In Florida and Utah, education officials have embraced the controversial cost-cutting measure of putting students in digital classrooms.
The move has caused anxiety among teachers and some parents, who are quite reasonably skeptical that a laptop can really replace a teacher. At a recent hearing over Idaho superintendent Tom Luna's plan to require two online courses per year for high schoolers, participant Pat Bollar said the classes would "demean" teachers. Sherri Wood, the president of Idaho's teachers union, told Citydesk, "I don't see how giving a computer to a child can be better than the one-on-one attention that so many of them need."
And indeed, the specter of an all-digital education invites the image of a classroom full of latchkey students staring into glowing monitors full of pages and pages of teeny text they are expected to read and understand without any outside help. (A largely unsupervised classroom could also readily degenerate into a "Lord of the Flies"-style of anarchy, with kids ignoring their computer-mandated lessons in favor of general mayhem. If that scenario sounds implausible, well, just talk to a substitute teacher sometime.)
Some online classes actually are essentially little more than rote digital workbook exercises, but others are much more interactive and supervised. Many courses employ full-time district teachers (or outside certified teachers) who communicate with students over email, chats, discussion boards, and phone.
The trouble is, it's often hard to tell online courses apart. And even if you know exactly what kind of online course a district or state may be adopting, there's very little research on which courses work better than others--and even less research on which courses work best for K-12 students.
With so little known, are politicians jumping the gun by requiring students to move into the brave new world of all-digital instruction? Below, we survey the chief questions that still revolve around the adoption of the virtual classroom.
• Lack of research. A Department of Education-commissioned study on online classes in 2009 could only find five K-12 experimental studies that were up to snuff. The researchers were forced to include studies based on college and graduate-school learners, warning that their results only had "implications" for K-12 students. On the whole, students in online classes did better than those who only had face-to-face instruction, and those who had a bit of both did the best.
In the few K-12 studies, courses that included comparatively little interaction with either instructors or fellow students within the online courses did not work well on average; indeed, students in such instructional settings performed less well than their counterparts in a control class of traditionally taught students. Online courses that prompted kids to reflect on what they had learned tended to produce better results--but videos, online quizzes, and other software bells and whistles were not shown to produce any improvement in student performance.
Other studies have shown that online courses work best with highly motivated and high-performing students, who enjoy being able to work independently and privately.
Barbara Means, the lead author of the study, told The Lookout that there's no evidence that taking an online course will enhance a student's intellectual abilities. She notes, however, that so many colleges are adopting online-only courses that it might be good for students who want to go to college to get the hang of them, anyway.
"The research is in a very nascent condition right now and it's well behind what's getting implemented," said Means, who is the policy director of SRI International, a non-profit research center. "Things are getting implemented because they seem reasonable to people and in some cases because there's a kind of a cost saving goal or an access goal for kids."
Idaho, for example, has offered virtual classes for years because that instructional approach gives kids in its many rural communities greater access to courses. Still, the state has never made such courses mandatory, prior to the present proposal. Only Tennessee, Michigan, and Alabama require students to either take an online course or have an "online experience" in a class to graduate. In New Mexico, students must either take an honors, dual-credit or distance-learning class. That's still a far cry from requiring kids to take 20 percent of their courses online, which is what is being proposed in Idaho.
• The ambiguous contribution of teachers. Research in traditional classrooms has focused on teacher quality--and to a lesser degree, low student-teacher ratios--as two big factors in student achievement. The limited research on online learning, however, doesn't conclusively say whether either of those things is important in a virtual classroom.
Connie Radtke, the head of the nonprofit Wisconsin E-Learning Network, says she knows from student feedback and experience that low student-teacher ratios matter in an online course, and that the quality of the online instructor is key.
"The teachers will tell you they spend as much time working with online students that they do with face-to-face students," Radtke said, adding that other online learning companies are not as conscientious as hers in ensuring hands-on instruction. "As soon as you get above a 30-to-1 student teacher ratio, they're not using as high quality a curriculum, they're not making opportunities for students to interact with another. We know they're cutting corners. We know there's at least one if not a couple of for-profit organizations that do operate in the state that have much higher student teacher-ratios. That's not something we endorse."
But of course bringing more teachers into the picture would largely defeat the rationale for using online instruction as a cost-cutting measure. The higher the student-instructor ratio, the cheaper the program is for schools to implement. Radtke says the Wisconsin schools that use her program can serve more students without having to build bigger schools, because some students can learn from home for part of the day and go to school for traditional classes for other parts of the day.
The Florida Virtual School, a part of Florida's public school system that offers online classes, has a full-time teacher for each virtual course as well as a facilitator (who does not need to be a certified teacher) in each physical lab to answer questions and maintain order. But the state's virtual-learning program saves money for Florida schools because it helps them meet class-size limits without hiring new teachers if a class is only a few kids over-full, according to the Florida Virtual School's web site.
Means says some teachers who are great in traditional classrooms aren't very good at leading an online course--and that's another caution against relying on findings from studies about what helps kids in normal classrooms to determine what the benefits of online courses may be.
• The muddy case for mandatory online instruction. One study estimated that about a million K-12 students were enrolled in at least one online class in 2008. Until now, the vast majority of those kids most likely chose to be in a class--either because they lived in a rural area and wanted to access a certain course, took time off school and wanted to catch up to grade level, or attended a charter school that incorporates virtual learning.
Now, as they continue feeling the budget squeeze, more officials may consider making these courses mandatory.
About 7,000 students in Florida's Miami-Dade school district were placed into an online-only core class this year because the district was having trouble maintaining the state's class-size limit. Some of the students weren't told about the change before they showed up the first day, The New York Times reported. Some students told the Times they were upset about the change.
Star Kraschinsky of the Florida Virtual School told The Lookout that she understands the recent furor over mandatory online classes, since parents and students should always be able to choose whether they want to be in a virtual course.
"Online education has always been a choice and should be a choice," she said. (In an interview with the Florida Independent, she suggested the Times piece was biased against online learning.)
Virtual classes are just one option for Florida schools to meet class-size limits, so in theory a student should be able to opt-out of an online class if he or she wants to. But if Luna's plan passes in Idaho, the online courses will be mandatory.
And that's the main source of the recent friction over online instruction. Many parents and children may be comfortable with the idea of an online health course or a special online class that would not otherwise reach rural students--but there's something still very new about a mandatory core subject being taught to public school students on-site, solely online.
• Should parents approve their kids for online learning? Means gave a thoughtful answer to this question. "If I were a parent and my child could have the choice [between an online class and face-to-face class]...I would try to find out as much as I could about the nature of the online learning experience," she says. "Is it a program with the students working entirely independently or is there an instructor with interaction? Who developed the online course and has it been used before? Is there anything known about the quality of the learning experience?"
"I'd also try to find out about the teacher," she adds, laughing.
This kind of competition between a teacher and an online learning course raises some strange questions. What if kids start preferring virtual classes to in-person ones? What if traditional schools disappear as administrators turn to computer-based teaching models in order to keep down costs?
"I don't think teachers should view [online classes] as a threat, but I was struck by [what] a thinker in this area said, 'If there is a computer that can do better than a teacher what a teacher does, the teacher probably should be replaced,'" Means says. "A good teacher is better than certainly most programs, and what we need to think about is and understand better is what is it that teachers are best capable of doing and what is best done with an online system...I can't imagine human teachers being totally replaced."
In other words, even as administrators are driven by budget worries to embrace the virtual classroom, the education world is still a long way from reaching what computer geeks call "singularity."
(Shannon Jones enrolled in virtual school in 2006 because of her allergies and asthma in rural Missouri: AP.)
CORRECTION: Florida Virtual School spokeswoman Star Kraschinsky's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. A fact about the school's cost-saving effect was wrongly attributed to Kraschinsky, instead of the Florida Virtual School's fact sheet.