single minded thoughts. … (and no typos, tense issues like me) … a canned rehearsed “spinner” of tales

Ex-Online Teacher

March 21st, 2012
2:32 pm

And Stop Stealing Dreams, ‘growing up in a family of public school educators’ makes you an expert in education? Ha! That is parallel to saying ‘I grew up in a family of doctors therefore I am an expert in healthcare.’ As usual, it’s people that have never stepped FOOT in a classroom as an educator, that are looking to ‘reform’ and ‘fix’ the system. Just like our legislators that don’t care enough to volunteer or visit public schools (or send their children to them!), but love creating the rules of the game. The fact that you make your living off of this shows your intent here!

Ron F.

March 21st, 2012
2:38 pm

“Lastly… I have taken approximately 10 online courses myself. Some undergraduate, and some graduate level. And I can say, hands down, that I remember NOTHING from those classes.”

Ex- your experience doesn’t necessarily prove a point. I took courses online and LOVED the fact that I had flexibility about when to be “in class.” I’m more of a writer than a test taker, so the research papers I had to write were perfect for me. Luckily I had teachers who actually were required to grade us and provide feedback on our papers.

Like anything else, it can be offered and will work for a certain niche. It shouldn’t be forced on anyone, it should be encouraged for those who want it, and it shouldn’t be used as a panacea for flunking kids.


March 21st, 2012
2:40 pm

Be sure to interview the Clayton County alternative school that was disbanded in favor of an at home online experience for their high school students. Their approach was to hand over a computer and access to a classroom environment one day a month, if I remember correctly. While you are sending this information to legislators, send a copy to all the school boards as well. Thanks.

Tonya C.

March 21st, 2012
2:49 pm

I love online learning. That said, what I love someone else will hate. I don’t believe the online education is the panacea it is being painted as at all. I think it has a purpose and a market, but that education as a whole can not be provided solely in that medium. Khan Academy is great, but even it’s creator acknowledges the importance of human interaction in schooling. But it takes a level of self-sufficiency and determination that doesn’t exist in every (or even most) students.

[...] education writer, Maureen Downey, is glad but still understands why there’s reason to be skeptical of online learning. And that was a good thing, given what I have been finding in talking to researchers and reading [...]

Ex-Online Teacher

March 21st, 2012
3:29 pm

I couldn’t agree more. While I ‘loved’ the flexibility, I ‘hated’ the impersonal environment of online learning. Others may not care about being personal, but are looking for flexibility and/or a research environment (in your case) where interaction is not necessary. We all learn differently and enjoy different things.

However, with that being said, the original intent of this bill was to mandate ALL students to take an online course in order to graduate. Now we’re just ‘encouraging’, which is another way of saying ‘pushing’ children into online learning that may have zero business in an online environment. It is difficult – it requires focus, it requires maturity and responsibility of one’s time, it requires a 16-year-old to sit still in front of the computer without opening FaceBook or iTunes. Is it good for some? Sure. Is it good for most? I personally do not think so. And this is the opinion of a teacher with both online and traditional school experience.

Ex-Online Teacher

March 21st, 2012
3:29 pm

Oops, I meant to say ‘@ Ron F.’ to continue our dialogue above.

Stop Stealing Dreams

March 21st, 2012
3:54 pm

Folks, I don’t think you understand what disruptive innovation is. You keep saying comments like “you’ve never taught so how can you know?” Read the book “Outliers.” My opinion should be respected just as much as any of you. And it’s not “I.” I share the views of many, many, many other well known education reformers, many of whom HAVE taught in schools.

I truly understand your predicament. I came from the public school system. And it’s got to change. I made it through a broken system, and teachers have not been given the tools and autonomy to teach students using media that are in every aspect of their daily lives. I am SICK of seeing my kids carry around 50 lbs of textbooks! You are all afraid to acknowledge the limitations of what you dealing with. You think that I am ridiculing teachers. You are 100% wrong.

You think that online learning is going to replace everything else. Watch my two minute video, “A Vision for 21st Century Learning.” Teachers need to become mentors, then students can be empowered, and ultimately, learn. Online learning is only one component of the complete learning environment. But for all of you to immediately assume this will replace teachers, it’s all about costs and the for-profit education companies – you are all silly and foolish.

And let me remind all of you – it IS a for-profit business – lots of profit. The 3 major textbook publishers generate 85% of the market share, or over $3 billion, from the K-12 core textbook market. So stop the hypocrisy, people!

We are not saying we have all the answers, but you all need to realize that we are failing our children, because most of the students we are graduated are ILL-PREPARED for the real world. I have spoken with countless college professors who talk about how much of a distraction it is that they have to teach remedial subject matter to their students. What a waste of tuition dollars!

Not all online learning approaches will work, but there are PLENTY of case studies showing successful implementations. And now, Georgia just has to successfully implement these “best practices.”

But continue to be skeptical, people. That is your democratic right, and as a parent, I can tell you that there is no “one size fits all” approach here.

But it is truly insulting that you would berate me because I have not taught in a classroom. I have done more interactions with K-12 and higher ed than all of you know. So do not disrespect me for my credentials, just as I would not disrespect you for yours.

It is ok to fear change, but change IS coming to Georgia’s education system! And our children will be happy it did!

[...] Online learning: Before we rush down that path, make sure we know where we are … School computer systems they could not operate. Stuff was in boxes. Nothing connected. Lack of expertise of the staff, trusted systems vendors to forget that their first loyalty was compared with profit margins. Now Georgia is in danger of wasting millions … Read more on Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) [...]


March 21st, 2012
4:35 pm

I took some online classes to renew my certificate. I personally did not care for the medium. I like being in class. I like interaction with others. Nothing like that online. One class there was none. The other was mandated posts but no one seemed to respond to one another at all. One teacher actually communicated with me very well. The other sent nada. Both of these were entry level courses I took for fun. I cannot imagine doing anything more that that with an online vehicle. It would be so easy to cheat or let someone else do your work. PLEASE! The basic benefit of these classes is low cost and convenience. The folks who teach them are probably paid low dollars and will deliver exactly what we pay for which isn’t much. No one is going to gain any social skills or interact in any sort of a meaningful way in these classes. I thought it was sort of interesting but I will never take another one. Required for everyone. Please no.

Stop Stealing Dreams

March 21st, 2012
4:47 pm

Let me jumpstart the research project. Here are a few sources for valid research demonstrating that online learning CAN work, if implemented properly: – there are TONS of research studies on this link – see report titled “The Rise of Blended Learning”

This should get you more than started. I and many others in the education reform movement will share lots of juicy studies that you can all comb through and try and poke holes in : )


March 21st, 2012
4:59 pm

As my earlier posts suggest I disagree with StopStealingDreams but his/her comments are thoughtful and reflective of someone who has more than a passing interest in the subject of online education.

AlthoughI’m a skeptic I think online education will ultimately be a part of where we’re going on this.

That said my biggest concern is that budget-cutting politicians use this as an excuse to cut education budgets. Once cut, budgets won’t quickly return if we turn out to be wrong as we have in the past. No Child Left Behind has been a fiasco perpetrated by George Bush who would, and did, say anything to be president. Here in Georgia we have barely literate state legislators making decisions when they don’t really believe in the value of education.

You can’t trust a budget-cutter any farther than you can throw him/her.They’ll believe any private sector “magical” thinking about the value of technology if it will allow them to run on “no new taxes.” Educators need to directly address the problem of ill-informed political pandering and wrong-headed political ideology which has made a difficult problem so much worse.

Let's check in and see what the 1% are doing with online learning

March 21st, 2012
5:07 pm

Hm…seems to be….nothing at all.

“The American elite, to be sure, does not subject its own offspring to this kind of digital treatment. New York City’s most exclusive private schools, the ones with an acceptance rate lower than Ivy League colleges, do things the old fashioned way. Brearley School, sometimes considered the best of the private schools for girls, requires every student to learn an instrument and play in the orchestra. The Dalton School teaches chess to every student. Acoustic instruments, classical music, and ancient games with wooden pieces teach concentration span.

In Silicon Valley, Times reporter Matt Richtel observed in an October 22 feature, many of the Silicon Valley types who make weapons of mass dementia send their own kids to a school that bans computers until the 9th grade:

The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard. But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home. Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy, where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix. [5]

That is the local Waldorf school, part of an education movement founded by the German mathematician and mystic Rudolf Steiner. Some of Steiner’s ideas were strange, but his educational method – learning by doing – is robust. At the New York Steiner School my children attended, for example, 8th-graders learned the Renaissance by making copies of 16th-century scientific instruments, singing four-part Renaissance vocal works, and staging a play about the 17th-century physicist Johannes Kepler. The 9th-graders studied Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” by staging the complete play, rotating the cast so that every child memorized a couple of hundred lines. Waldorf schools require parents to promise to forbid television to their children in any form through elementary school.

‘At a showcase classroom in Arizona’s most wired school district, Matt Richtel reported,
A seventh-grade English teacher roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s As You Like It – but not in any traditional way. In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius. [6]‘


Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Shakespeare meant by “as you like it.” Web access in this case is simply a pretext to help seventh-graders to reduce Shakespeare to their own level, rather than allow Shakespeare to lift children up to his.

Stop Stealing Dreams

March 21st, 2012
5:17 pm

Like I said, it’s BLENDED LEARNING. Online learning is a component, not the be all, end all savior for our education woes.

Feel free to keep debating this trend, but to be 100% against using digital learning in classrooms is just plain stupid, period.

Stop Stealing Dreams

March 21st, 2012
5:25 pm

MM, thank you for your kind words. Like you, I respect intellectual debate and civil discourse. That’s what made our nation the greatest democracy in the world.

What we have here is a systemic problem. We have an inefficient system. You CAN take cost out of the system and NOT have it affect student programming. If you look at many, many, urban school systems in the United States, some of them, like Newark, NJ, for example, spend over $20K per pupil, yet get far worse graduation rates and student achievement than many parts of Georgia.

The problem is not how much money goes into schools, it’s how the money is spent. There are several studies that demonstrate how incorporating various aspects of technology into K-12 can result in lower costs, yet greater student outcomes. This includes investment in learning management systems, student assessments, and other online learning tools.

MM – I too believe the problem lies mainly in the public policy failure of NCLB. I know you might think I’m a “republican” (is that bad?) for saying this, but we need to run our education system more efficiently. There is too much redundancy in the “system.”

The problem is that it will ultimately come down to a Jeffersonian-Hamiltonian debate how state control, local control and federal control/mandate. I fear that our education system can never run as efficiently as a business should be run. But unfortunately, education has far too much regulatory and political power to allow true innovation to occur.

The bottom line is that we built a system for a different environment – one that required mass-standardization after the Industrial Revolution and resulted in compulsory education. We need to change our system, and learning methods, and change is hard, anyway you slice it.

MM – thank you again for your comments. We can “agree to disagree.” : )

Tonya C.

March 21st, 2012
5:35 pm

Stop Stealing Dreams:

There is a larger issue at play, the infrastructure to support all this technology. Many schools are woefully sad in their wired and wireless networks. Gwinnett County Schools were supposed to go to e-readers but they seem to have rebuffed that plan as of late. And APS…they can’t even keep their e-mail systems going.

Atlanta Mom

March 21st, 2012
5:36 pm

@ Stop
“Watch my two minute video, “A Vision for 21st Century Learning.”
I did watch it. You are in the business of online education. You are hawking your wares.

Ron F.

March 21st, 2012
5:40 pm

Ex-online: ultimately, like so many “changes” in education right now, we’ll find out this is about somebody in the legislature being related to, or friends with, somebody in the business. I’m so, so glad the original language of the bill didn’t pass. We can “encourage” kids and many will likely try it. But the old saying about leading a horse to water comes to mind. I guess we could “update” that to say, You can encourage a horse to go to water… ;-)

As a parent of an Honors/AP kid who does well with independent work, I would love for him to try it and get ahead on some credits. He wants to do dual enrollment, but I don’t know if he’s ready for being totally on his own in college classes. We’ll see how this plays out, but I could see it working for kids like my own.

Stop Stealing Dreams

March 21st, 2012
5:40 pm

Atlanta Mom. I am NOT in the business of online education. I used to be. But this video was not done for ANY financial gain whatsoever. So you are incorrect in your deduction.

And Tonya C – you are correct. That is the problem with online learning – in certain areas only. That is what I said earlier – you can’t cram technology into schools, but investment in infrastructure is coming, and this barrier will ultimately be fixed.

Stop Stealing Dreams

March 21st, 2012
5:41 pm

To all of @Maureen’s readers. I made a video a few years ago. It was NOT for any commercial exploitation or self promotion. It was SOLELY to spread ideas. So THAT is my full disclosure.

Ron F.

March 21st, 2012
5:42 pm

Tonya: you are so right. My school isn’t wireless yet, although it’s in the budget for next year. It’s an expensive undertaking in a building that wasn’t built that way to start with.

Maureen Downey

March 21st, 2012
5:45 pm

@Stop, If you look at what the for-profit companies are doing, they are not doing what the experts would define as blended. Far from it. The models that are getting results are often districts and state-instituted programs that do, in fact, blend classroom teaching — true teaching and not “facilitating” — with some online elements.
However, that is not a workable model for the profit sector as student-teacher ratios in blended models have to be lower.

Atlanta Mom

March 21st, 2012
5:48 pm

Ron F
Dual enrollment is the best. And if you’re worried about him not being ready to do college classes on his own, well you’re right there to encourage him. My child came home after the first day and said : My teacher doesn’t care if I do my homework. What she meant was, no portion of her grade was dependent upon her doing her calculus homework. It was a great experience for her. And because she was living at home, I think she was a little less likely to blow off her homework

Tonya C.

March 21st, 2012
5:51 pm

I’ll believe the update is coming when I see it. Add to that the addtional manpower needed to maintain the infrastructure…I don’t know. My son has Aspergers so he does well with this format, but I know he is in the minority. i support technology when used correctly and efficiently, but there are a LOT of barriers to overcome the digital divide.

Ron F.
That is what I thought GCPS would be doing with the online school it has. Especially during the summer. But no go. :(

Stop Stealing Dreams

March 21st, 2012
5:52 pm

What for-profit companies are you talking about? K12?

Like I said, I am not saying I believe in distance learning, but schools can use an online learning component to their traditional curriculum, and additionally, they could offer online courses particularly in subjects where they might not have the best teaching experts in-house. I recall a few years ago that there may be less than 50 qualified physics teachers in the entire state of Georgia!

@Maureen, I would take a hard look at “The Rise of Blending Learning,” a case study report conducted by the Innosight Institute. I am not convinced that your assertion that student-teacher ratios need to be lower is accurate.

So to your observation, I am not saying that I support for-profit schools, but I support for-profit digital learning content providers. There are no absolutes. Just take a look at Michelle Rhee’s comments about private school vouchers. Don’t take this as me supporting Ms. Rhee (I don’t). However, I was basically against any type of taxpayer dollars going to private schools, but then she raised some points today in an interview that made me at least consider the fact that there MIGHT be a situation where it would be ok. But that is by far the exception, not the rule.


March 21st, 2012
5:59 pm

@ Stop Stealing Dreams, 2:24 pm: “I look forward to inundating this blog with extensive research studies that show that online learning is here to stay. ”

You may inundate it, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll get posted.

@ Maureeen. Forewarned is forearmed.

Maureen Downey

March 21st, 2012
6:04 pm

@Stop, Not sure if you are following the NYT investigation into online learning, but here is its take on K12, which operates here in Georgia:

(This is only an excerpt. Read the entire piece here: )

By almost every educational measure, the Agora Cyber Charter School is failing. Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll. By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers.

Agora is one of the largest in a portfolio of similar public schools across the country run by K12. Eight other for-profit companies also run online public elementary and high schools, enrolling a large chunk of the more than 200,000 full-time cyberpupils in the United States. The pupils work from their homes, in some cases hundreds of miles from their teachers. There is no cafeteria, no gym and no playground. Teachers communicate with students by phone or in simulated classrooms on the Web. But while the notion of an online school evokes cutting-edge methods, much of the work is completed the old-fashioned way, with a pencil and paper while seated at a desk.

Kids mean money. Agora is expecting income of $72 million this school year, accounting for more than 10 percent of the total anticipated revenues of K12, the biggest player in the online-school business. The second-largest, Connections Education, with revenues estimated at $190 million, was bought this year by the education and publishing giant Pearson for $400 million.

The business taps into a formidable coalition of private groups and officials promoting nontraditional forms of public education. The growth of for-profit online schools, one of the more overtly commercial segments of the school choice movement, is rooted in the theory that corporate efficiencies combined with the Internet can revolutionize public education, offering high quality at reduced cost.

The New York Times has spent several months examining this idea, focusing on K12 Inc. A look at the company’s operations, based on interviews and a review of school finances and performance records, raises serious questions about whether K12 schools — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed.

Instead, a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards. Current and former staff members of K12 Inc. schools say problems begin with intense recruitment efforts that fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students. Online schools typically are characterized by high rates of withdrawal.

Teachers have had to take on more and more students, relaxing rigor and achievement along the way, according to interviews. While teachers do not have the burden of a full day of classes, they field questions from families, monitor students’ progress and review and grade schoolwork. Complaints about low pay and high class loads — with some high school teachers managing more than 250 students — have prompted a unionization battle at Agora, which has offices in Wayne, Pa.

A look at a forthcoming study by researchers at Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center shows that only a third of K12’s schools achieved adequate yearly progress, the measurement mandated by federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

Some teachers at K12 schools said they felt pressured to pass students who did little work. Teachers have also questioned why some students who did no class work were allowed to remain on school rosters, potentially allowing the company to continue receiving public money for them. State auditors found that the K12-run Colorado Virtual Academy counted about 120 students for state reimbursement whose enrollment could not be verified or who did not meet Colorado residency requirements. Some had never logged in.

“What we’re talking about here is the financialization of public education,” said Alex Molnar, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education who is affiliated with the education policy center. “These folks are fundamentally trying to do to public education what the banks did with home mortgages.”

The online companies can tailor their programs by reducing curriculum and teachers. During a presentation at the Virginia legislature this year, a representative of Connections explained that its services were available at three price points per student:

Option A: $7,500, a student-teacher ratio of 35-40 to 1, and an average teacher salary of $45,000.

Option B: $6,500, a student-teacher ratio of 50 to 1, with less experienced teachers paid $40,000.

Option C: $4,800 and a student-teacher ratio of 60 to 1, as well as a narrower curriculum.

Despite lower operating costs, the online companies collect nearly as much taxpayer money in some states as brick-and-mortar charter schools. In Pennsylvania, about 30,000 students are enrolled in online schools at an average cost of about $10,000 per student. The state auditor general, Jack Wagner, said that is double or more what it costs the companies to educate those children online.

“It’s extremely unfair for the taxpayer to be paying for additional expenses, such as advertising,” Mr. Wagner said. Much of the public money also goes toward lobbying state officials, an activity that Ronald J. Packard, chief executive of K12, has called a “core competency” of the company.

In all, for-profit educational management companies run 79 online schools around the country, according to the study by researchers at Western Michigan University.