Virtual School Meanderings

December 28, 2011

Critiquing K-12 Online Learning

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.


  1. Interesting perspective. A bit picky though for Facebook posts. Her audience there are “friends”, not necessarily professional colleagues. Do we really need to provide a rationale for opinions stated on Facebook?!?

    Comment by Dennis — December 28, 2011 @ 8:21 pm | Reply

    • Dennis, I believe that Cathy – like myself and many other academics – uses her Facebook page as a combination of a way for friends and family to stay in touch and also as a way to provide resources for professional colleagues. Similar to the way many academics use Twitter or Google Plus. These items weren’t shared for the mutual interest of her family or “friends”. These items were shared for the many K-12 online learning colleagues that she has connected with on Facebook.

      I also have to say that this is a very interested take on Facebook, the notion that it would be solely a social tool.

      Comment by mkbnl — December 28, 2011 @ 8:26 pm | Reply

  2. That is an interesting way of looking at FB. I guess my own use – which is social with both friends and colleagues. along with a mix of brainstorming/floating ideas to get others feedback – was the template that I used for framing my comment.

    With that said, if Cathy is truly using FB as a way to provide resources for professional colleagues, then it is a rather informal means, and the degree of proof needed in such posts should be much lower.

    Comment by Dennis — December 29, 2011 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

    • If you look at Cathy’s Facebook for the past month there are updates about getting ready for, traveling to, and then settling into Abu Dhabi. Some pictures of her and her family over the holidays. A variety of FourSquare check-ins. Notice of two articles published by UF ed tech faculty or alumni, along with several other UF ed tech messages (congratulating grads, etc.). A posting of Ali’s TEDx presentation. A variety of other items – mixed with professional and personal (e.g., posting of various K-12 online learning news articles and a listing of books she is reading from weRead).

      It is not unlike my own stream (or the streams of many academics). I have a lot of notices of my blog entries (and I do mean a lot). A posting a video about interacting with cats in a shelter via remote controlled toys. Some items related to my travel to and from, along with around, Newfoundland. Reposting a letter from Senator Eggleton about C-10. A picture of my nephew and myself.

      To think that Facebook is simply a social or personal tool – particularly in the hands of an educational technology faculty – is limiting at best. BTW, I have no idea what you are trying to say in that final sentence.

      Comment by mkbnl — December 29, 2011 @ 9:01 pm | Reply

  3. “With that said, if Cathy is truly using FB as a way to provide resources for professional colleagues, then it is a rather informal means, and the degree of proof needed in such posts should be much lower.”

    I meant that the informal nature of FB should allow for a different standard of communication. We shouldn’t require the same proof (backing up every statement with a reference) as in academia, because FB is not a purely academic means of communication.

    Comment by Dennis — December 29, 2011 @ 9:34 pm | Reply

    • This is exactly the point that I am making in the entry. The other side (i.e., the neo-liberal/neo-conservative proponents of K-12 online learning) are careful in every medium they use – just check their Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.. I’m not suggesting that Cathy should have provided one or more paragraphs of academicese on her Facebook wall. What I am suggesting is that we need to be just as careful in calling a spade a spade; and not helping the other side in making their case – they do it quite well on their own, and are always consistent in that message.

      Comment by mkbnl — December 29, 2011 @ 10:44 pm | Reply

  4. Thanks to Michael and Dennis for raising awareness of critical issues in virtual schooling and for the ongoing conversation about the issues. In this response to Michael’s post and Dennis’s comments, I focus on the nature of recent discussions in news media and social media rather than specific content of the discussions. In my work as a virtual schools researcher, my primary channels for comment are academic articles and conferences where I work to give my statements foundations in data and literature. I chose not to make social media a primary outlet because there are others with greater skill and interest in commenting via social media. We each use social media for particular purposes. My blogs and other social network comments are limited in quantity to times when I have a specific point to make to an audience that is largely outside the group of virtual schools researchers. My comments are intended to increase awareness of news and publications among a diverse group of students, colleagues, friends, and family who may have an interest in the materials. Certainly, all of us who participate in social media and other forms of public discourse must expect that our words will be shared and commented upon. I welcome such comment. That said, my Facebook posts about the news articles covering virtual schools were intended to share the articles. The articles themselves provide a needed service to society by connecting general audiences with important issues. This service has always been essential in a democracy, making the burden heavy among reporters to provide accurate information. With any complex issue like virtual schooling, a reporter is biased in selecting the information and perspectives to include. While understandably incomplete, these stories add to general understanding of the current state of virtual schooling. I am grateful to colleagues like Michael and Dennis for adding detail and a scholarly perspective to the news stories.

    Comment by Cathy Cavanaugh — December 31, 2011 @ 10:37 pm | Reply

    • But Cathy, this is exactly my point. If you look at the neo-liberal/neo-conservative proponents of K-12 online learning, they will use all channels (e.g., social media, what they call academic, and others) to make a very specific point. Essentially to claim a narrative.

      As an academic, based on the available public data that we have about full-time, cyber charter schools can you arrive at a conclusion that this is something that we should be diving into head first? That we should allow with no limits and little regulation? I don’t believe you’d agree with that based on the data that we have. But that is what the other side is promoting and pursuing. And every time we provide – in any channel – fodder to help them support that narrative, that desire, that goal; we do the field a disservice.

      It doesn’t really help the field when the neo-liberal/neo-conservative proponents of K-12 online learning can say that Cathy Cavanaugh, the best known and one of the most published researchers in the field, questioned these articles published in The Wall Street Journal and The Nation. And you know these folks as well as I do, if you think that this – and other examples our academic colleagues – aren’t used and will continue to be used in this manner, than you and others are kidding yourselves.

      And that is the big problem… Those trying to propose a counter-narrative often concede or even support nuanced aspects of the neo-liberal/neo-conservative proponents’ of K-12 online learning position. However, the neo-liberal/neo-conservative proponents of K-12 online learning never extend the same courtesy. Their narrative presents the issue as being black or white, as good vs. evil, as right against wrong. There are no shades of gray for the neo-liberal/neo-conservative proponents of K-12 online learning. Arguing shades of gray will get us no closer to the truth, and it will do little to stem the tide of the dominant narrative.

      Howard Zinn once said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train!” Shades of gray is the neutral position, which will just led to people arguing that position to be run over.

      Comment by mkbnl — December 31, 2011 @ 11:04 pm | Reply

  5. […] Critiquing K-12 Online Learning […]

    Pingback by Statistics For December 2011 « Virtual School Meanderings — December 31, 2011 @ 11:27 pm | Reply

  6. so the balanced view is that virtual learning is here to stay and will probably supplement the current education system thereby providing the best of both the worlds!

    Comment by Jose Green — January 2, 2012 @ 7:06 am | Reply

    • That may very well be the case in Australia, but that isn’t the case in the United States. The view in the United States, at least from the neo-liberal/neo-conservative proponents’ of K-12 online learning, is that virtual learning is a tool that can be used to increase the for profit opportunities of public education more and more. Laws that require virtual learning are becoming more common, and indicate a desire to not just have a good balance, but to become the dominant mode of educational delivery (because that is best for the bottom line).

      Comment by mkbnl — January 2, 2012 @ 8:16 am | Reply

  7. Your post undeniably establishes a nexus between K-12 lobbyists – with substantial stakes in the textbook publishing business – and educational authorities. But, there are a few good men as well (the non-profits such as CK-12 and Khan Academy) who are genuinely involved in the cause of making education accessible and virtually free. To further this cause, the medium they’ve chosen is online learning and understandably so. Only recently, helped Minnesota school district save $175,000 of education budget, did it get the desired coverage? My only concern is that probability of good folks getting eyed with suspicion gets high amidst this snarkfest across blogosphere about K-12 online learning being not as good as its traditional counterpart or there is a hidden motive involved and so forth. Give them their due, is all I ask.

    Comment by jeck smith — January 11, 2012 @ 5:05 am | Reply

    • Jeck, I think you miss the point of my post. As readers familiar with this blog or my academic work know, I’m not against K-12 online learning. I am against the co-option of K-12 online learning as a vehicle by the neo-liberal and neo-conservative proponents of the privatization of public education in the guise of educational reform.

      This particular post was suggesting that those neo-liberal and neo-conservative proponents of K-12 online learning are quite strategic in their public comments and are all on message. Those that do not share their views need to be more careful in how they present themselves and their views. As I indicate in my response to Cathy herself, when you are arguing with someone who sees the world in black and white, making a point about shades of grey is simply seen as agreement or support (and at the very least a lack of disagreement). They choose their words, their actions, what they support, and the methods in which they support it very carefully. Those who disagree with their position should do the same.

      And that was the point of this particular blog entry!

      Comment by mkbnl — January 11, 2012 @ 8:24 am | Reply

  8. […] Critiquing K-12 Online Learning […]

    Pingback by Statistics For January 2012 « Virtual School Meanderings — January 31, 2012 @ 11:10 pm | Reply

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