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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July 29, 2022

Proof Points: Demonstrating positive impact on student outcomes

Not a detailed commentary, but I would caution readers that these kinds of comparisons can be misleading.  For example, the first illustration below of an online school in Texas outperforming its brick-and-mortar counterparts.  Keep in mind that the online school likely had a four week window at the beginning of the year for students to try out online learning.  Those that discovered after what represents 1/10 of their learning time that school year who decided that online learning just wasn’t for them didn’t just drop out of the system altogether.  They returned to the brick-and-mortar environment, likely further behind than what they were when they first tried out online schooling.  Also, these kinds of statements fail to account for the fact that he family decision to seek an alternative form of schooling takes a certain degree of social, economic, or political capital to make.  These are all positive influences that have been pulled out of the traditional brick-and-mortar environment, influences that would have likely agitated for the improvement of the brick-and-mortar school.  Finally, It should also be understood that the loss of students from the brick-and-mortar environment isn’t a cohesive loss.  If a K-8 school loses 35 students, it probably means one less teacher.  The problem is that of those 35 students, six of them are in the first grade, four of them in the second grade, 3 from the third grade, five from the fourth grade, and so on.  So the brick-and-mortar school can’t simply eliminate one full class or section.  They have to provide the same amount of schooling, just with 35 fewer FTEs to fund it.  So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that with the potential for students that are further behind, with a less engaged family involvement in the school, and with less funding that brick-and-mortar schools struggled to have their students perform at levels equivalent to students who were vetted into a modality of instruction, had greater family involvement, and were not impacted by a reduction in funding (beyond the potential for corporate greed).  This is just one illustration from the examples below of how the online option within the school choice movement is a good illustration of being able to help a select group of students while piling on additional hurt for those that remain in the traditional brick-and-mortar system.

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Proof Points: Demonstrating positive impact on student outcomes


During the pandemic, the large majority of schools in the United States shifted to emergency remote learning for some amount of time, with the total remote learning time varying by district and region. It was clear at the time that many of those efforts were well-intentioned, and represented the best that could be done on the short notice that COVID provided. It was also clear then, and is being documented now, that many students had poor experiences with remote learning.

But emergency remote learning was different than online and hybrid learning, as we documented in the 2022 Snapshot and elsewhere. Given that our blog readership is mostly aware of these contrasts, I won’t repeat them here other than to include a graphic from the Snapshot below.

Many observers, however, have conflated emergency remote learning with online/hybrid learning, and continue to do so. Some of these observers include people in influential positions, such as writers, policymakers, and state political leaders. Some of these people have asked to see the examples of successful online and hybrid schools—which led us to create the Proof Points Project, in conjunction with Future of School. The project aims to document and showcase examples of positive student outcomes based on externally validated data such as state assessments, graduation rates, SAT/ACT scores, and similar metrics.

We have been receiving and reviewing the first data submissions, and we are thrilled to be documenting the outcomes we were seeking. Although we are still putting the final pieces together before publishing the first profiles (coming in the fall), we have seen enough to know that we will have strong results to show. Some of these examples include:

1. An online school in Texas tracked and compared its students’ scores to the state average on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR®) end-of-course exams in five subject areas. The online students significantly outperformed traditional students statewide in all five subjects on the test.

2. An online school in the Midwest measured its students’ proficiency on state assessments in ELA, math, and science in grades 3-8 and 10-11. The online students outperformed the state average in all subject areas in 2020-21. Testing was not conducted for the 2019-20 SY due to the pandemic.

     3. In another Midwestern state, an online school found its percent of students proficient in all subject areas on its state assessments was 53%, compared to a statewide average of 37%, for the 2020-21 SY. The gap was even larger for the 2018-19 SY at 61% for the fully online students as compared to the state proficiency of 42%. Testing was not conducted for the 2019-20 SY due to the pandemic.

4. Three online schools in three different states shared data that documented significant gains in graduation rate percentages over the past two or three years of data, ultimately surpassing their state graduation rates. One school saw its graduation rate improve from below the state average (52% compared to the state average of 85% for the 2018-19 SY) to surpassing the state grad rate for the 2020-21 SY (90% to the state rate of 84%).

This is just the start. We have supplemental online course providers (mostly state virtual schools) that have comparative data on Advanced Placement scores, and hybrid schools demonstrating very strong outcomes across the board.

Do these data show that online and hybrid learning are a magic bullet that always produce great outcomes? Of course not. Online, hybrid, and blended teaching and learning are instructional modalities that can be implemented well or poorly—and the quality of the teacher matters more than any other single factor. In this way, they are no different than traditional physical schools.

We have reopened the submission process for a limited time (August 12) to continue gathering data-driven examples of effective online and hybrid learning. Visit the Proof Points Projects page on the DLC website to submit your own stories of success and the supporting data.

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July 27, 2022

Last Chance to Save on DLAC!

A reminder of this more practitioner-focused conference deadline.

Register by EOD FRIDAY to save!

Every year we take the time to review survey results, talk to our DLC Members, and brainstorm internally on how to make DLAC even better. This year we are accepting proposals earlier, and continuing to provide an agenda that helps everyone from beginner ➡️ expert, mainstream district to fully online charter school, including state virtual schools… and more.

On top of our many many short, interactive sessions we will have networking opportunities, a full exhibit hall and our online sessions on demand to watch later!

Register NOW!

Unsure of future travel plans?

We understand, and are allowing attendees to switch from All Access (in Austin) to Online and receive a full refund for the difference!

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July 23, 2022

The latest in education technology trends: real or hype?

Once again no commentary this time, just an interesting read from the folks at the Digital Learning Collaborative.  I can say that as I have recently been tasked to be the Coordinator of the Office of Micro Credentials for Touro University Systems, I do see the K-12 potential – both for students and teachers/administration – for badging and micro credentials.

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The latest in education technology trends: real or hype?


From time to time we check in on some of the education technology developments that are getting attention, by reviewing recent media reports and studies, and in this case exploring these topics with our Digital Learning Collaborative Executive Committee. Recently we have looked at virtual/augmented reality, gamification, and artificial intelligence, and specifically whether and how they are being used in K-12 education, if at all. Below we look at each of these.

Virtual/augmented reality
Let’s start with virtual/augmented reality, which we’ll call VR for short. Of the three topics, this is the most interesting because there are real signs of promise, mixed with a lack of common understanding of what VR means.

The misunderstandings are clear in the Education Week article Using Virtual Reality in Schools Is Easier Than You Think, which should have been titled “using some forms of technology which have little to do with virtual reality is easier than you think.” NASA defines VR as “the use of computer technology to create the effect of an interactive three-dimensional world in which the objects have a sense of spatial presence.” The Ed Week article talks about Google Earth and connecting with scientists via Skype. Google Earth and discussions with scientists may be valuable, but neither NASA nor most people would consider them to be VR.

Is that nit-picking? No, because of the risk that somebody has read the Ed Week headline and asked their school leader or district superintendent why the district/school isn’t using VR, given that it’s so easy according to Ed Week.

VR isn’t easy or inexpensive, but there are some examples showing promise. Arizona State University Prep Digital, a DLC member, is starting to use Dreamscape Learn with its own network of schools in the Phoenix area, as well as one of its partnership schools in Utah. Dreamscape was developed for ASU college students primarily, but its benefits would likely accrue to K-12 students as well. ASU researchers have found that students in lab sections of a general biology course using Dreamscape had promising learning gains (the final studies will be released at the end of the summer.) Similar studies have not been done on high school students, but there’s no reason to think that outcomes would differ between high school and college students.

Of course, not many K-12 schools are part of a leading national university and have easy access to technologies like Dreamscape Learn. Several DLC members mentioned, however, that they are using or exploring ZSpace, a company developing VR for education and other uses. These DLC members discussed how VR applications within career and technical education is a compelling use case. The main reason for using VR in CTE versus core subjects is cost. Applying VR to let’s say a history course almost certainly increases the cost of delivering the course, but using VR to help students understand career-related techniques and skills may be less expensive than buying non-virtual equipment or sending students to CTE centers. In addition, in academic courses that must adhere to curriculum standards, connecting the VR experience to the existing curriculum can be a barrier.

Still, most DLC members said they are not using VR, mostly because of questions about current implementation options, and cost. Keeping in mind that DLC members are among the schools and programs combining technology and scale, the lack of more VR use is telling, although it’s also the case that online schools would have additional costs and/or equity issues associated with shipping devices to students.

(We have no affiliation with ZSpace. In most cases we don’t mention specific companies in DLC blog posts and other materials, but in this instance several members mentioned this company as the example they are aware of.)

Gamification may not be considered as new or cutting edge as the other technologies discussed here, and perhaps for that reason there are more examples of it being used. Some course developers are using aspects of gamification in online courses, and programs such as Georgia Virtual are using badging with their students. Rich Copeland of Georgia Virtual discussed the use of badging at the recent IMS Global conference, pointing out that the badging process itself was fairly easy for his program to implement, but getting other organizations—particularly post-secondary institutions—to account for and value the badges was an ongoing challenge.

Our DLC discussion also touched on how the concept of gamifying isn’t necessarily new nor even tech based. Teachers, especially elementary school teachers, use game concepts and even games as part of instruction.

Our conclusion based on these discussions and some limited research is that gamification, at least in some forms, is happening, and that the effects so far are useful but limited.

Artificial intelligence
We have yet to find, or hear about, AI being used at scale in K-12 public education, even after exploring this topic with our DLC members.

That fact doesn’t mean, of course, that no such examples exist. (More on this below.)

AI is being talked about and hyped, and there’s no doubt it holds great promise. But as with VR, there is confusion about what AI actually is. In particular, the use of fixed algorithms is commonly conflated with AI.

An example of these fixed algorithms is a system that identifies that if a student chooses a multiple-choice answer saying that 3 X 2 equals five, you can send them to a video that explains the difference between multiplying and adding. This type of algorithm is valuable, but it’s not AI. It’s also not easily applicable outside of math. (If you’re interested in digging into this topic this is a good source.)

Our assessment, in summary:

  • VR: promising examples exist, cost is a concern, fairly near-term potential especially in CTE is high
  • Gamification: exists in various forms including low-tech, scalable impacts are unclear
  • AI: is tomorrow’s technology, and perhaps always will be. More likely, it’s just a long way off still. (Or maybe by the time you read this, Skynet will have found me.)

Are we missing some good examples of the use of these technologies in education? As I wrote earlier, this is a quick-and-dirty assessment based on our discussions with DLC members and some additional research. Let us know what we’re missing with a reply to this post or an email to

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July 20, 2022

Act Fast to Save on #DLAC23! ⏰

An update from this K-12 digital learning conference.

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Act Fast to Save!

The Digital Learning Annual Conference offers Early Bird pricing to those attendees from schools and district central offices so you can secure your spot at DLAC at the lowest price possible.

But this rate ends on July 30–so time is running out!

Are you wondering who will attend from your school, or if you’ll be onsite or online? You can still register with no risk if you change your mind.

  • If you know you want to bring a group but don’t know all the names, contact us ( and we will make arrangements with you.

  • Even if you give us names now, you can transfer a registration to someone else up until January 13, 2023 at no cost.

  • You can change your registration from All Access to Online by January 13, 2023 if you decide you can not or do not want to travel to Austin. We will provide a refund for the full difference between the All Access and Online prices.

Other DLAC info…

  • You may have heard we are accepting speaker proposals in phases to create the best DLAC program ever. If you’re considering submitting a proposal, we would love to see it!

  • It’s not too early to book your hotel! The DLAC conference hotel sold out in 2022. If you want to be where the action is, book your room soon!

  • Our conference at a glance page provides the key dates and times. We will be adding Monday morning pre-conference sessions, so you may want to arrive on Sunday evening to be able to join on Monday morning. Pre-conference information will be sent out as it becomes available.

What could you possibly be waiting for?!

Register Now!

Don’t forget our CALL FOR PROPOSALS PHASE 1 is currently open, but ending soon!

Submit your Proposal!
If you have any questions about what session type would be best for you or a half-baked idea you need some help bouncing around to clarify, we are here to help! We want your session to be successful for you and our attendees so feel free to reach out to us at and we’ll get you in touch with the program chair.
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