Unlike most of 2011, and for that matter pretty much all of 2009 and 2010, K-12 online learning has begun to receive a lot more attention in recent months – particularly full-time K-12 online learning. Much of that attention has been critical – and based on the available data that we have available – deservedly so. What I have found interesting is the reactions from different people involved in the K-12 online learning community.
This past month, I described in two entries the tactics that the neo-liberal and neo-conservative proponents of K-12 online learning use when reacting to these kinds of articles. As you all know, my reaction to any of these articles is to examine the research that is available. This is one of the reasons why I question the value of K-12 online learning for everyone. It is also one of the reasons why I question full-time online learning. To date, the research suggests that only a highly selective group of students can have success in this environment. This is not to say that no other type of students can have success, but we don’t have public data, collected using reliable and valid methods, to support that other groups of students can have success.
But today I’d like to take a look at how one of my academic colleagues reacts. Late in 2011, the Wall Street Journal published an article that fairly accurately describes what a typical day might look like for a full-time online student, then provides a list of some recent legislative developments, along with some statistics from the Keeping Pace report. The article then lists some of the benefits claimed by proponents, questions the performance of these full-time online schools in some states, and touts the potential of some specific blended/hybrid examples. The article then examines the level of and nature of interaction that occurs in full-time online learning, with some comments about the fact that many of these students will have to learn online when they go on to post-secondary studies and also claims about the iPod generation. The article continues with a discussion of the amount of money that flows to these full-tie online schools under the charter school legislation, and examines the student performance in full-time online learning a little more closely. In both sections, ample quotations from officials at various K12, Inc. and Connections Learning schools – along with their executives – to defend this aspect of K-12 online learning are provided. The article concludes with some specific examples of what occurs in the K-12 online learning environment, using the Florida Virtual School, a blended learning program in Florida, and a cyber charter school.
About a week later, the New York Times published an article that began by summarizing the Wall Street Journal article. Unlike the previous article, the New York Times piece doesn’t do much in the way of describing K-12 online learning. It doesn’t provide the perceived benefits of K-12 online learning. It doesn’t include any quotes from cyber charter school company executives or even K-12 online learning neo-liberal/neo-conservative proponents. It does ask questions about the wisdom of allowing students and parents to choose K-12 online learning as an option, as opposed to having school administrators making that decision for them based on the potential for online learning to save that administrator some money.
My colleague, Cathy Cavanaugh, who has conducted as much research into K-12 online learning as any of us, wrote on her Facebook page :
If we look at the Wall Street Journal article, I would argue that unless you are a proponent of the for profit cyber charter school industry, it is quite balanced. It raises some reasonable questions about education funding being used for corporate profits, the lack of student performance in many of these full-time online schools, and the amount and nature of student-teacher interaction (although on this last point, the articles leaves the reader with the impression that while the nature of the interaction is different, the amount is comparable to what a student would receive in a face-to-face environment and is at a level that an individual student might need). By the same token, it lists many of the perceived benefits of K-12 online learning and provides some very specific blended/hybrid programs that the authors of the article point to as examples of successful programs. However, the New York Times article provided a VERY brief summary of the Wall Street Journal piece, then made some flowery statements about some online learning being good and some students being successful in online learning environments, and finishes with a challenge for K-12 online learning to be used because it is the right option for individual students and not as a way to cut costs.
With all due respect to Cathy, if we are talking about balance the Wall Street Journal piece did a much better job. While there may be some quibbles about whether there was equal coverage provided and whether the authors may have already had a conclusion they wanted their readers to reach, isn’t that the point of independent journalism? There are some legitimate questions concerning full-time K-12 online learning that these for profit providers have yet to answer in a definite way with independent evidence. I’m sorry if I don’t believe McDonald’s when they tell me how healthy their food is – and that is comparable to what we are talking about here.
I think the big difference is the nature of the conclusions drawn. The New York Times piece took a position, one that I have heard Cathy herself state on a number of occasions, that online learning should be used when it makes sense for that student – end of sentence. But in terms of balance, the Wall Street Journal piece was certainly more comprehensive, and also did a much better job of providing perspectives from both sides.
About a week after that, The Nation published an article that examined the individuals and organizations that were pushing the K-12 online learning agenda (the group that I call the neo-liberal/neo-conservative proponents of K-12 online learning), and how these individuals and organizations are interconnected and – while often claiming to be non-partisan, have some very strong ties to business and a specific right-wing political agenda. In relation to this article, Cathy posted on her Facebook page:
While I agree with Cathy that not all virtual schools are created alike, the article is specifically focused on full-time online school that are run by for-profit cyber charter companies. According to the latest Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning report, there are really two major players in this market: K12, Inc. (programs in 29 states) and Connections Learning (programs in 20 states) – with two other national companies: one with 8 state-based schools and one with a single school. At this stage, because it is a publicly traded company, we do know a bit more about K12, Inc.. However, I think the article does a good job touching on the motivations, connections, and personnel of both of these big players.
I think Cathy’s sentiment here is that we shouldn’t judge all K-12 online learning based on the actions of the for-profit segment of the field. And if that was her main point, I can’t disagree. The problem is that those representing K-12 online learning at a national level either already come from the neo-liberal/neo-conservative perspective, or these individuals and organizations have been co-opted or overrun by these neo-liberal/neo-conservative proponents.
These neo-liberal/neo-conservative proponents use these organizations – and the research from people like Cathy and myself – that have nothing to do and certainly don’t support their corporate, privatization agenda within the public domain to audiences that don’t know any better. So while Cathy’s claim that The Nation article doesn’t represent all virtual school, it does a VERY good job at representing the for-profit, full-time K-12 online learning component of the field. Every statement that we – as researchers – make that cause people to question this, plays right into the hands of these neo-liberal/neo-conservative proponents.
My goal in writing this entry is not to pick a fight with a good colleague. But I think that as a research community we could be more careful with how we describe things. As researchers, I think that we look at everything with a bit of a skeptical eye because we want to see evidence that things work before we begin to make wholesale changes to an education system that may end up doing more harm than help. The problem is that the other side have become quite good at the public relations game. This means that those of us who have questions, those of us that have concerns, need to be more careful in how we describe things. Making claims that one article is unbalanced, while another one is more balanced provides those proponents with justification – from an independent researcher no less – that the “unbalanced” article is somehow flawed. Making claims that an article is not representative of all virtual schools provides those proponents with justification – again from an independent researcher – that this isolated example is not consistent with all of these other for profit programs not named in the specific piece. As I said, the other side has gotten very good in defending themselves against these perceived attacks, no need to help them out even more.