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It’s been a rough time for the image of K-12 virtual education.
Studies in Colorado and Minnesota have suggested that full-time online students are struggling to match the achievement levels of their peers in brick-and-mortar schools. Articles in The New York Times questioned not only the academic results for students in virtual schools, but also the propriety of business practices surrounding the use of public dollars for such programs.
Meanwhile, two left-leaning magazines, The Nation and Mother Jones, contended last month that policies pushed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the name of digital opportunities for students have the ulterior motive of funneling money to big technology companies.
And the move into education by Rupert Murdoch, with his News Corp. conglomerate’s purchase of the educational technology company Wireless Generation, has drawn protests from some teacher advocates at public appearances by the right-leaning media tycoon.
Against this backdrop, educators who gathered at the Virtual School Symposium held early last month in Indianapolis appeared eager to strike a balance between working to address what they see as valid criticisms of their field and rebutting others they see as misconceptions. They also seemed to agree the burden is on them to tell their own story and prove their effectiveness.
“A lot of the publicity has been negative,” conceded Andy Scantland, the vice president of sales and marketing for Advanced Academics Inc., an Oklahoma City-based provider of public and private online learning programs. The company is a sponsor of the annual “Keeping Pace” virtual learning report, which was released by the Evergreen Education Group, a Durango, Colo.-based research and consulting firm, just before the symposium.
“It’s really critical that we don’t allow others to tell the story for us,” Mr. Scantland added. “Accountability and measurability is good for all of us.”
He and others associated with this year’s “Keeping Pace” survey of the virtual learning landscape insisted that its most important element may be its 10-page section on “emerging quality and accountability issues,” as the report terms it.
Susan Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, the Vienna, Va.-based group that hosted the forum, said she sees a combination of factors contributing to recent criticisms of full-time virtual schools, with some issues having more merit than others.
For example, Ms. Patrick said the studies that raise questions about the achievement of fully online students may suffer in part because of the methods of measuring such achievement. Programs designed to help facilitate learning at a nonconventional pace and on a nonconventional schedule, for students who often turn to a virtual option as a last resort, may struggle when molded to the confines of seat-time rules that virtual school advocates would like to see abandoned.
That could potentially explain some of the results of separate studies released in September by Education News Colorado and the Minnesota education department. Each raised questions about the effectiveness of online learning in their respective states.
The Colorado study, in particular, found that students’ performance on state reading exams actually got worse over time after the students enrolled in full-time virtual schools.
But Ms. Patrick also says that getting some districts to view virtual education as a method that still needs high-quality instructors is a problem. And she acknowledges that some supporters of virtual schooling have politicized it, even at the Virtual School Symposium.
In remarks at the Nov. 9-11 gathering, state Rep. Brian Bosma, the Indiana House speaker and a Republican, for instance, painted support for virtual schools as a conservative issue aligned with debates over school choice. Ms. Patrick said the education reforms sought by former Gov. Bush and his Tallahassee, Fla.-based Foundation for Excellence in Education could be viewed as politically motivated, including ideas advanced through the Digital Learning Now initiative led by Mr. Bush, a Republican, and former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat.
“People are people, and start to paint it one way or another, and that’s unfortunate,” said Ms. Patrick. She added, though, that such Democrats as U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state and U.S. Reps. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota and Robert E. Andrews of New Jersey have been vocal supporters of online learning.
“We had 1,900 people [at the Virtual School Symposium], and 47 percent of them were first-timers there from districts wanting to launch programs,” she said in a telephone interview after the event. “That’s not political at all.”
Ms. Patrick says she’s unsure whether it’s possible to depoliticize virtual schooling, but says her bigger concern is the impression that it’s an effective method to cut manpower from a district’s teaching force. And she concedes some districts aren’t doing much to combat that impression.
“Teachers and people are the heart of online learning programs, and we need to, as a community, let the teacher voice be heard,” Ms. Patrick said.
“There are some valid criticisms, too, especially with districts facing budget crunches,” she said. “We want them to make a decision about good-quality programs. Sometimes they’re doing that, and sometimes they’re not.”
Some practices caught in the dispute may actually align more with blended learning, which retains in-person instructors but reshapes the teacher’s job description with technology integration.
For example, a report from the University of Colorado at Boulder that suggests K-12 virtual education is growing at a rate that is unsafe, considering the lack of knowledge about its effectiveness, also makes clear that the breadth of research on the benefits of blended learning is far greater.
Some businesses and philanthropies—such as the Microsoft Corp. and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, built on the fortune of the company’s co-founder—that are taking heat from critics of online education are actually looking to channel dollars to blended-learning projects.
The third wave of competitive grants—worth up to $12 million in total—in the Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Learning Challenges program will be awarded to applicants that design new blended-learning models, in part because of a belief that they are more reliable than purely online models for students who are at risk academically. (The Gates Foundation also provides grant support to Education Week.)
Microsoft, meanwhile, announced this fall a new service to offer discounted hardware and software to teachers, as well as its participation in the Federal Communications Commission’s “Connect to Compete” broadband infrastructure project that at least theoretically would provide more blended-learning opportunities to students of diverse backgrounds.
“The hypothesis is that population needs the brick-and-mortar setting and all-around wrap-around support that comes with that setting to succeed,” said Elina Alayeva, a program officer for the Next Generation Learning Challenges with Educause, the Boulder, Colo.-based postsecondary-technology advocacy group that is managing the competition.
Even as critics of online learning have called for proof that fully virtual schools can be effective enough to justify public investment, they have shown awareness that the quality in such programs can vary greatly.
For instance, at a Virtual School Symposium presentation from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, audience members disputed the notion that a student who failed a course should have to demonstrate a set amount of time needed to retake the course online instead of just demonstrating competency in the subject. But NCAA officials reasoned that their experience with athletes who may attach themselves to digital “diploma mills” is far different from the experience of other cyber educators.
“Some athletes are short of qualifying and need quick fixes,” Nick Sproull, the NCAA’s assistant director of high school review, said to his audience. “Our majority might be your minority, which is a difficult reality.”
That’s not to say all who know the breadth of online options available are convinced that any such offering can be equivalent to a live classroom.
Gene V. Glass, a senior researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s National Education Policy Center and a co-author of its recent report calling for more state regulation of online learning, said he staunchly opposes the use of public money for any virtual programs.
“This is a hollow experience for kids, and for many of the kids it’s hardly an experience at all,” Mr. Glass said in an interview. “I haven’t seen a good experience in this whole area. I haven’t seen anything but greedy companies paying off politicians.”
But the report’s other co-author, Kevin G. Welner, a professor of education at the university and the director of the education policy center, said the evidence on the effectiveness of fully online virtual schools shows only that more evidence is needed.
“It’s not that there aren’t good things to be had or good things going on,” Mr. Welner said. “It’s publicly funded education, but without the usual safeguards that we attach to public education.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 07, 2011 edition of Education Week as Virtual Ed. Faces Sharp Criticism