Wednesday, April 20, 2011

With Schools Turning to the Web for K-12 Education, Quality is a Concern

With Schools Turning to the Web for K-12 Education, Quality is a Concern

by Terrence O'Brien,
April 8th 2011

Online courses have become an accepted fact of college life. But more and more school districts are turning to Web-based learning for lower grade levels, especially as a way for struggling high school students to make up courses they've failed or missed. The online classes aren't only for those who have fallen behind, though. Due to budget constraints, some schools are using them to offer advanced placement classes and expand elective offerings. For example, Reza Namin, the superintendent of schools in Westbrook, Maine, told the New York Times that, while she couldn't justify paying a Chinese language instructor in the face of a $6.5 million budget deficit, she was able to continue offering the course by turning to the online, non-profit Virtual High School Global Consortium.

The increasing reliance on digital education programs has drawn criticism from teachers and unions who claim the shift towards online learning is purely budgetary and an effort to pay fewer teachers' salaries. The argument could gain particular traction in Idaho, where a recent bill raided a fund used to pay educators to purchase laptops for every student in the state. The U.S. Department of Education has also expressed skepticism, saying there is little "scientific evidence of the effectiveness" of online classes for K-12 students.

Even some proponents of bringing online classes to high schools are leery of employing them for makeup courses, their most popular use. Schools, particularly those in high-poverty areas, are turning to the Web to increase graduation rates and avoid sanctions. But critics claim standards for these classes, often called "click-click credits," are not comparable to those in a real classroom, and students are simply shuttled through to boost graduation rates. Plagiarism is a particularly troublesome issue, as students often Google answers and copy from Wikipedia.

These concerns, however, have not stopped school districts from jumping on the bandwagon. New York City, Chicago, Memphis, Miami and plenty of others have all invested heavily in online education at both the state and local level. Ultimately, online classes will play a role in K-12 education, and it's all but unavoidable. The question is how policy-makers will manage to balance the needs of students, teachers' jobs and budgetary constraints. While online courses may be cheaper than paying additional full-time teachers, that money is wasted if students fail to receive a decent education. Pushing students out the door using "click-click credits" only adds a burden to colleges, who must invest more heavily in remedial courses after flooding the job market with unskilled labor.

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