Classroom Technology

Calif.'s Online-Learning Potential Evaluated

By Andrew Trotter — October 23, 2002 3 min read
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California’s 6 million students would benefit from a statewide system of online courses, or “e-learning,” if its education agencies and other organizations worked together to develop such a system, a recent study concludes.

Read “The California Virtual School Report,” a national survey of virtual education with recommendations for California, from Educational Pathways. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“California, with its unique educational, corporate, technological, and entertainment resources, is perfectly positioned to develop a virtual school system to better serve the needs of students,” according to the report, which was commissioned by the University of California College Preparatory Initiative at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The state already has a solid data infrastructure, a prerequisite for effective e-learning, said Gordon Freedman, one of the study’s writers and the founder of Knowledge Base LLC, an education consulting company in Carmel, Calif.

But the report outlines a host of issues that need to be tackled—particularly in the areas of policy, curriculum, course delivery, and public acceptance—if e-learning is to succeed in California. One major issue is the cost of a statewide virtual school, which would be about $5 million just for the first year, the researchers estimated.

The state already has several homegrown “virtual school” projects, the researchers said.

“What California has been slow to do is realize the possibilities of a statewide effort” in e- learning, said Francisco J. Hernandez, the director of the UCCP Initiative, which commissioned the report.

UCCP, the largest e-learning project in the state, offers Advanced Placement and honors courses to 2,900 students from about 200 California schools that do not offer college-prep courses on site, said Mr. Hernandez, who is also the university’s vice chancellor for student affairs.

He said the report—which is based on a review of virtual schooling around the country and interviews with about 700 California school administrators, teachers, students, and parents—has ideas that could be a foundation for a comprehensive system of virtual schooling in the state.

But Alan Warhaftig, an English teacher at the Fairfax Magnet Center for Visual Arts, a high school in Los Angeles, said he fears that a statewide virtual school risks undermining efforts to provide an excellent high school education to every child in the state, because it will absolve schools from providing a full range of courses.

Mr. Warhaftig, a well known critic of the overuse of technology in education, also suggested that online courses tend to be impersonal and not as intellectually stimulating as face-to-face courses.

‘Ultimate Virtual School’

Among their recommendations, the researchers say online courses should meet California’s academic standards and be aligned with state tests.

They say courses should also serve many types of students, including those wishing to accelerate their learning or to catch up after falling behind, those seeking access to courses that aren’t offered locally, and those making up courses they need for graduation.

In addition, the system should be designed with higher education as well as precollegiate education in mind, eventually serving students from kindergarten through graduate school, the researchers conclude.

“The ultimate virtual school would be the integration of teaching and learning from the college level on down,” said Rob Darrow, the online-learning specialist of the 34,000-student Clovis school district in central California, who helped write the report.

That way resources could be shared, Mr. Darrow said. “Kids in our AP government class here are taking the same class as the [political science] one at our neighboring college—it’s the same content, so we should begin to share content,” he said.

The researchers outline significant work that the state must do to develop the necessary policies, curricula, and delivery systems—and sufficient acceptance of virtual education. Two pressing policy issues are how to promote equity, so all students in the state have access to the system, and how to pay the heavy costs of a virtual school.

Beyond those challenges, a state-level virtual school would need strategies to win acceptance from many quarters, including schools and universities, families, the general public, and teachers, the report says.

“We’ve learned that not all teachers like teaching online,” Mr. Darrow said.

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