Why is virtual schooling advancing at a dial-up pace?

Kids are adapt at using electronic media. Why not tap into that interest for educational purposes?

Katherine Mangu-Ward, writing on virtual schooling, starts out her article this way:

I know a 3-year-old who’s a master of online multitasking. Give him an iPhone, and he’ll cheerfully chat you up while watching YouTube cartoons or playing an alphabet game. In 2010, toddlers start consuming digital information not long after they’ve started consuming solid food.

Now take that kid, tack on a handful of years, and drop him into a classroom. A child who was perfectly content with a video stream, an MP3, and a chat flowing past him is suddenly ordered to sit still, shut up, and listen while a grown-up scrawls on a blackboard and delivers a monologue.

There are plenty of issues with online education: Is the technology readily available across income levels? (There are plenty of subsidies for low-income families.) How well does it compare with off-line education? (Favorably, it turns out.) And most importantly, will political pressure keep it from achieving its potential?

Mangu-Ward describes the different ways that online providers have approached the established education industry. There’s working with it (the Florida Virtual School) and taking an in-your-face approach (the company K12).

Though there are some promising developments (notably in Florida, where the virtual school offers only a la carte classes and not diplomas), “online education is coming to the masses at the speed of a 14k modem.”

For one thing,  the NEA opposes online schooling–or at least when the online experience lets students get an education apart from the environment of a traditional public school. Here’s an official statement from the teacher union:

There also should be an absolute prohibition against the granting of charters for the purpose of home-schooling, including online charter schools that seek to provide home-schooling over the Internet,” says the organization’s official policy statement on charter schools. “Charter schools whose students are in fact home schoolers, and who may rarely if ever convene in an actual school building, disregard the important socialization aspect of public education, do not serve the public purpose of promoting a sense of community, and lend themselves too easily to the misuse of public funds and the abuse of public trust.”

This statement touches on several of the key questions of the debate over schooling: How important is “socialization”? (Home schoolers can interact with the broader world very well, from what I have observed, and some aspects of institutional school life–the cliques, peer pressure, reckless behavior, the burden of minority students of “acting white,” and so forth, aren’t exactly things that all parents would want their children to be socialized in.) Should the intellectual curiosity, learning style, and interests of a child be subsumed to some broader need to spend time in an institutional setting?

The NEA’s opposition to virtual schooling isn’t just bluster; its affiliates in Indiana, Wisconsin,  and Oregon have succeeded in stunting the growth of virtual schooling through persuading the legislatures to impose restrictions on who may enroll. The educational interests of kids, it turns out, are less important to lawmakers than the financial and power interests of the union.

Kansans, meanwhile, can take heart. There are several online programs available to them, and they’re available across districts lines, so if one doesn’t work for your student, you can always try another. See this page for more information.

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