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 States that have launched programs have had to tangle with outdated state laws regulating classroom instruction, technical challenges, funding issues and philosophical opposition.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. …