Friday, July 25, 2008

Online Schools

While this particular article is vacuous, I'm convinced there's a bright future for online high schools.


allen (in Michigan) said...

I think there's a place for virtual schools although I'm not convinced they can supplant hauling kids to "educatin' places'. But I believe they'll accelerate the movement away from the traditional district-centered education model which is all to the good.

Ellen K said...

I've done online classes and while they can work, there's also a huge chance that a teacher will miss some cues that a student is struggling. When you have people turn in assignments online, you have little way of knowing if they are actually doing the work. Lack of effort only shows up with exams and by that time, it's too late. Unfortunately, administrators and politicians will see this as a way to trim budgets and try to put it in for many classes that should never be online.

Anonymous said...

I teach the occasional math course online, and while I may not have as much experience as some, from what I've heard, my experience is consistent with others that have a lot more experience.

Online classes tend to exhibit a much higher attrition rate than face-to-face classes. People sign up with the best of intentions, but soon find that it takes a lot of self-discipline to keep pace with the course. As a result-- especially at the community college level, here in California, where students pay $20/unit-- many are quick to stop participating and either drop or are dropped (by the instructor). With a class that started with 100 students, I would not be surprised to see 50-70% drop out by the end of the course. This is not just in math; coworkers who teach online in other subject areas paint a similar picture. Since K-12 students have no money of their own on the table, I think the attrition would be at least as bad.

I guess if the access and incentives were intelligently administered, it would be theoretically possible to have a reasonable online program at a high-school level. Students could earn access by maintaining a certain GPA or whatever. But I think there would also be many pitfalls.

For example, it has been my experience that the district IT people are often the sort of people who probably couldn't get hired for IT work in mainstream industry, at least from what I can tell. That raises a significant impediment, because there needs to be someone who can run a server, keep pace with the latest and greatest technology, and support the user base. School districts seem to think it is preferable to hire lots of IT people and pay them 60%-70% of the market rate, instead of hiring a smaller number of competent people and paying them the market rate.

On top of that, it isn't cheap to run an online program. A three-year license for BlackBoard (probably the dominant CMS at this point) will cost between $70K-$80K. On top of that, you can't simply install it and expect people to start using it. There would have to be all sorts of training, and in K-12, do people attend that kind of training for nothing?

When I taught in K-12, one of the schools where I taught was a high school in a poor section of town. In a community like that, not everyone has broadband access, and I would imagine the only way that school could ever implement an online program would be to build computer lab space, where students could get Internet access at reasonable times. The room where I taught was built in the 1950s and had no air conditioning, and lacked the electrical infrastructure to support a large number of computers. Just about every room in the school was comparable. So if the district bought in to the whole online edu-scheme, not only would they have to drop $$$ to get a CMS installed and operating properly, they would have to drop significant money to modernize some facilities to accommodate a computer lab.

A smart administrator might be able to do the math and figure out when the district could break even on such an investment. But in my mind's eye I can picture all sorts of people queueing up to put the brakes on this kind of experiment. There would be union people who would see this as a nefarious scheme to increase class size and thereby deny unit members the opportunity to work. There would be other administrators who would wonder where the district could find this kind of money in a time like now, where falling enrollments and GASB requirements are squeezing them to death. Blah blah blah.

It would warm my heart to see this unfold somewhere, thereby proving my pessimism to be unwarranted. But I'm not holding my breath.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if it is unseemly to comment on one's own comment, but I wanted to add a few other points.

For one thing, developing reasonable online content for an online course (especially a math course) is not exactly easy. So for most, the reasonable alternative is to turn to publisher-provided materials. The problem is, the publisher has spent million$ developing these resources, so they don't give them away. Typically, there is an access fee, or access only comes with the purchase of a new text. Obviously neither avenue will mesh well with current operating procedures in K-12. While there are free alternatives-- e.g., WeBWorK-- as far as I know, none of them are quite ready to roll out for K-12 use. The problem libraries available for WeBWorK, for example, contain a lot of calculus and higher-level material, but not so much in the way of algebra (and lower-level) problems available for K-12 students. So any secondary-level teacher wanting to use WeBWorK would probably have to roll their own, so to speak. In addition, you'd probably need to run WeBWorK on your own server, which requires no small amount of expertise. Thus, there are significant impediments associated with the "free" alternatives to MyMathLab, ALEKS, CengageNow, WebAssign, et al.

Likewise, while there are "free" CMS packages-- e.g., Moodle-- you don't get the same level of support with these as with a commercially available product, and so you end up falling back on the IT folks-- discussed above-- or the goodwill of tech-saavy teachers to keep everything running smoothly. A major outage (server breakdown) or a significant problem can bring an online course/program to a halt.

Finally, there is a perception-- not entirely unwarranted, in my experience-- that online teaching can be some kind of a scam to get full-time pay for way less than full-time work. While colleges/universities tend to overlook this issue-- they have come to love these classes, because they are revenue machines-- K-12 isn't paid apportionment in the same way, so I'm not sure if K-12 administration would warm up to online classes the same way that post-secondary administrators have.

Anonymous said...

One laughable strategy being adopted by some schools: using online math education by having a student who failed class A during year 1 move on to class B (which, of course, builds on class A) year 2 while retaking class A online (since it's now a "review," thus not requiring direct human intervention).

This ignores the fact that a major reason why many students fail class A do so because of truancy of one sort or another (physically absent; no self-done homework; not paying attention or participating during class; etc.). We are to believe that this student will suddenly achieve never before shown levels of self-discipline just because the course is a review and online?

Anonymous said...

This issue is getting some coverage in the current issue of Forbes.

Some interesting statistics in the article.