Online Schools? We Need to Look Before We Leap

By James Alexander, Ph.D.

Technology offers great promise for both teachers and students.  Still the question remains:  Is there sufficient evidence to justify the wholesale adoption of technology in the delivery of instruction?  Is that the best way to address student achievement?  That question needs to guide the implementation of technology as it relates to effective pedagogy.

James Alexander, Ph.D.

In the 2012 Brown Center Report, How Well Are American Students Learning?, the effectiveness of standards (such as the Common Core State Standards) in improving student achievement is addressed.  In looking at the effectiveness of standards historically, the Report finds little in the way of success.  Further, the Report questions whether new standards, in particular the Common Core, will be an improvement on the earlier standards.  The creation and implementation of standards has been an always growing, never ceasing endeavor.  Yet, the Report  seems to suggest that another approach is necessary.   Standards are not succeeding.

Of course, the failure of ever newly minted and revamped standards to improve achievement has lead to many adjustments in pedagogical approaches.  Further, it has lead to higher levels of accountability for teachers as well as students.  One approach has been the inauguration of various “value-added” schemes to hold teachers’ “feet to the fire” in ensuring that students achieve.  (For a discussion of value-added assessment, see Alexander 2008.)  Clearly, the approach taken to correcting the problem of low student achievement has centered on creating standards and enforcing the implementation of those standards.

Still, after years of school reform efforts and tightening the noose of accountability around the necks of teachers and students, it is clear that  something different is needed.  (Of course, the real problem might not be a lack of standards or accountability.  It might be more basic than that.)  In scrambling to find approaches that will enhance student learning, a fairly recent option has been rapidly gaining ground.  This option may take many forms, but usually it goes by the moniker of online or virtual instruction.

Certainly, school districts cannot ignore the impact that technology has made in society.  Technology, once the realm of so called “computer geeks,” has become accessible  to the non-expert consumer.  This can be plainly seen by the prevalence of laptops, smart phones, and tablets that seem to be ubiquitous.  Further, it appears that the price of electronic devices such as personal computers tends toward greater affordability every day.  This may prove to be a real bonanza for cash strapped school districts since the very real possibility of eliminating hard copy “anything” has the potential to help reign in the cost of instructional materials.  Many school districts now provide a computer, of some form or other, to all students—at least for middle school and high school.

Even when students are not assigned a computer of their own, schools make increasing use of technology.  Although it would behoove schools to take a critical look at how technology is being used, it is not soon to go away.  Years ago, cognitive psychologist Jane Healy (1991) urged caution in how children use technology.  Even Bitter (2008), in a standard educational technology textbook, widely used by colleges in training teachers, admits that teaching with a large component of technology cannot be conclusively declared as superior to more traditional  approaches.  Nichols Carr (2011) addresses the question of whether the Internet actually impacts the thinking and learning of users in a negative way.  Indeed there are some cautionary tales.

However, realistically, schooling must include  hefty doses of computers and technology.  The goal of helping to create competent citizens is at the heart of the educational endeavor in general.  It seems impossible and misguided to exclude technology from schools.  The world in which we find ourselves is a world largely shaped by technology.  It isn’t going away.  When one gets down to “brass tacks,” I think it must be conceded that we are, ultimately better off with the electronic creation of and access to knowledge.  Schools need to make sure that they address digital age competencies that have come to impact virtually everything in one way or another.

Still, when a few factors are combined—the standards movement and the search for greater student achievement, school funding issues, the lure of the new and greatest,  and the tendency to blame teachers and schools for the lack of student progress—the stage is set for the co-opting of schools, at least as we have understood that term for centuries.  This co-opting is currently taking the form of virtual “schools.”  It is this concern that I want to address here.

First, I offer a personal observation.  I teach at a liberal arts college.  I have discussed online education at the postsecondary level with many students who have firsthand knowledge of the topic.  Certainly, this is not statistically investigated, but I can say, anecdotally,  that most of the students that I question seem to think that they are getting much less from their online course work than the “brick and mortar” experiences they have had.  Further, it should be noted that although there exists a very large, accredited, online university that offers degrees in education, the state where I reside has generally not viewed such degrees favorably when graduates apply for certification.  Obviously, there are questions about this method of delivering instruction.

This surely does not mean that schools (postsecondary and k-12) cannot add to student achievement and engagement by using technology as a component of course work.  What this does not address, however, is the notion of a totally (or nearly so) online class or school.  That is an important issue for several reasons. The main concern, though, is that such schools are growing, even at the k-12 level.

Recently, I paid a visit to my son who resides in Midwestern state. I was watching the news one evening and encountered an advertisement for a statewide online school.  This school was free of charge (it’s public) and offered grades k-12.  I found that a bit surprising when I recalled that this state had recently created a statewide virtual university.  Did this mean that it might be possible to attend grades k-12 and the online university and complete school all the way through a masters degree without ever attending any “brick and mortar” school at all?  Was this a good idea?

The National Education Policy Center recently released a report entitled,  Understanding and Improving Full-Time Virtual Schools.  This report is based on an examination of the data relative to online, k-12 schools.  The data indicate that virtual schools are not succeeding at the level of their traditional counterparts.  In a review of relevant data, it was found that only 28% of virtual schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for the 2010-2011 school year.  Traditional schools made AYP in 52% of cases.  This presents a bit of a paradox.

One of the reasons that virtual, “do at home schools” have been created is to deal with the (perceived) inadequacy of traditional schools (and teachers).  Yet, at least in the study cited above, it was found that virtual schools have a worse track record than their more traditional cousins.  Just as some have questioned whether increased accountability and new standards will lead to greater student achievement, online schools raise the same question.  It appears that virtual schools are not the panacea that will solve the problem of low student achievement.  Maybe the time has come to ask whether or not the problem of depressed achievement is internal to education per se and therefore largely a school problem. Maybe the crisis is a larger societal problem.  At least it seems that virtual schools fail to fix things.  “Back to the drawing board?”

Dr. James Alexander is a Professor of Elementary Education at Kentucky Wesleyan College.

James Alexander

James Alexander

Dr. James Alexander is a Professor of Elementary Education at Kentucky Wesleyan College.
James Alexander

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