Wednesday, January 26, 2005

More plans for virtual schools
   Growth of virtual schools remains strong

Georgia becomes the latest state to consider a virtual school. The neat twist in this plan is that private school and homeschool students would be granted access to classes, since the parents of both types of students pay the taxes to support public education.

Virtual schools have been popular with parents and students in such states as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. According to an article last March in Wired, “the number of online public schools has grown from 30 to 82 during the past two years, offering instruction in 19 states. That number could more than double in 2004, as school districts in Ohio have granted charters to 63 cyber schools, up from seven in 2003.”

Of course, online coursework can be atrocious, and many k-12 students lack the personal discipline to succeed in online coursework without the active supervision and support of live teachers or parents. But these problems aren’t unique to virtual schools, and good planning and implementation can make online learning an excellent alternative to traditional classes.

In any case, some version of a virtual public school may be Montana’s best hope of providing quality education to rural communities with declining populations. I would like to see one such school in the state, with authority to enroll students from any location in the state for free courses. Ideally, these courses would be taken along with other traditionally taught courses in the brick and mortar school. The brick and mortar school would provide high-quality broadband access and software, as well as personal support and supervision of students. The difference would be that a teacher in a well-equipped lab might have 15 students present, but each taking a different course that would be unavailable if not for distance learning: German, Renaissance art, computer programming, or calculus.

We are at the beginning edge of an explosion in what can be done with simulations and video online, and for many purposes online learning is superior to traditonal classrooms, where students often have to spend large amounts of time waiting and enduring monkey business. Be honest. How many of the traditional classes you’ve attended have been exciting affairs full of learning?

The public school special interest groups tend to be cool to virtual schools, since they divert funds that these groups hope would otherwise go to the brick and mortar schools. This can be a real problem, but this is an area where market forces will ultimately prevail. Demand from parents will bring virtual schools to them, as it has done in British Columbia and Alberta. Done intelligently, public education could organize market forces for the good of the public system--that is, for the good of students and the state’s future.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/26 at 05:39 AM
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© 2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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