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PRESSING ISSUE: On the virtues of virtual school

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 As Campbell County school board members debate the virtues of virtual school, we wonder why—in 2013—there isn’t already a standardized online learning option in place for our state’s students. 

A virtual school, as its name implies, describes an institution that teaches courses entirely or primarily through online methods. Students complete Internet-based assignments from their homes and are extended credit for successful completion of those courses. Certain checks and balances are set up along the way and students are still held accountable for achieving statewide proficiency standards before they can graduate. 

Our district lags the rest of Tennessee in many areas of academic achievement, including ACT scores and state standardized test scores. While some point fingers at certain socio-economic disparities or other shortcomings here, we should hold board members accountable for failing our students if they don’t try every approach to boost academic achievement—even the seemingly radical ones.

However, online education really isn’t that radical of a concept. Similar distance learning strategies were employed as early as the mid-1800s. Born in the agrarian era out of a need for academic opportunities to reach a geographically dispersed population, thousands of rural Americans— including many from right here in East Tennessee—enrolled in correspondence courses. After industrialization and advances in technology, distance learning opportunities grew through the use of radio and television. In the 1990s, the Internet revolution allowed students to exchange ideas immediately and from almost everywhere, from the comfort of their computers. 

Today, online learning has been integrated into the curricula of most accredited college and universities. 

While a few skeptical school board members question if the style of learning is “the wave of the future” they should realize: It’s the wave of the present (and the not so immediate past). Many of the district’s top educators likely utilized online learning methods in their own certifications. And online learning techniques and supplements are no doubt already being offered in many classrooms across the district.  

Online learning was again brought to the forefront of educational debates this year when the New York Times reported that Stanford University ratcheted up interest in online education after a pair of celebrity professors attracted more than 150,000 students from around the world to a non-credit open-enrollment course on artificial intelligence. Normal enrollment would’ve been limited to the capacity size of a physical classroom—or likely just a few hundred students. And they conducted these courses at a cost savings. 

While the advantages of online learning are well documented, many Campbell County school board members still share common concerns.

The Tampa Bay Times last month  published a critical editorial against online learning and addressed many of those concerns, after Florida legislators sought to expand virtual class offerings to public school students there. 

The paper’s editorial staff inked that online classes “should not divert public money for public schools into the pockets of lightly supervised for-profit operators.”

They worried the new regulations could become a corrupted cash-cow operation for privatized educational institutions.

The paper scrutinized the virtual program’s academic rigor and the credentials of its teaching staff. In the end, they reasoned that online learning is out of line with what students need. 

But hypothetical fears don’t outweigh certain truths.  

And board of education members should remember that public schools aren’t intended to rake in profits either. 

Public schools are the backbone of America’s education system and must provide every child with a “free” opportunity to achieve.  Administrators—especially those of cash-strapped districts like ours— should afford every student with the best educational opportunity regardless of how it might effect their district’s pocketbooks. They fear that if students opt for online learning, they will be robbed of per diem rates paid to them by the government based on student attendance. But our students shouldn’t be equated with dollar signs. 

If virtual schooling is cheaper for the taxpayers and gives students additional opportunities, let’s offer it. 

Also, there are already other educational institutions profiting from the perceived pains of public schools. I’m talking about for-profit, private schools. 

However, many cannot afford the thousands in tuition per semester at these institutions. And others may not believe in the core values associated with these, oftentimes non-secular, programs. 

Additionally, academic rigor at private institutions, as well as teacher certification policies are often less stringent than those at public and virtual schools because they aren’t equally regulated under state and federal academic standards.  

Likewise, homeschooling models — though cheaper than private schooling—may not meet the needs for many students, especially if parents lack academic credentials or just can’t devote adequate time to their child’s learning.  

Virtual schooling offers a more affordable alternative for many students who were previously “left behind” by certain public schooling policies. It gives others a competitive chance of winning the “race to the top” under new public school policies by eliminating much of the distractions at public schools.  

To be certain, every student isn’t a strong candidate for virtual schooling.  Highly skilled and highly motivated students will probably excel better than struggling ones who likely need close contact with instructors to succeed.

That’s not always the case—but selective enrollment in online programs is definitely not for school board members to decide.

Students who have been victims of bullying, some with special needs,  those with a history of truancy or disciplinary problems—each may be candidates for virtual schooling. But what’s in the best academic interest of a particular student should ultimately be left up to a well-informed parent, whose given multiple options for their child to succeed. 

And at the end of the day, if our district logs into web learning and we don’t see the output we want in regards to student achievement, we can’t blame our board members for at least being brave enough to try.

If equipped with possibilities, anything is possible, but first you must create the possibilities. 

And that means getting in line with online learning opportunities.