Educating for Democracy: Is There a Virtue in Virtual Education?

A report on the effectiveness of a "virtual school" company, K12, Inc., was released recently by the National Education Policy Center based at the University of Colorado in Boulder. It provides a serious warning to educational "innovators" who are moving in the direction of relying on technology as a substitute for teachers.

The study, conducted by Gary Miron and Jessica Urschel, "Understanding and Improving Full-Time Virtual Schools," has found that in this, the largest company that provides "virtual" schooling, "only 27.7% of K12 schools reported meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2010-11. This is nearly identical to the overall performance of all private Education Management Organizations that operate full-time virtual schools (27.4%). In the nation as a whole, an estimated 52% of public schools met AYP in 2010-11."

From the description of the educational experience young learners have in the "virtual environment" on K12's wikipedia page, it's not surprising that its students would perform so poorly:

K12's K-8 curriculum includes subjects such as Math, Science, Literature, Language, Vocabulary, Composition, and History. As an option, Art, Music, and/or a foreign language can also be added to a typical curriculum. A student's schedule is arranged in a weekly, or daily calendar format displaying each subject that must be done for the day. The student clicks on a lesson in the list for that day, completes all of the assignments, then takes the assessment, or test. The assignments include book reading, questions following the reading, science experiments, online flash cards, math problems, and essays. By clicking on a "Lesson Lists" tab, the student can choose a subject, and complete as many lessons and units in one day as he/she would like to. The student may also check his/her progress in a certain subject by clicking on the "Progress" tab. However, the student must complete their core courses to 90% or better by the first Friday of June and have at least 180 days of school attendance.

Admittedly, there are teachers available to "administer assignments, schedule conferences, and to monitor work" but the most significant supervision is to be delegated to the parents.

As the NEPC report points out:

A ... possible explanation for the weak performance relates to inadequate or insufficient instruction. Based on our findings, K12 devotes considerably fewer resources to instructional salaries and benefits for employees. This reduced spending on salaries is linked to the fact that K12 has more than three times the number of students per teacher compared with overall public school student-teacher ratios. The higher student-teacher ratio and the reduced spending on teacher salaries, as well as on salaries for all other categories of staff typically found in schools, help explain the poor performance of K12's schools. Also related to the issue of adequacy of instruction, we found that K12's math scores, which are more dependent on instruction, were substantially lower than reading scores, which are more influenced by students' home environment.

Thus "cyber space meets home schooling" is the model for schools in which teacher-student and student-student interaction, pedagogically the most effective way of stimulating young learners, is minimized. However, unlike home schooling, K12 and other similar "for-profits" take money from the public school system that could be used to hire more teachers and needed equipment for all students. In an investigation of its operations, the New York Times concluded that "K12 squeezes profits from public school funding by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload, and lowering standards." The Washington Post raised similar questions.

One would hope that enthusiasm for virtual or other forms of "cybercation" would be constrained by these tell-tale signs of the bad uses of a good idea but it seems that the future will bring these practices to the universities as well.

The day after the NECP report was released (July 17, 2012) a sensationalized article appeared in the New York Times, "Universities Reshaping Education on the Web." The article began:

As part of a seismic shift in online learning that is reshaping higher education, Coursera, a year-old company founded by two Stanford University computer scientists, will announce on Tuesday that a dozen major universities are joining the venture. In the fall, Coursera will offer 100 or more free massive open online courses or MOOCS, that are expected to draw millions of students and adult learners globally.

Certainly, highly motivated learners, generally older, can receive a great deal of value in such courses just as they do when attentively watching a program on art or nature on a public broadcasting network but again, as with K12, interaction with other students and, more significantly, hands-on teachers, is minimized. Even the enthusiasts had to concede that although "Stanford University's free online intelligence courses attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries ... only a small percentage of the students completed the course."

How much of a "small percentage?" Why so small? But regardless of the reservations of some of those interviewed about the program such as Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education ("There are going to be a lot of bumps in the road") such prestigious universities as Duke, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Virginia are going to be working to develop "virtucation" programs at their schools. Among the "bumps" are concern for "cheating," something very difficult to do with critical thinking instruction. In contrast, one university professor "was thrilled when 40,000 students downloaded his videos." In my classroom, I rely on my experience and abilities to respond to what might be an unsuccessful lesson and turn it into one in which students actively respond. There's no opportunity to do so with a video. As the professor who was so "thrilled" with his audience also observed: "MOOCs would be most helpful to people 22-102, international students, and smart retired people." Since most college students are between 18-22, this caveat is an important concession that should be heeded by the universities whose main motivation, I would believe, is to save on teacher salaries.

As I stated in concluding an article on a similar subject, in a September 6, 2011 blog:

What seems to be clear to me is that scarce educational funds are being spent on technological solutions to human problems while many of the human problems are being dismissed as technological. Nurturing a child who has been abused and discarded by her society so she wants to learn can never be accomplished by relying on a technological solution when what she needs is someone who makes her care enough about applying herself to become a successful learner: and that person is a teacher, not a computer.