"Information cannot replace education." ....Earl Kiole.

Commentary of the Day - August 1, 2012: The Brave New World of K-12 Virtual Education.  Guest commentary by Mary X. Smith*.

For four years now I've taught part-time for a "free, public, online, virtual public charter school" with a curriculum provided by a well-known national company which you may have seen advertised on TV.  I teach an elective, Fine Arts, at the high school level.

Its an interesting setup.  Since the school is virtual, we teachers live all over the state, as do our students.  We teachers come together every few months for professional development, which at first addressed the nuts-and-bolts of mastering a fairly complex interface, including the software for live sessions (now called Blackboard Collaborate).  I confess that, techie though I am, it took me at least a year to learn to operate the whole system smoothly and cheerfully (##!!@#!).  Nowadays, the professional development meetings mostly consist of brainstorming to solve the real and ongoing problems of virtual education, particularly at the secondary level.

What kinds of students attend this virtual school, which in practice is just a computer-provisioned type of home school?

There are many, many students enrolled at the elementary level, and from what I can tell from the "field-trip" activities I've attended (compulsorily, since every teacher must attend a prescribed amount of marketing activities known as "field trips"), these are the children of gung-ho parents of the home-school ilk, full of dreams and ideals for their young ones.  To be fair, the curriculum for the younger students includes more hands-on work off the computer, but as the kids grow older, more and more of the work happens online, until at the secondary level, it's mostly computer work.  It's really a delight to be around these youngsters and their dream parents (at least from a teacher's point of view, since the parents are totally engaged in their children’s education).

At the secondary level, things are a little different.  I would categorize these virtual students thus:

Children of gung-ho parents, as above.  These are the students we'd love have in our brick-and-mortar classrooms (where I also teach full-time).  These kids are the go-getters, the voracious readers, those turned-on kids who want to know and do everything as soon and as much as possible.  There are not that many of these types of kids enrolled in our school, alas.

Students who have gone through some trauma or insult or difficulty at school, real or imagined.  These are often the children of me-generation parents who cannot imagine that their youngsters could have been subjected to such injustices.  Sometimes the suffering is real, but often, the students might have brought on some of the problem themselves.  We teachers all know these types of kids and we’ve probably sweated through screaming sessions with these types of parents.

Kids who are so handicapped in some way, emotionally, physically, socially, that they really cannot thrive in a public school.  I didn't realize the ubiquity of this population until a recent field trip to the state capitol.  There I met, face to face, for the first time, some of the students I've been emailing and talking to on the phone, students whose work I've been grading (excellent, decent, and plain mediocre) all year.  Some of them couldn't bring themselves to shake my hand or look in my eyes -- because of their disabilities.  Many of them were so out of the mainstream, behaviorally, socially, appearance-wise, that I could readily see that they'd be eaten alive in public schools.

Students who have used up all their school options through unruly and illegal behavior, who must enroll online as a school of last resort.

Not surprisingly, only the first category of student does really well in online education, and I believe that there are some inherent flaws in the system which make this true.  Please understand that I am not criticizing this particular curriculum company, which I think does as well as is conceptually possible in providing a decent education online.  Instead, I think these are flaws in the whole idea of virtual education.

An important anecdotal side note: in one of our very first professional-development meetings, a top administrator, now moved on to greener pastures, called out over the microphone, "How many of you believe that this is the best education in the world?! The education of the future!?"  Only a smattering of the teachers held up their hands, and some of those, rather tentatively.  I did not raise my hand, because I really don't believe it.  The poor administrator had to rah-rah cheer-lead us into somehow aligning ourselves with his belief.

It seems that many legislators believe that it's true that online learning is the new panacea for education.  Our state, along with many others, has adopted a law which permits secondary students to opt for virtual courses in place of a maximum of two of their brick-and-mortar classes.  The work can be done at home or in the school (in the computer lab or in the library).

Who pays for these courses?  The funding comes straight out of per-pupil spending; in other words, straight out of the schools.  Of course, the last thing that financially strapped schools want is to lose this funding, especially since students often flounder when left unguided to do online work.

And this leads us to the main problems of online instruction.  These problems are ubiquitous, certainly not peculiar to any online provider.

Online instruction, once you boil it down pedagogically, is simply a high-graphics, high-tech variation of the old read-the-text, answer-the-questions, take-the test model -- with a few activities thrown in.

Going over the material and taking the tests does not ensure mastery.

Students (and their parents) must be strongly committed to doing the coursework at home, every day, all year long (and most do not).

A parent must remain at home all day, every day, to take care of the students [ed.: at least at the elementary school level], a problem in the real world of two working parents in many homes, or the escalating world of single- parent homes.

Plagiarism and cheating are far easier in independent, online settings.

Online education, in large part, buys into the notion that commercial answers to education will outdo traditional public education.  An idea which has yet to be proven true.

What do I like least about teaching online?  I don't even know what my students look like, unless both of us happen to attend a field trip.  Worse, I very much dislike the requirement to make a certain number of calls each week, which end up with me struggling to encourage, horsewhip, cajole, and tempt my students to get online and get their work done.  Of course, this doesn't mean all the students.  Indeed, we teachers all know the chronic offenders, and just as in a traditional classroom, they take up the lion's share of this type of attention.

Is online school the future of education?  I doubt it and I hope not, and this is because the method throws into question the whole notion of what a good education really is.  If indeed it is reading the chapter, answering the questions, taking the tests, and doing an occasional project, then online schooling is nirvana.  But we educators believe that a stellar education goes far beyond that, into the process of transformation -- another subject for another day.

© 2012, Mary X. Smith*.
*Mary X. Smith is the pseudonym of a public high school teacher who works in rural Utah.  Comments addressed to the editor will be forwarded to her.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP finds Ms. Smith's experience with online K-12 education quite enlightening.  It indeed is a brave new world, and it's not clear that it is a better world for K-12 students.  Though for some students such as described by Ms. Smith, it may be the best option.

Irascible Professor invites your  .

© 2012 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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