The Long Journey Toward Viability—The Story of Online Schools

October 16, 2012 / REMEMBER PEOPLE CHANGE THE WORLD, NOT GOVERNMENTS

The Long Journey Toward Viability—The Story of Online Schools

October 16, 2012

Estelle Shumann Writer and researcher, Online Schools

Estelle Shumann is a writer and researcher for http://www.onlineschools.org, you can check out more of her writing there.

Our guest writer today was inspired by a blog post we previously shared, suggesting that the older, more traditional collegiate system of education will soon give way to online education. Here, Estelle shares her opposing point of view—arguing that these new platforms still have much to learn from traditional classrooms, exploring the advantages and disadvantages of online education and what institutions, both online and offline, can do to more adequately integrate the efficiency of the Internet and the quality of brick-and-mortar classes.

The quality of online schooling is still considered to be below that of traditional classrooms. Yet, more students are packing into virtual schools than ever before. The growth rate of online education has, in fact, outpaced that of brick-and-mortar classrooms for years. It is time to evaluate whether the dubious quality of these online courses provide a valuable service, or whether they harm the quality of education in the United States.

Affordability is one of the chief advantages of online learning. If a university does not need to take up the space of a physical classroom, then it is able to teach larger numbers of students. In theory, this would equate to lower costs for students and for the schools. On the other hand, however, the decrease in cost for physical space could be spent to raise the quality of the course in more concrete ways.

That is the theory of K12 Inc., the largest publicly traded business in online education. So far, the company has performed quite well, bringing in over $500 million in 2011. Stephanie Saul summarized this phenomenon in the New York Times, “The growth of for-profit online schools…is rooted in the theory that corporate efficiencies combined with the Internet can revolutionize public education, offering high quality at reduced cost.” By using the Internet to distribute course materials, including lectures, an enterprise can reduce its costs considerably. That sounds promising, particularly now, with the cost of education so high.

In practice, though, online schools suffer many of the same problems with funding as traditional schools. Attrition rates can be atrocious. Agora, one of K12’s schools, was reported to have some extremely concerning issues with its student population. Roughly half of its students are behind in reading, more than half are behind in math, and one-third graduate late.

Community colleges that use virtual classrooms have encountered problems of their own. An article published in April 2012, in Inside Higher Ed asked Fred Lokken, the council chair for the Instructional Technology Council, to explain a recent report his organization published about new trends in online learning. Lokken pointed out that fewer institutions offered online counseling and orientation in 2011 than in the previous year. These two services are typically viewed as integral to helping students stay on task, learn, and eventually graduate. In this way, community colleges are becoming more like K12 Inc. in their treatment of online students, exhibiting a lack of support and care for their students.

If such large percentages of students fail to receive an adequate education in online programs, then it may not be the solution to problems in the United States’ education system. Some parents may opt to risk their son or daughter’s schooling and enroll them in an online program, while others may be forced to do so because of economic concerns. In the end, more people have access to education, but this is a pyrrhic victory. If the quality or support systems in place are not up to the standard, these programs will lead to a national debate over how to regulate them.

Estelle Shumann Writer and researcher, Online Schools

Estelle Shumann is a writer and researcher for http://www.onlineschools.org, you can check out more of her writing there.

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