A teenage neighbor told me that he intended to be among the first in line for the new iPad that made its debut a few weeks ago. Since he already owned an iPad, I asked if the new model offered some innovation that he needed.
“I don’t know,” he told me, “but I know it’s better than what I’ve got.”
That seems to be the attitude of policymakers toward online learning, including some in the Georgia Legislature, which approved a new law pushing cyber high school courses:
Senate Bill 289 states: The State Board of Education shall establish rules and regulations to maximize the number of students, beginning with students entering ninth grade in the 2014-2015 school year, who complete prior to graduation at least one course containing online learning….A local school system shall not prohibit any student from taking a course through the Georgia Virtual School, regardless of whether the school in which the student is enrolled offers the same course.
Cybereducation is shiny and new. It’s market-driven and it represents the future.
But is it effective?
“There’s very little empirical research out there,” said Michael K. Barbour, a University of Georgia doctoral graduate who researches virtual learning at Wayne State University.
The positive research that has been done looked at adults or the earliest generation of virtual learners: bright, self-directed teens who went online to take tough courses their brick-and-mortar schools didn’t offer.
“Those students are equipped to do well in any learning environment,” Barbour said. “The second we put other kinds of students in that environment, they don’t do as well.”
Yet, all 50 states are expanding virtual options in k-12 education, and many, including Georgia, offer full-time online programs. With that expansion has come the arrival of private online providers, eager to enter the $600 billion k-12 market, typically as virtual charter schools.
A study by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado found that more than 30 percent of high school students took at least one online class. The study noted that virtual schools are the fastest-growing alternative to traditional schools, enrolling 200,000 full-time students.
But the study found little oversight or accountability. “Few rules, little supervision, many students and families who struggle, and an unacceptably large number of enrollees who won’t make it through to the end,” said report co-author Gene V. Glass, who urges financial audits of cyberschools to determine their actual per-student expenses, authentication of student work and accreditation of both part-time and full-time cyberschools.
Minnesota, which has tripled its full-time virtual high school enrollment, found that online students scored lower in state testing and dropped out of school at higher rates; a quarter of online seniors dropped out, compared to only 3 percent of their peers.
A study of Colorado’s full-time cyberstudents noted similar performance lags. Once in the virtual school, students scored lower on state reading exams, with scores declining the longer they were in the program.
An analysis by the I-News Network and Education News Colorado found that Colorado’s virtual high schools produced three times more dropouts than graduates, which was the exact reverse of the state average, in which there were three graduates for every dropout.
The online providers counter that the lower performance reflects the nature of their students, teens who struggled in traditional classrooms and came to them already behind. (However, that was not the case in Colorado where the students enrolling in online course were, on average, not trailing their peers in traditional classrooms.)
But these are the very students least served in the prevailing for-profit format of online education.
While the selling point in state capitols is that virtual education individualizes learning, Barbour said it’s actually the opposite. “Much of the for-profit programs are one-size-fits-all. There is a single database that all instruction and assessment are being drawn from,” he said. “Some students might have to do more or do less, but the actual method of learning and instruction is the same for all students.”
Barbour said some school districts have created their own focused online programs that work for struggling students by blending classroom teaching and technology-assisted learning. Such intense programs cost more to maintain than other online programs, so they are generally not part of the for-profit blueprint.
In some full-time virtual schools, teachers act as tutors and graders and provide little customized teaching, Barbour said. They don’t have much choice, given that some online teachers complain they’re expected to manage 250 high school students.
“At-risk students who are struggling in traditional environments,” he said, “are still going to require a lot of that one-on-one instruction in online programs.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog