Opinion
Ed-Tech Policy Commentary

The Virtual Schoolhouse

By Gene I. Maeroff — February 26, 2003 6 min read
When are students too young for online school.

Online learning below the college level, as it emerged in the 1990s, was seen primarily as a part-time convenience for some high school students. The Virtual High School funded by the U.S. Department of Education, for instance, attracted many students from small and rural high schools who could take courses online that their own schools did not offer for lack of sufficient enrollment. Similarly, teachers at these schools could find enough students online to make it worthwhile to give the courses. Other providers began making Advanced Placement courses available to students whose own high schools did not mount such offerings.

Thus, most students involved in cyber learning took the courses along with classroom work in their regular brick-and-mortar high schools. People initially gave little thought to the possibility that secondary school students—much less elementary pupils—would carry entire schedules of online courses and avoid the schoolhouse altogether, though such opportunities became available in higher education during the 1990s.

Now, the situation has been upended in an unanticipated manner as proponents of home schooling in California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states use charter school regulations to launch cyber schools. In many cases, youngsters who were already being schooled wholly at home are simply turning to cyber charter schools as a conduit to public funding, but others who had been in classrooms are staying home, too, to take whole schedules of courses online. Furthermore, elementary-age children as well as those in secondary grades are doing this.

So long as online courses supplemented a classroom-based education and students spent most of their day at the schoolhouse, critics tolerated cyber learning though they continued to question its educational merit. They could even imagine it as a full-time option for some disabled or working students or those who wanted to get through courses at rates faster or slower than classmates’. Now, though, with online education pulling students entirely out of school buildings and seemingly stoking the fires of home schooling, a controversy of major proportions is taking shape. The disputes may lead states to impose limits on cyber learning without regard for its benefits.

Online learning confounds former definitions of “home schooling,” and that is the heart of the problem. After all, anyone of any age who pursues studies by computer at home or anywhere else outside an academic building engages in a form of home schooling. At what point do students who take some of their courses online and some in classrooms become home schoolers? Should the age of the student matter?

Perhaps the growing number of elementary-age students in online learning complicates the issue most. Those pursuing online studies should possess the perseverance of independent learners and not need constant encouragement to log in regularly and to submit assignments on time. They should be ready to work mostly on their own, out of sight of teachers, and be prepared to apply the same due diligence to online studies that a well- functioning classroom requires. It is not surprising therefore that some of the most successful cyber courses are those taught by such institutions as the University of Phoenix Online, with its enrollment made up of adult students, usually taking courses to advance their careers.

Maturity is not all that matters, though. To be sure, schooling is, above all, about mastering academic subjects. But it also has links to character development, socialization, transmission of a common culture, and preparation for citizenship. Schools lay this foundation during the elementary years, and youngsters grow more independent with each passing year, having, one would hope, acquired grounding and needing fewer such lessons as they get older.

Character takes shape within the crucible of personal interaction. Youngsters learn sharing, honesty, and reliability, for example, in situations in which they witness the behavior of others and grow accustomed to conducting themselves in accord with certain mores and expectations.

Face-to-face interactions in both academic and nonacademic situations in schools teach children to get along with others.

Socialization, too, implies personal contact with others, not abstract skills learned and practiced in isolation. Online courses have interactive components that call on participants to deal with the thoughts and ideas of others by following tacit and explicit rules. However, virtual encounters hardly amount to the real thing, which includes nuances, visual cues, and immediate consequences.

Face-to-face interactions in both academic and nonacademic situations in schools teach children to get along with others. Personal confrontations force them to tolerate disagreement, to compromise, to reach consensus. While not all pupils benefit equally from these informal lessons, they nonetheless gain experiences that might not be part of the school day when spending it at home. Likewise, experiences in school teach children the rules of the game of life, though there is a trade-off.

Home schoolers, for example, don’t have to cope with bullies, and they don’t run the risk of rejection and being left out of activities in favor of more popular classmates. These experiences constitute the dark side of the schoolhouse, not so readily discussed but very much a part of socialization.

Aspects of culture can almost certainly be transmitted online, using both readings and electronic discussions. Perhaps, though, passing along the culture requires active, personal involvement and remains incomplete when conveyed only online. Can the transmission of culture from a distance, at a computer keyboard, amount to more than an intellectual exercise?

Some of the largest reservations about online learning for the youngest students revolve around civic values. The flourishing of a civil society depends on young people coming to accept citizenship’s responsibilities. Lessons in books, no doubt, figure in this process, but probably are insufficient. Students can take online civics courses to find out about the governmental system of checks and balances, the mechanics of voting, the history of democracy in North America, and the diversity represented by demographic statistics of the United States. But personal, face-to-face contact renders all this more palpable. Therefore, it is not so clear that an entire schedule of online courses will prepare younger students fully for the future.

It is not so clear that an entire schedule of online courses will prepare younger students fully for the future.

Some of these same issues arise in connection with home schooling, whether or not children obtain their instruction from online sources. Those whose education comes around the kitchen table tend to have fewer encounters with peers, fewer occasions upon which to consider life beyond the four walls of their houses. Admittedly, some parents structure lessons to get their children into the world, to expose them widely. Yet, this requires extra effort, and probably many parents settle for lessons in and around the home.

On the other hand, the problems of some public schools make their traditional role problematic in building character, socializing children, transmitting culture, and preparing them for citizenship. Home schooling, possibly combined with e- learning, may in such situations make out-of-school settings more productive for these purposes than dysfunctional schoolhouses. In any event, online programs—by reinforcing and enhancing the abilities of parents as teachers—can bolster the academic side of schooling at home.

Now, in its short existence, online learning has opened a new window for families devoted to home schooling. Online education will force people to think differently about home schooling, which, in turn, raises fresh questions about the role and purposes of cyber learning and of the schoolhouse itself.

Gene I. Maeroff, the director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, at Teachers College, Columbia University, is the author of A Classroom of One: How Online Learning Is Changing Our Schools and Colleges, published this month by Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press.

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