My Worries about Virtual High Schools

School-desk  By Mark

I came of age with the internet. I'm fond of telling my students that when I had to do my senior project I had to use these things called a card catalog and the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. I had to actually touch materials to use them in research. I had to learn keyboarding on a manual typewriter with ribbon and correction tape…and I'm only in my early 30s.

But by my first year at university, the internet had exploded. Since then, I have learned that I am what is known as a "digital native," perhaps because my father brought home a PC Jr. when I was about six.

I'm all for utilizing the "Web 2.0" as a resource for education, even though I find the moniker kind of obnoxious. I'm on my computer essentially every minute that I'm not with a student or caring for my family. I know that the wired universe (or better stated, the wireless universe) demands new skills sets of our students and "multiple literacies" unheard of twenty years ago. 

I begin to grow uncomfortable, though, when people start to talk about classrooms which exist wholly on the internet–especially on-line schools for teenagers.

Not surprisingly, since we are in the mere adolescence of the internet, there is little research to date which thoroughly examines the effectiveness of K-12 online education. In a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education assessing the effectiveness of online K-12 and degree-awarding programming, the conclusions seem to indicate that for adult learners, online courses may result in greater learning outcomes than face-to-face instruction–but this is most true for older non-traditional students returning to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree later in life. As for K-12, the jury is still out.

The report is laden with caveats both stated and implied. One might interpret my uncertainty about online education as being rooted in deeper job security issues (we're all being replaced by machines!) though the most successful online courses employed pedagogical approaches which demanded a real human at each end of the educational transaction–though the interactions detailed were strikingly clinical and impersonal.

I can understand the potential for success or undergraduate and graduate online courses: at these levels, there is little institutional motive for "supporting" the student. Add the fact that online colleges involve a tuition commitment, and the comparison between public online high schools and tuition-based online colleges becomes less valid.

I doubt that there will be massive exodus from traditional schools, but the primary effect I fear is that online schools will facilitate dropouts. Those who opt for the online high school might be the very kids who most need consistent access to a team of reliable adults to help them navigate the difficulties of adolescence. As I've seen with students who drop out or choose alternative paths, those who opt for online ed may be attempting to escape some aspect of school culture (whether this be the coursework itself or the social elements of teenagerdom). In many cases, choosing online school is no different from dropping out. Every one of the students I've had in the last few years who opted to go to go for a diploma through one of various online academies or course recovery/completion systems ended up not completing the requirements and thus were disconnected with the support systems which might otherwise have helped them earn a diploma in a traditional school. Online courses, like running-start, demand a degree of maturity and self-management that is not always innate in an adolescent–or in parents, for that matter.

When teens and their parents (who may have noble intentions but unrealistic expectations) opt to use online schools as an escape route, I always wonder what they are escaping. Too often, I propose, it is not the brick-and-mortar school itself: it is some ingrained habit which has prevented success in that brick-and-mortar school. That habit, be it lack of organization or core literacy or math skills deficiencies, will go with the kid to that "new" online school where there aren't counselors or teachers whose influence can help shift those habits. Those literacy deficits will still be there when the kid has to read assignments for online English class, and those organization issues will still be there when a deadline comes and passes. Identifying and helping with those deficits and issues are the life's mission of many educators in brick-and-mortar public and private schools. In these environments, because we teachers are there in the same physical place as the kids, we can go to them to offer the help. I don't see that happening if we never meet them because they are enrolled at a screen they might not never actually face.

My worries about online schools ultimately have little to do with the merit of their teaching tools. My worries are rooted in what traditional schools can offer that virtual schools cannot: the sharing of literal space. The connections forged through daily face to face relationships, in the same room, breathing the same air, cannot be replicated even by the most sophisticated webcam. For many adolescents, it is those relationships (not the class content) which help them succeed.

While I do believe that online schools can serve a valuable purpose for some students who are in unique situations, I worry that it is a high-tech new way to leave more children behind.

5 thoughts on “My Worries about Virtual High Schools

  1. Tom

    I’m with you, Mark. I think that if someone has a specific topic that they want to learn about or a skill that they need to leeed to learn, finding it on-line is a fast, efficient way to go. (I learned how to adjust the rear derailleur on my bike by going to YouTube.) But if a student is just a student, with no specific agenda; relying on the faculty to set the syllabus, then learning on-line seems wrong. At least for now. Maybe Web 3.0 will change our minds.

  2. Kristin

    Online education has its place, as does the old-fashioned correspondence course. It allows a student to fit a course in on her own time, and in her own place, as opposed to having to show up at some building at scheduled times during the week.
    I took a correspondence course my final quarter of college to fit in a class I needed, but had no time in my schedule to take. I HATED it. It was so hard to get the assignments done, figure out what I was supposed to do, and meet deadlines detached from having my body in some classroom.
    In graduate school, I signed up for, paid for, and failed another correspondence course because the first assignment was so stupid and vague I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. It involved reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower and writing a 4,000 word “report.” I should have faked it, but it was so boring I couldn’t even do that.
    That course illustrates the biggest problems with the push to get more “teaching” done with fewer teachers and classrooms – bad curriculum and no support. It’s easy to assign. It’s even easy to assess. It’s hard to teach.
    Universities are offering more and more courses online – it’s cost effective for them to do so, and I’m sure instructors appreciate being paid to “teach” courses that few students actually complete.

  3. Brian

    I’ve been looking at a lot of YouTube videos on math lessons lately. There’s some good stuff out there. I used to tell my students that if all the adults in the world died at the same time that the young survivors would be OK; we wrote everything down. All you have to do is read the books. Now I tell them it’s all on YouTube.
    So I think Mark’s worries are based on what the purpose of schools really is. If it is to impart knowledge only, then online schools are perfectly adequate. If it is to civilize the next generation, to make citizens out of them, then I think we need to keep bringing them to large brick buildings and making them get along.

  4. Mark

    Brian’s right, I’m not informed enough about the pedagogical methods applied by internet academies or virtual high schools, but an implicit purpose of education is to socialize and civilize by helping young people be part of a community.
    While I hate homecoming and prom and pep assemblies, I do recognize their supposed purpose in the community building of a school (though that’s a whole different post about classism, etc) and I do think that even more than the community of learners, what is missing in a virtual system is the mentoring kind of relationship which can only occur when space is shared.

  5. Laura

    I completely agree with all of the posts on this page. There is no quick fix that technology can offer and students social development is very important and can be hindered with the virtual school. However, at my university professors of online courses get paid much much less than they would for a traditional face to face course. Therefore the payoff is not good at all. However, the for-profit agencies that have designed fancy curriculum that schools pay for is what I see as the biggest funding problem. Take a look at Connections Academy or K12 inc. for example where 1/3 of public school funding goes right into the hands of for profit agencies.

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