By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Depending on who you talk to about the subject, responses to the idea of online learning can vary widely. Some see it as the inevitable change schools will go through to remain current with society’s needs while keeping in step with technology. Some see it as a great addition to the traditional classroom, offering flexibility to students and teachers alike. Still others find it challenging, seeing it as an ineffective way to stimulate and engage students in learning and an isolating experience. But no matter where you fall on the question, online teaching is flourishing, and many educators agree that it has its place in learning. Community colleges have been offering courses via the Internet for years with great success, and the idea is beginning to find a place in K-12 schools. The question: Does the use of online learning help us create better school settings, and where and when do we employ it?
Luz Calvo sits on her couch in her Oakland home in a comfortable pair of jeans and sneakers. Her dog, Nopalitito, wants to receive some attention, but she stays focused on her computer screen.
She might look relaxed, but Calvo is teaching and under a great deal of pressure. Her students submitted their term papers at 11:59 the night before, and she is furiously grading papers and e-mailing students who requested a deadline extension due to “technical difficulties.” The California Faculty Association member and chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at CSU East Bay has never met most of the students enrolled in her online course face to face, but has invited them to drop by her office and say hello.
Calvo enjoys the freedom and flexibility of virtual teaching. She can work at home in her pajamas any time of the day, or “teach” while sipping lattes at her favorite café. It’s just as much work as teaching regular classes, but it’s different.
The wave of the future?
Calvo and other virtual teachers are changing how we define teaching and learning, not only in universities, but throughout K-12 schools. Nationwide, more than 250,000 students are enrolled in full-time virtual schools in 30 states, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
Cyber schools are the fastest-growing alternative to traditional public schools. “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning (2011),” an annual report by the Evergreen Education Group, says that California’s full-time online school enrollment in 2009-10 was about 15,000, an increase of 43 percent from the previous year. At some colleges, students in teacher preparation programs practice classroom management skills with “virtual student avatars” displaying bad behavior in a program called TeachMe.
Online schools are popular because they are less expensive to operate than “brick and mortar” schools. They receive the same per-pupil funding even though they may have a higher student-teacher ratio, fewer printed materials, no transportation costs, and little or no building upkeep. Proponents say they prevent students from dropping out if they have trouble functioning in a traditional school setting, are medically fragile, or have other challenges. Students can also take courses that may be unavailable at their local high schools, such as Arabic or German.
A few states, including Tennessee, Idaho, Florida and Michigan, require that high school students take online courses to graduate. In Idaho, teachers have protested that money is being diverted from teacher salaries to pay for online courses and laptops for students, and are angry about the lack of teacher input in the process. They have expressed fears that the online courses make the teacher less a lecturer and more a “guide” helping students navigate online courses.
California was ranked last among the states in “openness” to online learning by Digital Learning Now, a project of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, headed by Jeb Bush. However, petitions are circulating for a November ballot initiative known as the California Student Bill of Rights, which might change that. If it’s voted in, students whose high schools don’t offer courses needed to qualify for admission to the University of California and California State University systems would have a “right” to take those courses online. If a school doesn’t offer AP History, for example, or a certain class doesn’t fit with a student’s schedule, the student could take the course online at the district’s expense.
Depending on your viewpoint, online learning is the wave of the future — or a threat to the teaching profession and an isolating experience for students. While online learning may be controversial, it’s here to stay. By 2019, half of all high school classes may be taught online, predicts Harvard business professor Clayton M. Christensen.
CTA believes that online learning has a place in the education system, but should never eliminate the need for real teachers in real classrooms.
“People may see cyber schools as a viable solution to the economic downturn,” comments CTA President Dean Vogel. “The danger is using online learning as an excuse to continue the underfunding of our schools. Any determination to move forward with online learning should be born out of pedagogic needs of our students — and not as a solution to the budget crisis.”
For-profit cyber charter movement sparks concerns
Rapid proliferation of non-union, for-profit cyber charter schools is happening nationwide. Several have been accused of fraud or providing a substandard education; some of these schools pay more for advertising than academic materials, according to Mother Jones magazine.
“On measures widely used to judge all public schools, such as state test scores and graduation rates, virtual schools — often run as charter schools — tend to perform worse than their brick-and-mortar counterparts,” the Washington Post reports. And class sizes at cyber charters tend to be larger than at traditional schools, with as many as 60 students in some classes.
A new study published by the Center for Research in Education Outcomes at Stanford University finds “cyber charters” are much less successful than brick-and-mortar charter schools, and reports that in 100 cyber charters, students performed “significantly worse” in math and reading than students at traditional public schools.
For-profit cyber charters are being used as an instrument of “creative destruction” against the public school system in an effort to privatize public schools, some education experts believe.
“It siphons money from public institutions into for-profit companies, and it undercuts public employees, their unions and the Democratic base,” writes Stephanie Mencimer in a Mother Jones article, “Jeb Bush’s Cyber Attack on Public Schools.”
Education author Diane Ravitch describes the cyber charter movement as a “stealth campaign” to privatize public education in her Education Week blog.
“While unions are fighting to stave off attacks, the virtual charter industry steadily moves forward, almost unnoticed,” she says.
Virtual schools becoming mainstream
Fear of losing public school students to for-profit cyber charters influenced some school districts to open virtual schools of their own in Los Angeles, Riverside, Lodi, Elk Grove, Chino, Fresno and other communities. Some, including Fresno, Chino and Lodi, purchase curriculum from private companies, while teachers in Riverside write their own.
“I don’t think it would be prudent if we did not embrace new directions,” says Tim Martin, president of Riverside City Teachers Association, whose district has the largest virtual public school in the state. “Not having online learning would impact us negatively in the long term. We would lose kids because people would turn to online charters. Online learning isn’t for every kid, but it works well here.”
“We are trailblazers,” says Mary Hancock, a science teacher at Chino Valley Unified School District’s Alterative Education Center. “Online learning has increased ADA collection for alternative education to double what it used to be. We have recovered kids from charters. Our district lost $3 million over the last few years, and with our virtual academy, we have reclaimed close to $2 million.”
When school districts operate virtual learning programs, there is much more accountability, says Hancock, an Associated Chino Teachers member. Teachers from online for-profit charters have applied to her school, complaining of huge class sizes, overwork and the inability to meet the needs of students.
Isolation — or a different type of community?
While some embrace virtual classes as a natural integration of technology with learning, others fear it may deprive students of peer interaction necessary for socialization. CTA members teaching online courses say they make a strong effort to foster a personal connection and create an online community for students.
“We have meet-ups, trips to the museum and hikes,” says Kelly McAllister, a middle school teacher at Riverside Virtual School. “We use different tools so that students can interact with each other in classes. We have discussion boards and Google chat, and kids are constantly e-mailing us or texting us when they are stuck. We see our kids at least once a week in most circumstances. If they can’t come in, we Skype them. The kids can be as social as they want to be. Some students don’t want to be social, while others want interaction.”
Virtual school doesn’t work for every student and requires family support, says McAllister.
“It’s no different than any school; we just give instruction in a different way.”
Luz Calvo, the CSU East Bay professor, says it is becoming more challenging to teach online courses because the college is constantly raising class size since there is no physical classroom. Professors have been fighting to hold the line at 40 students per class, while the university would like as many as 60.
For online courses to succeed, says Calvo, there has to be interaction between individual students and between groups of students and the instructor, within structured “online communities” created with various online programs like Blackboard and Moodle.
“I post a set of questions about the reading for a week, and students are required to post answers and respond to each other’s posts and answers,” she explains. “There are also functions where, instead of a discussion board, students can post a blog and people can comment on their blog post.”
While online classes can be isolating for some students, others blossom in an online environment, says Calvo.
“I think it works a little more for students who are a little shy and sit in the back of the class and never talk,” she says. “We use names, but if nobody knows who you are, you feel very anonymous. There can be a greater level of disclosure in the online class than you see happening in face-to-face classrooms.”
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