Virtual School Meanderings

August 5, 2022

Responding to an online learning critic

I think it is important to point out a couple of things here.  While John and I agree on a lot, it should be noted that John falls into the same trap that most proponents use when advocating for increases in online learning.  The use of isolated cases to support their cause, often times with the implication that these isolated cases are the norm (when it reality they are often the exact opposite).  For example, in his argument that it is policy and politics that hinder virtual learning in unionized states, and not factors like the original author claimed (e.g., “the quest for cheaper, more efficient modes of schooling; the push to limit the influence of teachers unions by concentrating virtual teachers in non-union states; and a variety of medical and social factors that lead some students and families to prefer online learning”), John actually uses two tactics that we see commonly used.  The first is his use of the Florida Virtual School as an illustration.  What John writes and implies about the Florida Virtual School is correct.  What he doesn’t tell you is that the Florida Virtual School is quite unique as a public virtual school.  The first is that while it operates as statewide, supplemental online program at the high school level, it’s elementary school operation is essentially outsourced to Pearson Education through Connections Education.  The second is that unlike other statewide, supplemental the Florida Virtual School is funded as a school district and receives the same enrollment-based funding that a brick-and-mortar school district receives.  The third is that for the first half or more of its history, students who attended the Florida Virtual School were doubly funded (i.e., their brick-and-mortar school district received funding for the student and the virtual school also received funding) – which meant that (a) the Florida Virtual School was not in competition with the home school, and (b) the Florida Virtual School was the best funded statewide, supplemental program in the country for well over a decade.  The fourth is that the politics and policy that John claims hinders these opportunities in other states, actually encourages – even forces – students into virtual learning contexts.  Essentially, the Florida Virtual School is a unicorn within the statewide, supplemental landscape – but here is it held up as a typical example.

But even if all of those things were not true, John addresses the original author’s point not by attempt to refute it, but by changing the focus of the issue (which is a tactic that I’ve written about many times for more than a decade now).  John ignores the potential that both legislator/policymakers and corporate online learning are in a constant “quest for cheaper” way to provide K-12 education – either to save money for the public purse or to maximize profits.  John ignores the ideological goal of applying free market thinking to the public system of education in an effort to find a “more efficient modes of schooling.”  John ignores the fact that many well known and vocal proponents of K-12 online learning – including several former authors of and speakers at Evergreen publications and events – have specifically stated that one of their goals for online learning is a  “push to limit the influence of teachers unions by concentrating virtual teachers in non-union states” (and in unionized states for that matter).  The one factor raised by the original author that John eventually gets to, but not in the section where he is directly discussing it, is that in some instances there are indeed “a variety of medical and social factors that lead some students and families to prefer online learning”.

But John is also right that the increase levels of online learning in some states is indeed about “political and policy decisions.”  Unfortunately, those decisions are based on an ideology that solutions to public policy issues are best addressed by free market solutions, where the marketplace will determine winners and losers.  And if by providing those choices we can allow a minority of students to become winners, than it is okay that the rest of the students are further assured to become losers because of the increase inequity, that’s perfectly okay.  No just okay, but exactly how the market place is designed to work.

Also worth noting my earlier entries that discussed the issue of student performance in online schooling – among other issues (see GAO study suggests online school wars, How well do online schools serve students?, The shifting digital learning policy battles, and Proof Points: Demonstrating positive impact on student outcomes).


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Responding to an online learning critic


Last week’s post mentioned that we are still seeing influential observers criticizing online and hybrid learning mostly by conflating it with emergency remote learning. It linked to an article titled Online Schooling Is the Bad Idea That Refuses to Die, which at least has the positive attribute of being straightforward and honest about the writer’s views.

We are engaging with critics from time to time, and I wrote a long email to the author of that article. I’m using this blog post to reproduce my email as I’ve been asked a few times for how I respond in these circumstances, in case it helps any readers with their responses to online learning critics.

Dear Dr. Gabor,

I’m writing in response to your Bloomberg piece titled Online Schooling Is the Bad Idea That Refuses to Die to make the case that online and hybrid schools and courses are in fact a viable option for millions of students in the United States—and in fact the best option for them in many cases.

<snipped some background blog readers are familiar with>

I’m putting sections of your piece in italics throughout this email to make clear the points that I am responding to.

Nearly all of the 20 largest US school districts will offer online schooling options this fall. Over half of them will be offering more full-time virtual school programs than they did before the pandemic. The trend seems likely to continue or accelerate, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat.

I agree, in particular that the trend is likely to continue. We are seeing a significant uptick in interest in online learning from many traditional districts.

School closings over the last two years have inflicted severe educational and emotional damage on American students.

I agree—and it’s clear that the emergency remote learning that we saw implemented was often unsuccessful. In our annual Digital Learning Snapshot we contrasted emergency remote learning with online/hybrid learning using this graphic:

Schools should now be focusing on creative ways to fill classrooms, socialize kids and convey the joy of collaborative learning — not on providing opportunities to stay home.

This is where we disagree—although maybe less than you might think. I completely agree that schools should be focusing on providing creative, collaborative opportunities, and that these should be mostly based in physical schools. But it’s clear that learning from home has been the best option for millions of students pre-pandemic, and many more students and families found that they liked learning online during the pandemic.

These students learning online, or in hybrid schools, represent a wide range of cases. Some students have health issues. Others have fallen behind academically, or are seeking to advance at a faster rate than their traditional school allows. Some are focused on dual credit, internships, jobs, or other pursuits. They are highly varied, but have in common that they find that a non-traditional school, which is either online or a mix of online and face-to-face, is a better option for them. For student perspectives based on interviews, focus groups, and surveys, see “Why Students Choose Online and Blended Schools” on this page.

Historically, various forces have pushed for online education — not all of them focused on improving education. These include: the quest for cheaper, more efficient modes of schooling; the push to limit the influence of teachers unions by concentrating virtual teachers in non-union states; and a variety of medical and social factors that lead some students and families to prefer online learning.

I agree with much of this statement. In fact, we have made the case repeatedly that online and hybrid leaning are not cheaper modes of schooling, and using online options to save money is generally a bad idea. I disagree with the line about “concentrating virtual teachers in non-union states” because I think that statement gets cause-and-effect backwards. A state like Florida, with its public Florida Virtual School, demonstrates that there is demand for hundreds of thousands of students to take online courses. Does that demand from students and families not exist in a state like New York because there’s some reason NY students are different? Or does the supply simply not exist because of political and policy decisions? It seems more likely that the latter is occurring.

Since the pandemic, some virtual programs have reasonably stressed medically fragile students. But others are seizing on online education in a rushed effort to shore up public-school enrollments, which plummeted in some cities. The prevalence of these programs in Los AngelesPhiladelphiaDallas and New York is particularly worrying, as they target poor and minority students who are likely to be particularly ill-served by online school options.

There’s no doubt that poor and minority students have been poorly served by online school options in too many cases. But shouldn’t the declining enrollments be seen as a signal that districts should be doing something differently?

We are finding an increasing number of districts starting hybrid schools that combine online and in-person options. The hybrid instructional model is showing success in schools like Crossroads FLEX in North Carolina, and Poudre Global Academy in Colorado.

Students in cyber schools do their coursework mostly from home and over the internet, with teachers often located in different states and time zones. There is little comprehensive information about the curricula, student-teacher ratios, how much actual teaching occurs, or what if any academic supports are provided by the schools.

I’m not clear on what “comprehensive” means in this paragraph. It is clear that there is a lack of general understanding of many of these issues, including within colleges of education and among policymakers. But at DLAC we host a research community that includes university professors and NGO representatives, as well as organizations such as Michigan Virtual University, which publishes extensively on these topics. In addition, teaching strategies, academic supports, and related topics are a focus of many DLAC sessions. Within the digital learning community, this information is widely available.

You touch on two areas that I won’t delve deeply into here, only because this response would turn into a mini-dissertation. These issues are 1) student outcomes in online schools, and 2) the role of companies that work closely with some online schools. I would be glad to discuss these issues further, or you might be interested in a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that I wrote about here. The bottom line is that the GAO raises these questions and finds the answers much less clear than critics maintain.

Finally, I’d like to focus on this paragraph and the closing points after it, because it is where I think a mistaken summary is given:

The adverse impact of the pandemic on the emotional well-being and social skills of children — one-third of school leaders reported a  surge in disruptive student behavior during the past school year — is a cautionary lesson for online learning.

There is no question that the pandemic had tremendously negative impacts on students’ well-being and academic growth. There is also no question that attempts at emergency remote learning often did little to mitigate these issues. And, there is no question that most students are and will benefit from being back at a physical school.

But that is a very different conclusion than saying, as your article suggests, that online and hybrid options should be curtailed. Pre-pandemic, millions of students and families were choosing online and hybrid schools and courses. Post-pandemic, that number has gone up, as more students have discovered these opportunities.

Nobody in the online learning world would say that physical schools should not exist. I invite you to consider joining us at DLAC to talk with the 1500+ educators (along with a few students and parents), who would be glad to share with you why they believe that online and hybrid learning may not be the best option for every student, but should be available to every student.

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