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The [supposed] failure of online education

The core of the problem—I’ll just jump right into it here—is that anyone in this country thinks that education can be summed up in numbers.

It can’t.

Education is about people, and people are all different. Each unique. We may make schools to function as assembly lines, but we human beings continue to refuse to perform like widgets.

I'd be the last person to tell you that it's healthy for kids to spend most of their day in front of a screen, but that doesn't condemn online education!

I’d be the last person to tell you that it’s healthy for kids to spend most of their day in front of a screen, but that doesn’t condemn online education! My students are creative, engaged, unusual thinkers.

Case in point, the latest in many articles about the failures of online education:

Cyber Charters Have ‘Overwhelming Negative Impact,’ CREDO Study Finds

What more information do you need? I’m guessing that my longtime readers will know that I have a few bones to pick with this study.

The article cites numerous problems with the study from the point of view of educators who run charters or who are involved in the charter school movement. I agree with everything they say—numbers can’t tell the whole story.

But my response to this article is as a homeschooling parent and online teacher.

Not all students are created equal

It’s true that we want our students to be treated equally in education, but the fact is that students have widely divergent needs. I can tell you one thing about every single student I have ever known or heard of who has tried an online charter: that student is in some form of educational distress.

Here are some of the reasons why families choose online charter schools:

  • Their child is expressing suicidal ideation and swearing that if he has to continue in school, he’ll kill himself
  • Their family is going through a huge emotional upheaval, such as the death of a parent
  • Their child has the sort of difficult-to-integrate special needs that make school a nightmare, such as sensory integration disorder
  • The family is experiencing a sudden change of location due to job or family responsibilities
  • Their local public school system is a disaster and they are trying to find a solution for a child who has not received adequate education

These students—who I venture to say make up probably the majority of students in online charters—are coming to this new “school” with enormous baggage that most students don’t have. And we’re surprised that their test scores don’t measure up?

Not all online schools are created equal

Some online schools require that students sit in their seat and keep their computer active for a certain number of hours per day. If you were a student at that school, what would be your response to such a requirement? Yeah, me too. (Click… click… click…)

Some online schools are created to shovel the largest number of students through classes with the smallest possible amount of oversight (“oversight,” otherwise known as pesky teachers who want money, benefits, and respect from their jobs).

Some online schools require that students complete coursework that they are either underprepared for or overprepared for simply because of their “grade” (in other words, chronological age).

“Online school” includes such a wide variety of schools and approaches, it simply fails to offer a meaningful data set to study.

The failure of some online charter schools doesn’t spell doom for online education

I teach at Athena’s Advanced Academy, so you could say I’m biased. (For the record, Athena’s is private, not a charter, so it doesn’t fall into the parameters of the study referenced above.)

But I’m also knowledgeable about the strengths and failures of the online educational approach. Online classes completely fail to engage students who don’t want to be there, this is true. On top of that, online schools often fail students whose parents are not supportive at home. Online schools fail students who aren’t adept with computers (though participation in online classes tends to remediate that problem quickly). Online schools may fail students whose problems extend well past educational/academic issues.

The benefits of online education

Online schools do some things really well. They can:

  • Provide a safe, nurturing environment for children who have been wounded by social or academic bullying in brick-and-mortar schools
  • Provide a common space for children with diverse, unusual interests
  • Provide a way for children with special needs to connect mind-to-mind with adults and other children
  • Provide a 21st century approach to nurturing unbridled creativity

Online education isn’t for everyone. In many cases, it’s for kids who are already in some type of distress. That’s why applying cold numbers to the question of whether online charters are effective doesn’t really work. I guarantee that if you got onto one of the very active forums on Athena’s and asked the kids how they are doing, most of them would enthusiastically support what our educational approach. They are kids who needed something—a quiet space, a tribe, a breather from brick-and-mortar school—and they’re finding it at Athena’s.

I fear that articles like this will prejudice decision-makers against online education in general, which would be a shame for the students who benefit so much from this new approach to learning.

Further reading:

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

2 Responses

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  1. Monika says

    Thanks for this post. I would be interested to hear more from you about how to decide if online classes are right for one’s children. I am homeschooling a 9 year old girl who is very bright, quirky, and social. We do all “schooling” in the real world, but she does have limited exposure to a few iPad math apps. She can’t type. She can barely spell. She has dyslexia and although her reading is improving, she is struggling. She loves math, and she love to discuss literature (she listens to audio books and I read to her), politics, economics, and pretty any controversial current event. Does she need more computer/typing exposure before an online class would be a good fit for her?

    • Suki says

      The only sure-fire way to know is to sign your child up. In my experience, it’s hard to predict which children will take to online education. In my family, the child who is more computer-savvy prefers in-person classes! So it’s not just computer skills that determine how well they do. However, at least in Athena’s classes, she might feel left out if she can’t type at all since the kids chat a lot in the text-online chat box. Perhaps you could sit next to her and type for her as she dictates? Given her dyslexia, it would be best to start with a class that’s not heavy on writing. Also, kids always do best in new situations when it’s their area of passion. So choosing a class that she’s really excited about would be key. Most anyone who offers online classes will be able to tell you how well a dyslexic student will be able to keep up, and what sort of support you will need to offer. (If they don’t answer your questions, that answers the question as to whether it’s the right school for her!) Good luck!

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