Considering Online K-12 Courses? Some Things to Keep in Mind

This past weekend, The Wall Street Journal ran a story covering the rapid growth of online K-12 education. “My Teacher is an App,” by Stephanie Banchero and Stephanie Simon, discusses the rise of online and hybrid classrooms providing a fairly balanced account of successes and disappointments. Here are some of the key points:

  • “In just the past few months, Virginia has authorized 13 new online schools. Florida began requiring all public-high-school students to take at least one class online, partly to prepare them for college cybercourses. Idaho soon will require two. In Georgia, a new app lets high-school students take full course loads on their iPhones and BlackBerrys. Thirty states now let students take all of their courses online.”
  • “Nationwide, an estimated 250,000 students are enrolled in full-time virtual schools, up 40% in the last three years, according to Evergreen Education Group, a consulting firm that works with online schools. More than two million pupils take at least one class online, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a trade group.”
  • “Although some states and local districts run their own online schools, many hire for-profit corporations such as K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Academy in Baltimore, a unit of education services and technology company Pearson PLC.”
  • “A few states, however, have found that students enrolled full-time in virtual schools score significantly lower on standardized tests, and make less academic progress from year to year, than their peers.”
  • “At Southwest Learning Centers, a small chain of charter schools in Albuquerque, N.M., standardized test scores routinely outpace state and local averages, according to data provided by the schools. Students complete most lessons online but come into class for teacher support and hands-on challenges, such as collaborating to design and build a weight-bearing bridge.”
  • “The growth of cybereducation is likely to affect school staffing, which accounts for about 80% of school budgets. A teacher in a traditional high school might handle 150 students. An online teacher can supervise more than 250, since he or she doesn’t have to write lesson plans and most grading is done by computer.
Mill. Factory. Sweat shop. I’m sorry, I think I may have just editorialized. Hardly a sweat shop I know, but it strikes me that most of what makes teaching worthwhile gets lost in an online model that reduces the teacher to some combination of a manager, customer experience expert, and help desk attendant.
  • “In Idaho, Alan Dunn, superintendent of the Sugar-Salem School District, says that he may cut entire departments and outsource their courses to online providers. “It’s not ideal,” he says. “But Idaho is in a budget crisis, and this is a creative solution.”

Other states see potential savings as well. In Georgia, state and local taxpayers spend $7,650 a year to educate the average student in a traditional public school. They spend nearly 60% less—$3,200 a year—to educate a student in the statewide online Georgia Cyber Academy, saving state and local tax dollars. Florida saves $1,500 a year on every student enrolled online full time.”

“Two companies, K12 and Connections Academy, dominate the market for running public cyberschools. Full-time enrollment in online schools using the K12 curriculum has doubled in the past four years, to 81,000, the company says. K12’s revenue grew 35% to $522 million in its fiscal year ended June 30, when it reported net income of $13 million.”

Beware the profit motive. I’m no opponent of the free market properly understood, but limited experience with for-profit schools (which do not include all private schools) suggests to me that the quality of education often gets undermined by the dynamics of the market. (And that was putting it kindly.) It may be especially problematic when for-profit schools tap into government money.

  • “In the end, virtual schooling “comes down to what you make of it,” says Rosie Lowndes, a social-studies teacher at Georgia Cyber Academy. Kids who work closely with parents or teachers do well, she says. “But basically letting a child educate himself, that’s not going to be a good educational experience.” The computer, she says, can’t do it alone.”

True, but “what you can make of it” is already limited by the constraints of the medium.

To sum up: Enrollment in online courses is increasing rapidly. School districts are saving money. Some private companies are turning an impressive profit. Online teachers help students navigate ready made modules and supervise more students than their in classroom peers. Results are mixed. Hybrid appears to work better than all online. Parent involvement remains important.

For a more detailed and impassioned breakdown of the article see Will Richardson’s post here.

Things to consider: Students vary as do their needs and the circumstances under which they flourish. It is as misleading to argue that online learning is the cure for all the ills plaguing K-12 education as it would be to suggest that it is never, under any circumstances a viable option. I’ve been mostly critical of the online learning experience. This criticism is informed by my experience as a student in numerous online courses and my experiences as a classroom teacher. (You can read my mostly critical comments in this series of posts.) But it is increasingly likely that students will encounter at least one online course during their high school or college career.

When deciding whether or not to enroll students in online courses, here are some things to take into consideration:

  • What is the respective quality of available educational options? In my estimation, the ideal face-to-face classroom beats the ideal online experience, all other factors being equal. But very often the ideal face-to-face classroom is far from the reality on offer at local schools. Know your school and the faculty’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • What courses work well online and which do not? A math course which already tends to be designed in progressive modular fashion will translate into an online environment more effectively than a literature class in which, ideally, lively discussion characterizes the face-to-face dynamic. Science classes that are heavy in hands-on experimentation may also loses something significant in translation. Students may also find that both subjects that are difficult for them and subjects that they are very interested in are better taken face-to-face in the presence of expert teachers.
  • What is the motivation for taking online courses? Online courses may allow students who are unable to attend traditional schools due to health issues to keep up with their education and this is certainly a good reason to consider online learning. Additionally, motivated students may desire to learn about a subject that is not offered at traditional schools. Again, sound motivation. Some students, on the other hand, may believe that online coursework is easier and that it will afford them maximal freedom and down time at home. This may not be the best motivation especially since studies have suggested that students who do best in online coursework are highly motivated, diligent, and well organized.
  • What are the student’s strengths and weaknesses? Since students that tend to do well in online environments tend to be those who are intrinsically motivated and well-organized, it is important to honestly consider whether a student has already demonstrated these qualities in traditional settings since it is not likely that those qualities will spontaneously emerge in a less structured setting.
  • Finally, remember that face-to-face interactions regarding the subject matter will always augment the online experience. Ask your student questions about the courses they are taking online. Granted most teenagers may not be very forthcoming; but, if they are willing, a dinner table conversation about what they are learning online could go a long way toward making a less than idea learning situation more valuable.

4 thoughts on “Considering Online K-12 Courses? Some Things to Keep in Mind

  1. You’re right in that there definitely is a difference between what kinds of classes are more suited to be online. The humanities and some social sciences are better when taught with an engaging group and a professor to explain his perspective on pieces of writing and literature. The sciences tells a different story though. There was a study amongst medical school students that showed that students who skipped class and studied on their own via webcast and online notes did just as well as students who went to class. I can also speak from my own personal experience- I think I can honestly say I would not have learned any more than if I actually attended all of my math/science classes, especially if the professor was droning and repeated everything off the powerpoint slide. Even in large undergraduate universities that do not have online courses, there is a great proportion of students who skip class and have no qualms about it. In my opinion it really comes down to a student’s hard work and motivation.

    1. Right, the type of class makes a difference. I didn’t study medicine, so this is just speculation, but I wonder if within the field there are some courses better suited to online learning and others that really need the professor’s presence. I certainly imagine that one can’t really become expert in diagnosis, for example, without face-to-face experience with professors/doctors and patients. But you also make another good point that I tried to get at in the first question. Quality of face-to-face varies too. I once heard someone say that if you are the type of teacher that can be replaced by a computer, then you probably deserve to be. So the prof that puts his lecture on PPT and then reads the slides off during class is not adding any value to the face-to-face experience; it’s the worst possible use of technology in the classroom. Unfortunately, something like that scenario seems not to be all that rare. In such cases, the student is more or less thrown on their own resources.

      The motivation factor is important as well and here is where online learning, in my experience, tends to be intrinsically deficient. If you’re not already very motivated and organized, online classes are not going to help. But in a face-to-face class it is at least possible that a very good teacher might be able to inspire and motivate.

      Thanks for the comment!

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