For the past two weeks we have been discussing virtual schools. I have tried to explain how technology is being used locally to meet the needs of student learners. This week I want to expand the conversation to the bigger picture and talk about what is happening at the state level.
There are many options available to Michigan students. This state has been at the forefront of promoting online learning. In 2000, legislation was passed to create the Michigan Virtual School. In 2006, Michigan became the first state to require that students have an online experience to graduate from high school. This school year students in grades five through 12 are allowed to take up to two online courses per semester or trimester offered by any district or the state’s virtual school with the permission of a parent or legal guardian. The cost will be borne by the student’s home district which must pay 80 percent of the cost of the online class upon enrollment and the remaining 20 percent when the student completes the course.
All of this is providing many choices for students and their parents. New cyber schools are opening. The number of schools that have permission from the Michigan Department of Education to run programs in which students take all or most of their classes online has grown from 12 in 2009 to 192 in 2013.
This all seems very progressive, but there are those, including yours truly, who are asking for caution. There is not a lot of research yet to determine whether these programs are successful. I question whether there is enough monitoring of quality. And I am very concerned that too much of the online expansion is being done by for profit groups that are using our tax dollars to make money for their shareholders.
“When these decisions are being driven by economics … then that’s a problem,” said Michael Barbour, formerly an assistant professor of instructional technology at Wayne State University and currently at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.
I also worry that students using only online programs will miss out on the social interaction that a traditional program offers. Some say that the purpose is to allow students to work at their own pace. However, most students need self discipline and lots of support to be successful.
Another concern is whether working in isolation adequately prepares students for the work place. Tony Wagner, in his book “The Global Achievement Gap,” cites a study of 400 employers on the readiness of new entrants into the work force.
“One of the researchers most important conclusions was based on the fact that nearly eight out of 10 surveyed said that, in five years, the single most important skill high school graduates would need was critical thinking/problem solving,” he said. “Almost 70 percent of the employers in the study ranked the high school graduates they hired as deficient in this area.”
This should concern us in a time when so much focus is on test scores and not on student learning. Students are getting the message that there is only one right answer in a time when employers are looking for problem solvers and creative thinkers.
Parents are being saturated by slick promotions that promise much for their students. But making the right choices may be difficult. There are few regulations or protocols to assure any measure of quality in these choices. Unfortunately, we often see short stays and early drops for students enrolled in some of these schools. And when a student enrolls elsewhere and then drops out before having attended the new school for over a year, the student tracks back as a drop out for the school he/she previously attended.
There are many benefits to be gained from online learning and the use of technology as a teaching tool. However, these are not cure-alls. There are many challenges to meeting the needs of all students in a very diverse population. We need to remember that technology will eliminate some jobs, change others and create new ones. Our young people deserve the very best we can offer them if they are to be prepared to participate in this new and rapidly changing world.
Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.