Want to know something cool?

One point of view, taking note of sundry "cool" things that affect-- or could affect-- the education business.


Friday, March 10, 2006

Virtual K-12 Schools: Effective, or Just Trendy?

As of summer 2005, 21 states offered virtual K-12 schools. These state-wide programs are in addition to countless charter schools and district online courses or virtual schools. The Missouri Legislature is considering a bill that will allow students in districts rated as needing improvement to transfer into a virtual program, freeing students via NCLB from districts who need improvement system-wide, or who offer only one building at a particular grade-level. (NCLB currently allows students to transfer within a district when their school is rated as needing improvement.)

In this very blog, we discussed the Chicago virtual school under consideration. Utah leads the nation with 35,000 students enrolled in virtual schools (Utah?!?), followed by Florida with 21,000. Rapidly increasing numbers of students are taking a "blended format" course of study, attending brick-and-mortar schools but also taking one or more courses online.

What began as rural districts offering correspondence-type courses to students challenged by their geography has exploded into an Internet-empowered subset of education that blurs district (and even some state) borders. Virtual or hybrid charter schools dot the landscape along the information superhighway, and independent districts, as well as statewide departments of education, are exploring online options like never before.
(Click the link to read the full post ... )

What seem sorely lacking are efficacy metrics. Particularly in the era of NCLB, where performance measurement figures so prominently in funding and accountability, it seems odd that it's so hard to find solid statistical analyses of student performance in online courses. Online study may be represent a relatively small portion of the student body, but it's hardly new. It seems like such an evolving and rapidly expanding metaphor would be carefully observed. Best practices and white papers and studies and performance metrics would logically spring from this font of teflon-coated, low-drag, technologically-empowered, communication-focused subculture.

But it's not there. There are papers hither and yon, there are metrics about how many students and how many schools and how many states are participating in some form of online education in the K-12 space. But there's precious little in the way of results. The dearth of information could be interpreted a number of ways, one of which would hold that efficacy isn't being published because it's not positive. Of course, the void could also be explained by the fact that online education is effective that practitioners are too busy handing out As to publish results. Likely neither extreme is true; more realistic is the possibility that online K-12 education has evolved so organically that centralized study has been difficult-to-impossible and so disparate in its' implementation that comparisons across systems is unreliable.

That's not the point, though. The point is, somebody ought to be doing some form of measurement. If that means eleventy-jillion small studies, so be it. If it means first categorizing online models and grouping like systems, so be it. Meanwhile, enrollments swell, and processes become more institutionalized and less fluid, meaning that required change (if any) will be that much harder to affect.

What's cool, though, is that parents, students, teachers, administrators, and now even state departments of education have so widely embraced the ever-fattening pipes and accessibility of online delivery. Experts suggest that in a few years' time, the majority of students will be taking at least part of their course of study online. This makes measurement and study and process just that much more important. There are ways to reach and engage and enlighten and inform students that didn't exist even three years ago, and they're so simply implemented that almost any teacher can use them (blogs, wikis, podcasts, class websites, online multimedia instruction, study materials for download, parent-teacher communication, online gradebooks, and more). Integrating online study has never been easier, and its' strengths are being siezed upon in explosive growth. Cool, huh?


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