Many parents across the state of Arizona are dubious about online schools. They question how a computer could possibly replace the passion, debate and experience of working with a teacher and in a classroom, write Anne Ryman and Pat Kossan at the AZ Central.
Research into online schooling is sparse at best, so while online schooling may be able to provide quality, comparative education, parents don't believe there's enough evidence to reassure them that this is the case.
Advocates of online education often cite a 2009 analysis by the U.S. Department of Education that closely examined online schooling from 1996 to 2008. The report concluded that, generally, students learning online overall "performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction."
In the report, "blended learning", whereby online learning is combined with face-to-face instruction, performed better than those in online-only or face-to-face classes. However, online-only instruction appeared to be just as effective as traditional instruction, researchers said.
While many proponents of online schools take heed by this report, many researchers point to the fact that more than 90 percent of the studies over the 12 years dealt with courses at universities, community colleges or adults receiving professional training.
"Caution is required in generalizing to the K-12 population," the report said.
Only five of the 45 studies reviewed involved K-12 students and not one of them was compared to face-to-face classes. Out of five K-12 studies yielded seven findings: Five findings favored blended learning over face to face, and two favored face to face over blended.
And it is because of this that many educators are more cautious than exponents about recommending that online learning is better for K-12 students.
Gene Glass, an education professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, said that the lack of research "raises cautions that should favor pilot programs and careful evaluations rather than large-scale expansion of the sector."
Many educators account for the difficulty for researchers to assess student achievement because of the high student turnover in the sector.
"We can be confident in saying (online education) may not be any better, but it isn't any worse than (the regular classroom)," said Leanna Archambault, an education professor at ASU.
"We need to get away from asking the comparison question and find out what works in an online environment and what population does it work for and who benefits? We're just starting to get into those questions," she said.
Two online charter schools, iSchool2020 and Arizona Virtual Academy, have both launched blended models in Arizona.
Last year, Arizona Virtual Academy set up 17 hybrid centers, overseen by an adult who isn't a certified teacher, though a couple of sites, such as the Mesa YMCA, have a few teachers on hand to help students.
"There are a finite number of families and kids who can truly support and be successful online," said Mary Gifford, Arizona Virtual Academy's founder.
"Hybrid is probably the wave of the future. Probably anyone can find some success there."