Celebrate Educational Diversity
The Washington Post recently carried an article by Reason magazine senior editor Katherine Mangu-Ward on the benefits of online education and its even greater potential. It is worth quoting at some length:
Since the Internet hit the big time in the mid-1990s, Amazon and eBay have changed the way we shop, Google has revolutionized the way we find information, Facebook has superseded other ways to keep track of friends and iTunes has altered how we consume music. But kids remain stuck in analog schools. Part of the reason online education hasn’t taken off is that powerful forces such as teachers unions — which prefer to keep students in traditional classrooms under the supervision of their members — are aligned against it.
So children continue to learn from blackboards and books — the kind made of dead trees! no hyperlinks! — rather than getting lessons the way they consume virtually all other information: online. Putting reading materials and lecture notes on the Internet, like many teachers do today, is just the first step; it’s like when, in the early days of movies, filmmakers pointed a camera at a stage play. Kids are still stuck watching those old-style movies, when they could be enjoying the learning equivalent of “Avatar” in 3-D. Thousands of ninth-grade English teachers are cobbling together yet another lecture on the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare’s day, when YouTube is overflowing with accessible, multimedia presentations from experts on Elizabethan theater construction, not to mention a very nice illustrated series on the Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge site. […]
How do we know online education will work? Well, for one thing, it already does. Full-time virtual charter schools are operating in dozens of states. The Florida Virtual School, which offers for-credit online classes to any child enrolled in the state system, has 100,000 students. Teachers are available by phone or e-mail from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. The state cuts a funding check to the school only when students demonstrate that they have mastered the material, whether it takes them two months or two years. The program is one of the largest in the country. Kids who enroll in Advanced Placement courses — 39 percent of whom are minority students — score an average of 3.05 out of 5, compared with a state average of 2.49 for public school students…
Moving lesson planning and delivery online can provide students with more supervision, not less, says Michael Horn, one of the co-authors of “Disrupting Class.” It would free teachers, Horn says, “to do hand-holding and mentoring, something which is pretty much impossible in the current model.” After all, where is it written that the babysitter, disciplinarian, lecturer and evaluator must all be the same person? Or even that they all have to be in the same building?
Some online learning models eliminate human interaction, but the vast majority do not. Instead, they connect students and teachers via polls, video, chat, text and good old-fashioned phone calls. The Virtual Virginia program focuses on offering Advanced Placement classes to every student in the state, bringing college-level courses to rural districts and inner-city Richmond, where high-level instruction is difficult to get. Rocketship Education, in San Jose, Calif., brings at-risk elementary students together in a safe, cheap, modular space along with a small staff and hands their studies over to online curriculum for part of each day.
Online education has already become a boon for kids with special needs, the students least served by the traditional system. Education entrepreneur Tom Vander Ark launched Internet Academy, the first online K-12 establishment, in 1995 in part to serve kids with unorthodox education requirements, from serious athletes to children with health problems or learning disabilities.
One of the most successful areas of online education so far is helping kids who have fallen off the educational grid. Companies such as AdvancePath Academics scoop up students classified as unrecoverable by traditional schools and help them complete their education. Some dropout-recovery programs can be found in shopping malls and gyms.
Online education is no silver bullet for Missouri’s educational problems because there is no such thing. Each student is different, and although the traditional models may work well for most (a point I think is debatable), others may experience far more success in a more structured online program that still allows students to move at their own pace. Others could benefit from more independent learning styles like Montessori schools. All these options have their places, and we will be most successful when we allow parents and students find the pedagogical methods that work best for them instead of trying to force hundreds of thousands of individuals into the same boxes.
Sarah Brodsky has written about online schooling several times, and Caitlin Hartsell has also blogged about the issue.