03 December 2006

Brick and Mortar Dinosaurs

When I finally decided to take the next step in my own learning, I had an option that was not previously available to me: on-line classes. Heck, I'm pursuing an entire degree on-line. There are some major benefits to this, mostly related to issues of time and flexibility. I attend (i.e. participate in the discussion boards) when I have time and can do so as frequently as I like. I don't have to rearrange my life to continue my education. This time, it's the one bending to other needs. It's not all rainbows and unicorns. I do miss the comaraderie and the kinds of discussions one can only have in "real time." As much as the university claims that these are not independent study courses, they pretty much are.

The k-12 continuum is already seeing a similar shift away from brick and mortar institutions to home-based instruction via computers. According to the Potomac News, "Online education is exploding nationwide, growing at a rate of 30 percent a year...for now most online learning happens inside middle and high schools, where students take one or two courses via computer to supplement their regular education. But the totally virtual public schools are taking online education to another level."

I do wonder how much of that growth rate can be attributed to more traditional home school families moving over to computer assisted education. Somehow, I doubt it can be used to fully explain the 30% gain a year. Where are all the other kiddos coming from? Are they kids who want to accelerate their credit gain and graduate early? Teen parents who are at home with their babies? Alternative/At-risk kiddos for whom even brick and mortar alternative programs aren't suitable? Kids with "helicopter parents" who can mommy and daddy do their coursework? Regular kiddos too lazy to get out of bed in the morning?

It would be hypocritical of me to say that on-line learning isn't as valuable as seat time in a physical classroom setting. But, like anything, you get out of it what you put into it. If you're a homeschooled student with an involved parent, my hunch is that on-line learning would be a good fit. If you're a dropout who didn't have the patience for the regular classroom, I'm not so sure that you're going to have the self-discipline (or support at home) to be successful in an on-line format. There just has to be a caring adult involved. Will positive social development be supported?

My district does offer an on-line option for credit recovery for students. Mind you, with having to meet the standards on state tests, senior projects, and other hurdles to get a diploma, merely getting a passing grade for a class is not enough. I worry about kiddos not getting the kind of nuanced feedback they might need in order to make progress toward the standards...to learn rather than simply jump hoops.

I am curious to see what happens with the on-line school our state now has. It is only for high school (or as they call it, "ischool") and is based out of one school district. It's a smart move for the district, as they get state funding for every kid enrolled, just as if that student was sitting in one of their classrooms and not all the way across the state. There are full-time teachers associated with the program and they, too, are scattered across the state. What will student achievement numbers look like over time? It's anyone's guess right now.

I don't think that "real" schools are in much danger. For all of its faults, public education has much to offer and opportunities for every child. We're not headed for extinction just yet.

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