Several recent articles, such as “Virtually Educated,” by Gail Collins, and “The New Digital Divide,” by Susan P. Crawford, explore the implications of both mandated online learning and issues of access for urban and rural poor. While many are familiar with online — or distance — learning as part of recent efforts by universities to provide education opportunities to non-traditional students as well as those who are not able to attend traditional classes for a variety of reasons (work, family obligations, etc.), many more have no idea how recent legislative dictates are being addressed in the K-12 public school arena.
State level republican legislators have overwhelmingly supported mandating that all K-12 students take at least one online course before high school graduation. The plan eliminates the need for classroom teachers, who are replaced by adults who facilitate the computer lab where students take online courses, but also fills the coffers of for-profit education companies with funds meant for public education. In the end, current results tell us that students are either failing miserably in these environments or learning how to game the system in order to pass without actually learning anything. It’s a mess, at least in many Michigan public schools.
While online learning opportunities have become more common in university settings, I question their use for younger students. While I have seen a small minority of highly motivated students use online coursework as a means to advance through the curriculum, the new mandate applies to all students, including special education students (unless they have exceptions written into their IEPs). While I teach advanced classes, I also co-teach a core English course with over 1/3 special education students (12 of 32). For some of these students, particularly the ones with severe cognitive disabilities, online coursework without benefit of teacher interaction for questions, etc., is a recipe for disaster. We won’t even discuss my student who is a paraplegic or the one who is legally blind or the one who is deaf.
Also, when students are just enrolled in online classes without their input, which is what recently happened at the high school where I teach when 9th grade students were randomly placed into an online Health class, the students do not possess the maturity to help them succeed in an independent learning environment. This is not a factor with adult students, who have the educational scaffolding and maturity to engage in virtual learning.
Vygotsky, among others, shows us that learning is a social activity, requiring discussion and guidance, aspects of learning that don’t happen in an online environment. While some might argue that online college classes require students to participate in discussions, whether in real time or by posting comments about reading or in response to classmates’ posts, this is not how K-12 online learning functions. There is no cohort discussion. Instead, students merely watch video lectures and take quizzes on the lecture material (all multiple choice). There is a huge difference between online courses at a university and those, like E20/20, being used by K-12 schools.
In the end, we need to ask ourselves the purpose of online education and the risks inherent in such a philosophy. Yes, our world is increasingly driven by technology, but does that mean that K-12 students must have an online learning experience as a means to prepare for such experiences beyond high school? Will our digital natives suddenly be lost and unable to meet expectations? My guess is no. However, for-profit curriculum delivery services have much to gain. And when high school students fail en masse, for a variety of reasons, corporations will reap even more profits when students re-enroll and attempt to pass the course yet again.