Virtual school?

While arguments rage about state versus private versus free schools, a quiet flanking movement is taking place: the growth of the virtual school or education online.

As a tutor for the Open University for sixteen years, as well as being an online student with the OU myself, I’m a big fan of online study. Every year thousands of people, mainly adults, sign up to the growing number of online courses available. Now though, especially in the USA, more and more families are turning to online alternatives for their children. Online education at both primary and secondary level, whether as full-time or a ‘blended’ tuition, is providing education to well over a quarter of a million children in the US.

According to a special report in this week’s (8th September 2012) New Scientist, what began with the opening in 1997 of the first ‘internet-based, state-run high school’ has now spread to more than thirty states. Out of around 55 million school-age children in the USA, 250,000 represents only 0.5 per cent of the school population but, claims the ‘Special Report’, this is already ‘a jump of 25 per cent over the previous year’.
As yet, no-one knows how effective online eduction is for the primary and secondary years. David Figlio, from Northwestern University in Chicago, says that ‘the research literature is extremely thin’. Kerry Rice, an education researcher from Boise State University in Idaho, maintains that ‘there are really good face-to-face schools and there are really bad face-to-face schools. And there are really good online schools and there are really ineffective online schools. What we really want to know is what is effective in each type of environment’.
At the moment, the majority of schools in the US measure their students’ progress using ‘Carnegie units’, also known as ‘seat time’. However, for students who master concepts, skills and factual knowledge faster or slower than the pace set by the individual school, ‘seat time’ can be demoralising. On the other hand, online learning can offer students the opportunity to progress at their own pace and courses can be individually tailored to their needs; and, as technology improves, this is becoming easier all the time. Apparently, according to the report, ‘New Hampshire … recently redesigned its high school programme to do away with seat time in favour of mastery-based credit’.
Where might this lead in the future? Cathy Cavanaugh of Gainesville University in Florida believes that ‘every type of learning environment will be in a minority. There will be so many varying approaches that no single approach will prevail’.
It’s a development I expect we’re going to hear much more about in the next few years.