K-12 online instruction attracts policy-inclined school reformers and reform-minded policymakers because it appears as a technological and inexpensive solution for serious problems at a time when public schools are viewed as a double failure: in urban districts where largely poor and minority youth get a third-rate education and many suburban and rural schools that fall short of producing skilled and knowledgeable graduates who can contribute to a strong, competitive global economy.
Here is a brief list of those problems that promoters say will get solved through virtual instruction.
* Traditional whole-class instruction. Teaching lessons to the whole group of 25-30 students at one time generation after generation has resulted in tedium and boredom for students who already know the content or are too far behind to grasp the lesson. It has been difficult for teachers with these size classes and district and state requirements to cover the curriculum to hit the sweet spot of learning that brings all students along at the same time.
With online instruction, lessons finally become individualized. Online instruction and blended learning provide “differentiated instruction” that can take each student from where he or she is and go to where each one can be–the Holy Grail pedagogical reformers have sought for generations. Moreover, these technological innovations permit some regular classroom teachers to “flip” their lessons. That is, at home students see teacher lectures or go through online programs and then come to class where teachers help individuals and small groups work through difficulties in understanding the lesson strengthening critical thinking, analytic, and problem solving skills.
*Disengaged and underachieving students. Online courses and blended learning will motivate individual students to work harder, gain more knowledge and skills, and embrace learning. Engaged students will achieve higher grades and graduate high school. Online instruction will bring such student up to speed in knowledge and skills necessary to finish academic courses and enter college or careers in a highly competitive global economy.
*Disconnect from world of work. Current content and skills taught in academic subjects seldom have real-world connections. Moreover, while high-tech devices continue to spread in schools, student use is often restricted to low-level tasks hardly tapping the enormous information and communication power of these devices. With digital competence expected of anyone working in an information-based economy, students graduate unprepared for the labor market. Taking online instruction regularly will close the gap between what schools offer, what students do in daily lessons, and what youth will face when they graduate, advocates say.
Rising cost of schooling children and youth; The single largest item in K-12 budgets are salaries for classroom teachers. Because virtual schools, cyber-charters, and blended schools hire fewer teachers, average expenses for online schooling comes in lower than costs for operating regular age-graded schools. The national average expenditure for instruction in regular schools runs around $10,000. Costs for virtual schools range between $5100 to $7700 and for blended schools $7600 to $10,200. While there are dueling studies over costs among policy advocates and opponents, few would question that online instruction is cheaper than providing a teacher for every class in an age-graded school .
Those promoting online instruction, then, pitch this instructional approach as solving heretofore intractable problems. It is an idea, they say, whose time has come.
Yet, amid reform-driven policymakers’ enthusiasm for virtual learning and widespread expansion of online instruction across the U.S. in the past decade, is the nagging question that drives many policymakers and educational leaders bonkers. Even with all of the hype for online instruction being “revolutionary” and “transformational” in teaching and learning, school board members, superintendents, parents, and media journalists still ask: What does the research say about whether we should invest in virtual learning? Which brings me to the second question: Does online instruction work?
I answer this in Part 3.