The Pros and Cons of Distance Learning: Most Students and Teachers Applaud the Flexibility That Online Learning Allows, but Teacher Unions and Some Other Experts Decry This Method's New Popularity

By Silverman, Fran | District Administration, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Pros and Cons of Distance Learning: Most Students and Teachers Applaud the Flexibility That Online Learning Allows, but Teacher Unions and Some Other Experts Decry This Method's New Popularity


Silverman, Fran, District Administration


Education officials across the nation are increasingly embracing the idea of online high schools. About a dozen states have launched statewide virtual high schools and at least 20 more are planning them. But as the idea of virtual education catches on throughout the country, educators say there are pros and cons to cyber classes and a number of hurdles that schools must overcome.

Calling it a great equalizer, state officials in Missouri, Florida and Kentucky have launched cyber schools they say expand the variety of classes they can offer. They say the online classes provide educational alternatives for non-traditional learners such as home schooled students and teens who have dropped out of secondary schools.

But educators say there are also drawbacks to educating students over the Internet and difficulties in starting up virtual programs. States that have launched programs have had to tangle with outdated state laws regulating classroom instruction, technical challenges, funding issues and philosophical opposition.

Some of the opposition has come from teachers who are concerned students will miss out on the social education brick-and-mortar schools provide.

"We think technology is a great adjunct, but we have serious questions as to whether it is a reasonable substitute," says Jamie Horwitz, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. "A big part of learning is interacting with other students in real-world, real-time scenarios."

The union has pulled back on its initial support of virtual high schools and is urging educators to be cautious about pursuing online programs.

But proponents of virtual schools say they level the playing field by providing courses students would not have access to in their own schools. Online courses also provide educational opportunities for an increasing number of home schooled students. More than 850,000 children in the U.S. are home schooled, according to a 1999 federal Department of Education report, up from 350,000 in 1994.

Erin Wells, 17, of Tampa, Fla., has taken seven classes online through Babbage Net School. Homeschooled since she was 12, Wells Says her mother encouraged her to take the online classes to complete her high school education. This year, Wells is taking Latin online because her college doesn't offer it.

"Traditional education doesn't work for me," she says. "The biggest advantage [of] online classes was having really dedicated teachers. I still keep in touch with them."

Florida education officials say the pros of online education outweigh the cons. The state was one of the first in the nation to start an online program. In 1996 it launched a statewide virtual high school with just $200,000 in seed money. In just five years, the virtual school has grown from 50 students and three courses to 6,000 enrollments and 60 courses. Its budget is now $6.2 million.

"Our motto is anytime, any place, any path, any pace," says Julie Young, executive director of Florida Virtual High School.

While it doesn't award diplomas to Florida students, it is developing a full course curriculum for students outside Florida who want to earn their entire high school diploma online.

Young dismisses critics who say virtual learning impedes high school students' social education.

"Most children have a social network far beyond school. Our kids who are full-time online learners are participating in sports and church," she says.

"I get frustrated that people classify distance learning as a benign, unsociable event. It's much more than that," she maintains.

In rural states, educators say online classes help smaller school districts that don't have the staff to teach some courses.

Kentucky started a statewide virtual high school in the 2000-2001 school year with a $500,000 state grant.

"The governor saw it as a way to reach kids who don't have a whole lot of opportunity to take a variety of classes in high school," says Robert Hackworth, a consultant for the state's virtual high school.

The state purchased coursework from Apex and Intelligent Ed and is offering classes to 250 students.

Illinois launched its statewide virtual high school in January. The cyber school offers 69 classes and now has 300 enrolled. Educators in Illinois say schools must start embracing new educational venues.

"Students are demanding more flexibility," says Matthew Wicks, director of virtual learning for the Illinois Department of Education.

In Missouri, Southern Missouri State University started an online program for high school students because students from rural areas enrolling in the college did not have the math and science courses needed for admittance. The university is now offering six virtual classes to 140 students in rural Missouri.

"It's an altruistic phenomenon. We are equalizing education," says Russell Rowe, director of the university's online program.

Educators say virtual classes can benefit students who are shy or don't like to speak in public.

"When I switched to teaching online I found out that there are many kids who are absolutely brilliant, but are scared of speaking out in class," says Mike Rutherford, head of K-12 for Blackboard Inc., a Washington D.C.-based education software provider that powers 17 virtual high schools in 12 states. "This helps their self-esteem."

But virtual classes are not for every student. Students who learn better through verbal cues may have trouble with online classes. Students who do not communicate well in writing may have problems trying to get their point across in e-mails. Other students may not be self-motivated enough to stick with an online class.

"It is not a learning style that works for everyone. There's a lot of reading instead of listening. And it's very isolating. It takes a lot of discipline," says Nancy Stevenson, author of Distance Learning for Dummies.

And there are other downsides to virtual learning. It can be expensive for poorer districts not equipped with current technology to start a virtual high school. Rutherford says it could cost a district between $5,000 and $60,000 to start an online school depending on the size of its student population. Some state legislators are hesitant to fund virtual schools when budgets are tight.

Another major issue, caution educators, is the quality of online curriculum. Educators should be cautious about what material they are using for their virtual classes and how they will present that material.

"There is a real mixed bag of what is out there," says Stevenson. "The quality of the courses varies greatly. It's almost like the frontier days out there."

Online programs run the gamut from basic courses, where students download information, to fully interactive virtual classrooms. In the interactive model, students talk to teachers through headphones hooked up to their computers and read notes being put on their screens by the teacher through "whiteboard" technology.

Schools offering virtual classrooms can either purchase the curriculum through a coursework provider or develop their own curriculum. Certified teachers instruct some of the courses. Others are taught by facilitators. Some students take the courses at home, while others take classes in computer labs or school libraries.

Stevenson suggests schools work with consultants to transform classroom curriculum into virtual lessons. She says educators should make sure any virtual class material meets that state's curriculum guidelines.

Illinois developed its own online curriculum and also purchased online classes from Florida's Virtual High School and Apex. Wicks says he is satisfied with the material's quality.

"Everyone has a picture of high school, and there is concern that [virtual classes] will not be as rigorous as traditional courses. But we believe they are," he says.

Hackworth says Kentucky developed its online high school so quickly it didn't have time to develop its own curricula. The state purchased its courses from vendors and educators then reviewed the material to make sure it was consistent with the state's curriculum guidelines.

One major hurdle facing virtual-schools, say online course providers, is fear. Some educators are not convinced of the merits of high-tech teaching. "Most schools go for known solutions," says Clifford Dittrich, president and chief executive officer for Babbage Net School, which provides online classes for school districts in New York, Wisconsin and Florida. "We are trying to overcome a lot of inertia. I don't think education [systems] try to do anything new quickly."

Many states have faced unexpected roadblocks when they've tried to launch cyber schools. High schools in Nevada and Pennsylvania had problems with state "seat time" laws that require students to have a certain amount of time in a classroom to receive credit for a course.

"The practitioners of [online learning] are ahead of the policymakers," says Rachel Kliewer, manager of online learning for the National School Board Association. "They are putting things into practice that bump up against traditional measures."

Virtual educators have had to grapple with complicated per-pupil state funding formulas. They have to figure out which school gets the per-pupil funding for a student who attends classes in one district but takes online classes from a virtual high school in another state or district.

State run virtual schools also have to contend with intellectual property issues if they use curriculum developed by a teacher for online courses. And they may have to change teacher tenure regulations that do not take into account the time a teacher spends instructing a cyber class.

While some proponents of virtual high schools say increasing numbers of students may be earning their entire degrees online, others say cyber schools will never entirely replace brick-and-mortar classes.

"I don't anticipate high schools ... it disappearing," says Wicks. "But it will provide a way to reach students not currently being served by the education system."

Young, of Florida Virtual High School, says, it's rare for a student to drop out of high school and start taking only online courses. In the past five years, she says, 0nly 10 students enrolled in Florida virtual classes dropped out of their local school to take online courses.

But Young also predicts that within five years, every high school student in the nation will be taking some kind of online course In Florida, some colleges are requiring online courses in their curriculum.

"A student entering college without a distance-learning experience," says Young, "will be at a disadvantage."

RELATED ARTICLE: Distance learning is not new.

Distance learning started in the 1890s, says Nancy Stevenson, author of Distance Learning for Dummies. In the 19th century, farmers could take agricultural courses from the University of Wisconsin through the mail.

In the 1950s, universities in England started offering courses over the television.

In the mid-1990s, colleges started offering Web-based classes, she says.

By the late 1990s, educators started offering classes online for high school students. These mostly consisted of advanced placement classes, but now virtual schools are offering classes ranging from chemistry to Latin.

In the future, students may be taking virtual courses in their living rooms, from their television sets, Stevenson says.

HOW TO START A VIRTUAL HIGH SCHOOL

* Assess the quality of online curriculum that you purchase or license from a company providing virtual classes. Determine if the material you are going to use online meets the state curriculum standards.

* Check state education laws and look into what may need to be updated to launch a virtual program.

* Investigate state and federal technology funds.

* Make sure to provide technical support for a virtual program so that students or teachers will not get frustrated and abandon courses if there are glitches.

* Be inclusive when creating a virtual program. Get input from staff, administrators, area universities, and parents so you foster a sense of partnership, not competition between brick and mortar schools and online schools.

Fran Silverman, fransilver@hotmail.com, is a freelance writer based in Norwalk, Conn.

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