Friday, April 15, 2011

More Pupils Are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality

Online learning is an area in which I'm going to have to do a lot of digging.  I love the Khan Academy and my dad got an MBA from Colorado State while he lived in Ethiopia, but I think this has to be done REALLY carefully:

Mr. Hamilton, 18, is among the expanding ranks of students in kindergarten through Grade 12 — more than one million in the United States, by one estimate — taking online courses.

Advocates of such courses say they allow schools to offer not only makeup courses, the fastest-growing area, but also a richer menu of electives and Advanced Placement classes when there are not enough students to fill a classroom.

But critics say online education is really driven by a desire to spend less on teachers and buildings, especially as state and local budget crises force deep cuts to education. They note that there is no sound research showing that online courses at the K-12 level are comparable to face-to-face learning.

Here in Memphis, in one of the most ambitious online programs of its kind, every student must take an online course to graduate, beginning with current sophomores. Some study online versions of courses taught in classrooms in the same building. Officials for Memphis City Schools say they want to give students skills they will need in college, where online courses are increasingly common, and in the 21st-century workplace.

But it is also true that Memphis is spending only $164 for each student in an online course. Administrators say they have never calculated an apples-to-apples comparison for the cost of online vs. in-person education, but around the country skeptics say online courses are a stealthy way to cut corners.

"It's a cheap education, not because it benefits the students," said Karen Aronowitz, president of the teachers' union in Miami, where 7,000 high school students were assigned to study online in computer labs this year because there were not enough teachers to comply with state class-size caps.

"This is being proposed for even your youngest students," Ms. Aronowitz said. "Because it's good for the kids? No. This is all about cheap."

Nationwide, an estimated 1.03 million students at the K-12 level took an online course in 2007-8, up 47 percent from two years earlier, according to the Sloan Consortium, an advocacy group for online education. About 200,000 students attend online schools full time, often charter schools that appeal to home-schooling families, according to another report.

The growth has come despite a cautionary review of research by the United States Department of Education in 2009. It found benefits in online courses for college students, but it concluded that few rigorous studies had been done at the K-12 level, and policy makers "lack scientific evidence of the effectiveness" of online classes.

The fastest growth has been in makeup courses for students who failed a regular class. Advocates say the courses let students who were bored or left behind learn at their own pace.

But even some proponents of online classes are dubious about makeup courses, also known as credit recovery — or, derisively, click-click credits — which high schools, especially those in high-poverty districts, use to increase graduation rates and avoid federal sanctions.

Like other education debates, this one divides along ideological lines. K-12 online learning is championed by conservative-leaning policy groups that favor broadening school choice, including Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, which has called on states to provide all students with "Internet access devices" and remove bans on for-profit virtual schools.

Teachers' unions and others say much of the push for online courses, like vouchers and charter schools, is intended to channel taxpayers' money into the private sector.


More Pupils Are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality

Published: April 5, 2011

MEMPHIS — Jack London was the subject in Daterrius Hamilton's online English 3 course. In a high school classroom packed with computers, he read a brief biography of London with single-paragraph excerpts from the author's works. But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of "Call of the Wild" or "To Build a Fire."

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