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Virtual Learning: Godsend or Scam?

May 19, 2018

Yesterday’s Valley News featured an op ed article written by Washington Post contributor David von Drehle praising the virtues of virtual learning. The article profiled recent graduation ceremony of an alternative school in Kansas where:

The bleachers were filled with proud family and friends. But this wasn’t a group that grew up together through ballgames and choir concerts. Alienated from traditional high schools, seeking an alternative, they found the Humboldt Virtual Education Program, one of the largest and best-regarded online high schools in the Sunflower State.After months, even years, of solitary study in internet classrooms, they gathered as a physical community for the first, and probably the last, time.

Mr. von Drehle went on to describe the growth taking place in virtual learning.

Across the United States, online education is booming. Sixth- through 12th-graders enrolled in Florida’s largest full-time virtual high school completed more than 44,000 semesters of classwork last year. In Kansas, virtual school enrollment grew 100-fold between 1999 and 2014, from about 60 students to more than 6,000.

He is particularly impressed with the students who succeeded in the Kansas program, seeing its asynchronous model as helpful for both ends of the spectrum: the student who could not keep up and the student who wanted to complete schooling faster and felt held back. Indeed, Mr. von Drehle’s paeans to virtual learning could be used as selling points by the for-profit fly-by-night operations like ECOT who raked in over a billion of Ohio taxpayers money and graduated a microscopic percentage of the students it enrolled. He writes:

Thankfully, we’ve begun to appreciate that students aren’t stamped from a single mold.

Some do their best learning at their own pace and rhythm. This awakening is surely one reason more Americans are finishing high school: The dropout rate fell from 11 percent to 6 percent between 2000 and 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Well-run virtual education programs are part of that success. Educators with up-close experience of at-risk students understand this — which is why Humboldt’s virtual school includes the daughter of a traditional school principal. And the daughter of a newspaper columnist.

When the nontraditional learner in my family gripped her diploma proudly and gave Siebenmorgen a tearful hug, she became one of more than 400 alumni of a little Kansas town’s very big idea, with hundreds more in the pipeline.

These aren’t students normally celebrated with trophies and scholarships. But I would not bet against them.

In an age of constant change, they’ve seized tools offered by technology and put them to good use.

Instead of dropping out, they stepped up, toward a future that will favor those who see and grab new possibilities. An hour after they marched in, they sailed forth on the stream of lifelong learning, which promises to take them far.

There is one key point about the Humboldt Virtual Education Program that Mr. von Drehe neglected to mention: it is overseen by the local school district in his community, which means that it is a non-profit entity operated by an elected school board whose mission is to provide education for all the children in the region and not a for-profit entity whose mission is to get a high return on investment for its shareholders.

Mr. von Drehe’s oversight on this key governance issue muddles the issue of virtual learning. When virtual learning opportunities are provided by local public schools, as they are in Vermont, New Hampshire, and at least one place in Kansas, they work to educate students who would otherwise drop out of school. When profit is the goal, the ECOTs of this world predominate.

 

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