Thoughts on Online Education: Measuring Effectiveness

The number of students in virtual schools run by educational management organizations rose sharply last year, according to a new report being published Friday, and far fewer of them are proving proficient on standardized tests compared with their peers in other privately managed charter schools and in traditional public schools.

via Students of Virtual Schools Are Lagging in Proficiency – NYTimes.com.

This study gives me pause and while I wouldn’t discredit online schools simply based on their students’ performance on standardized tests, I wonder about their effectiveness.

Online education is going through a boom cycle currently, with several independent schools also getting into the fray. The models vary as well. Rather than a 100% virtual experience, some have adopted a hybrid model by entering into partnerships with established traditional schools, and offering their students the opportunity to take one or two online classes a term. At the university level, a tenured Stanford Professor of Artificial Intelligence, Sebastian Thrun, recently made news for leaving his stable position to work on Udacity, his online education startup. Online schools clearly have plenty of advantages over traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. Class size no longer has to be limited by physical space, teachers and professors can be contracted from anywhere, and students the world over can engage and spar with one another in an authentic and truly global forum. Will Richardson recently quoted Clay Christensen, the Harvard Business School Professor and author of disruptive innovation theory, “I think it will not be long before people will see that those who took their education online will have learned it better than people who got it in the classroom.”

Yet, in spite of these possibilities and advantages, I am not sold on online schools. I offer just two of my biggest concerns: First, online schools of which I am aware currently cater only to the high school and university crowd. In the K-8 world, I am doubtful of the success of entirely virtual experiences. Social-emotional learning still occupies center stage for us as we work with emerging adolescents; relationships formed virtually can be tenuous at best. How often do we as educators and parents excoriate online communication for its inability to denote tone and emotions? Tools like Google Hangouts and Skype could bypass written communication, but current software limits number of users at one time. Second, independent schools have long talked about educating the whole child. How do online schools cater to this characteristic of successful independent schools? (Perhaps that’s why the hybrid model is being adopted by a few at the secondary school level.)

There’s clearly a lot of potential for a truly diverse and global education as some of the advantages I listed earlier demonstrate, but many other questions remain for online education before it is deemed a success or failure. My sense is that it will have its promoters and detractors for a while. I leave you with the following tidbit: Stanford Professors Thrun and Norvig modified a traditional Stanford course on artificial intelligence and offered it as a free online course last fall to anyone with an internet connection. Over 185,000 users signed up! Clearly an advantage for online education. However, response to the class was mixed and by the end of the term, “only a small percentage of the over 200 enrolled students were regularly showing up to lecture. Many students…found that the online videos were very often more informative than lecture.” The lesson here, or at least one of them? Success is dependent not upon whether you are the first to market, but whether you do it right. See Apple’s track record.

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