Online Schools Failing?

Here’s an interesting analysis of how online educational options are evolving in Massachusetts. Even as the state’s one existing virtual school is producing some pretty sub-standard results, the state is preparing to allow for a number of additional online schools to be started. (Here’s a similar analysis from Colorado a while back with more data points around the failure of the online schools.)

In Massachusetts, the goal is to provide online education as an option for “students who have been expelled from conventional schools, as well as kids who are chronically ill, teen parents, actors, Olympic athletes and bullying victims.” I think this is an excellent start, but I think we have to be very careful comparing test results for this mixed demographic with the overall student population. I would say the same holds true for Colorado and anywhere else where online alternatives for secondary students are being made available.

Who are the students signing up for these programs, and why? Until we know more about that — specifically, how well these kids were doing in the traditional environment — it’s pretty hard to assess the success rate of the online program.

The effectiveness of online tools and learning within the classroom environment is taken pretty much as given. And the effectiveness of such tools as a supplement to a traditional classroom setting is also easy to demonstrate. (Check out the Khan Academy success stories.) There is also abundant evidence that online tools contribute significantly to homeschool success.

It’s only when online education is offered as a straight-up alternative to a traditional classroom that we see these negative results. Is this a problem with implementation? Is it a lack of structure? Is it the deomgraphic mix of the students who participate? It could be a combination of these.

Also, you can’t rule out the possibility that competition for funding could be playing a role. If school districts and school boards are not particularly inclined to see funds diverted to these efforts in the first place — and both the Colorado and Massachusetts stories linked above make it clear that often they are not — how successful are these bodies likely to find these programs?

On the other hand, if pure online programs really don’t work as an alternative to the traditional classroom, this once again makes for an interesting contrast between between secondary and higher education. As we noted a while back, in a classroom setting, secondary schools are far ahead of colleges and universities in their adoption of technology. Paradoxically, the online alternative to college is emerging as an increasingly viable option.

Will the kinks eventually be worked out for secondary online education? Stay tuned…

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