Sunday, November 27, 2011

Online Education

I would imagine that most school counselors have seen online education options increase for their students over the last ten years.  Certainly I have seen this in my own school district--an ever growing number of courses offered, some taught by teachers within the system, some contracted to outside sources.  As I have watched this educational medium expand, I have continuously asked myself questions:  What type of student is right for online classes?  What oversight is there of these online classes?  Who pays for these courses?  Is this, in 50 years, going to be how more and more students learn versus being in a traditional classroom?

These are all questions that I feel have been coming to a head in the last year, at least in my world.  This was confirmed today by a very in-depth front-page article in the Washington Post entitled Virtual schools are multiplying, but some question their educational value, written by Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown.  In the article, they state that:
"...virtual education has evolved into an alternative to traditional public schools for an increasingly wide range of students--high-achievers, strugglers, dropouts, teenage parents and victims of bullying among them." (source: Layton and Brown, www.washingtonpost.com)
As the authors discuss, there is quite a range of students between high-achievers and dropouts.  Does an educational medium that is traditionally self-paced and that requires a great deal of independent motivation and work the best choice for all of these different populations?  While many students may access an online class or two here or there, the article seems to be mainly discussing students who enroll full-time at these public online schools, meaning they are never in a traditional classroom.  Additionally, in the article the results for online education are decidedly mixed:
"We have no real evidence one way or another, said Tom Loveless, a brookings Institution scholar who served as a paid consultant to K12 in its early years." (source: Layton and Brown, www.washingtonpost.com)
 "On measures widely used to judge all public schools, such as state test scores and graduation rates, virtual schools--often run as charter schools--tend to perform worse than their brick-and-mortar counterparts" (source: Layton and Brown, www.washingtonpost.com)
The article goes on to give examples of the graduation rates of virtual schools in Colorado and Ohio, both run by K12, the nations leading provider of online education.  These rates are 12 percent in Colorado as compared with 72 percent for the state overall, and 30 percent in Ohio as compared to 78 percent for the state overall. (source:  Layton and Brown, www.washingtonpost.com)  If those of us in traditional public schools had the same graduation rates as these online schools, we would face serious consequences under No Child Left Behind

Further explained in the article is the funding of these programs.  K12 has been able to set up virtual schools in states in large part due to heavy political lobbying as well as contributing a great deal of money to various political campaigns in these states.  In Virginia, the Virtual Virginia Academy is run by K12 (note the web address for Virtual Virginia) and is based in Carroll County.  Students in Caroll County receive $5,421 per pupil in state funding.  Here in Fairfax, students receive $2,716 per pupil in state funding.  However, when a student in Fairfax County enrolls in Virtual Virginia, K12 receives the compensation for that student based on Carroll County's numbers, thus making more money.  It should be noted that K12 is a private company, made $522 million dollars last year with a net income of $12.8 million, with its CEO making $2.6 million dollars (source:  Layton and Brown, www.washingtonpost.com)

This topic is important for school counselors for several reasons:
  • Know which students would truly benefit from online instruction.  Not every student will be successful in an online class or online school.  Remember that this instruction tends to be independently done and independently paced.  Thus, high-achieving students who perhaps want additional classes or higher level classes that are not available in some way through your school or school district might be strong candidates.  Other strong candidates might be seniors who need just a few classes to graduate, who are fairly self-motivated, and who have a clear plan for what they will do with the extra time, whether it would be to start college classes or to work at a job.  However, students who struggle or drop-out may not be as successful--in fact, these are the types of students who generally need more contact time with teachers, school counselors, mentors, supportive peers, etc. in order to achieve.  My students that are successful with online classes are typically those who are electing to take one or two classes online as part of their overall traditional curriculum.
  • Think and talk through all of the pros and cons, educational options, and short and long term goals with students and families before deciding to enroll in an online school full-time.  In the Washington Post article, there is discussion of students who are bullied benefiting from full-time online school enrollment.  Every individual situation is different, and there may indeed be some students who ultimately benefit from an independent program of study.  However, is there not a way for the school counselor to mobilize the school community to better support that student within the school?  Again, every situation is different, and online education may be an option, but there is also a lot of value in safely working through that situation with the students involved and helping the community to build strong empathy and coping skills.  Further, sometimes school anxiety is a reason that is brought up for enrolling students in online campuses on a full-time basis.  Again, every individual situation is different and this may indeed by a strong option for some students, but therapeutically the ultimate goal would be to work with the student, therapist, and school staff to help that student transition back into a school environment, perhaps starting on a part-time basis but hopefully working back up to a full-day.  If the online instruction does not work, what options does that student and their family have to return to a traditional school?  Given state standards and curriculum, there may be a risk of that student losing credits for the full year of the online school option does not prove effective.
  • 21st century skills include problem solving, collaboration, communication, and social and cross-cultural abilities.  In the November/December issue of School Counselor Magazine, there is an article, A Critical Combination, written by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills that discusses the need for these highly-social skills in order for students to be college and career ready for the up-and-coming job market.  While online learning certainly has interactive components, it is highly unlikley that a full-time online education can replace the day-to-day social education of a school.  How do you work with someone you may not particularly like?  How do you interact with people from multiple cultures and find common ground?  Where do you learn the importance of showing up to work on time, confronting difficult situations in productive ways, and being flexible when everything does not go according to plan?  Thus, online education for part of a student's academic career may be useful, but there may be some significant educational gaps for students that are in full-time online programs.
  • Know where the online education is coming from, the effectiveness of the program, local school regulations, and the funding source.  The first place to consult is your school system--what are their policies with regards to students being in online programs?  If statistics are available, it is important to make sure that you are aware of them in order to make sure that students and families have all the information so that they can make an informed choice about their education future and options.  Is the program being run by your own school system?  Is it outsourced to a private educational company?  Does the family have to pay for the program?  The school system?  Can that student still graduate from your school even if they are doing some or all of their education online?
Online courses and schools, for better or for worse, are going to continue to be a part of the conversation about the future of education, and it needs to be, as for some students and situations it really is an option that can help students be successful and reach their goals.  We, as school counselors, need to make sure that we continue to stay abreast of these discussions, both in order to better assist our students and their families in planning a course to be career and college ready for the new 21st century models as well as to be part of the conversations as policies are developed around this medium.

The following work cited is available to members of ASCA at www.schoolcounselor.org:
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  (2011).  A Critical Combination: School counselors play a vital role in integrating 21st-century skills and training into the school environment.  School Counselor (November/December 2011).

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