After suffering bigger class sizes as the result of laying off about 95 teachers due to budget cuts, the Manchester New Hampshire school district is looking to add online classes. Although the benefits are unclear, this is part of a trend that appears unstoppable.
Officials, seeking an overhaul, began to wonder if a 21st-century technology might help allay their struggles: having some students take courses online during the school day, without a teacher physically present.
But a plan to institute “blended learning labs,” which allow students to do just that, is stoking concern among parents and teachers. Some doubt the efficacy of online learning. Others say the proposed solution barely scratches the surface of systemic problems here.
Virtual labs and remote classrooms
The plan, which Superintendent Thomas J. Brennan Jr. presented to the district’s school board last month, would expand the district’s current use of New Hampshire’s online charter school, the Virtual Learning Academy, by putting a virtual learning lab in each of the district’s three high schools, allowing students to take courses there during the school day under the supervision of a “facilitator” who would be present in the lab. It would also add a remote classroom to each high school, where students in undersubscribed courses could participate in classes taught at one of the other schools via an interactive monitor, and expand the school’s collaboration with the University of New Hampshire at Manchester.
Nearly 620,000 students took an online course during the 2011-2012 school year, up 16 percent from the previous year, according to an annual reportreleased this week by the Evergreen Education Group, which works with schools to implement online and blended learning programs.
A number of states and districts actually require students to take online classes as a condition of graduation. One rationale is that this requirement helps prepare students for a future where online learning will be a standard part of higher education and employment. While it appears inevitable that online education will move forward at all levels of education, conclusive evidence of how it’s working remains elusive.
At this point in the maturation of virtual education, the importance of high-quality, objective research is greater than ever. Education leaders need it to make informed decisions about how to use virtual education programs. But therein lies the problem: Very little high-quality, objective research on the subject is available.
K-12 online learning is a done deal. As a practical matter, schools have “moved past” questioning whether it is better for students.
“Researchers and practitioners have moved past the question of ‘we need more research into whether this works,’ but I’m not sure the policymakers and legislators and the general media have,” he says.
What now needs answering, Watson says, are questions on how best to implement online learning and to determine which factors contribute to success. But that type of investigation can pose problems. With so many variations on how online learning is implemented—in hybrid forms, full-time virtual schools, supplemental online courses, courses with online instructors and without, and varying degrees of face-to-face support—it’s hard to do comparisons, Watson says.
“When you talk about research, people have an idea that you have a group of students with an online class, a control group, a random sample. …You really can’t do that” with online learning, he says. “There are far too many permutations, implementations, and instructional models.”
In my neighborhood
With continuing budget pressures arising from steeply rising pension costs, I predict online learning will soon be introduced in our local schools. In a nearby district, low-income high schools will soon get access to ‘online and blended” AP courses.