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Technology can't replace classroom learning

If you have listened to the radio lately, you've probably heard advertisements touting the Florida Virtual School.

A pioneering effort when it was established in 1997 by Julie Young, it has become a national leader in delivering instruction via technology and currently serves students in all 67 counties in Florida. Nearly 260,000 students enrolled in its online courses in 2010-11, up from fewer than 11,000 in 2001-02.

By contrast, the state of Texas had a virtual enrollment of only 3,600 during the same period.

What accounts for Virtual School's success in Florida? And is it the right thing to do for Florida's future and for its children?

Virtual schools originally emerged to deliver instruction in hard-to-staff subjects or in hard-to-staff places. In 1998, for example, nearly two-thirds of Florida counties did not offer a single Advanced Placement class, which had been mandated by the state to enable talented high school students to pursue college preparatory classes. The Florida Virtual School helped the state address this problem by providing a full menu of AP classes.

After this initial success, policymakers and some educators seized on the opportunity to offer classes online and in real time, competing with schools for students. The virtual school model went from one dedicated to access and equity to one that promised choice and efficiency.

State leaders and school boards also began to see the virtual school as a way around restrictive collective bargaining agreements — essentially as a way to deliver education more cheaply and to supplement classroom subject matter.

With the success of the Florida Virtual School, for-profit companies entered the fray, offering a full array of classes and tutorials. In a remarkably short period, the virtual road went from creating access to saving money to making money.

Learning online is in the vanguard of education reform at the moment. Nearly every state has a Florida-like virtual school. And rarely does a week pass that state and national newspapers don't feature a story about new technologies and online learning. For some policymakers it has become a panacea for addressing perceived teacher shortcomings and balancing state budgets.

We are concerned that in their eagerness to embrace the virtual school model, policymakers and some educational leaders are overstating its success and ignoring the tremendous advantages a classroom environment provides for students.

There is no question that technology can be a great asset to students with learning deficiencies and an excellent supplement to classroom learning for all students. As the technology is refined and expanded, virtual learning may offer more substantial advantages to students and teachers.

For now, however, school districts and state leaders need to be sure they are not buying students and parents a pig in a poke.

The virtual approach may be just that for the vast majority of students. The current evidence makes clear that students learn much better and faster in a traditional classroom setting. And if they are to compete successfully in a global setting, they will need to know how to work constructively in groups. That occurs most effectively in a classroom environment.

While we regard the Florida Virtual School as a serious and substantial effort, we are much less sanguine about the for-profit models. Investing in the education and well-being of young people should not be about making money. Indeed, how does one make money at these ventures? Typically, at the expense of students.

We don't relish the challenge policymakers face in addressing budget shortfalls and the costs of public education. But we urge them not to embrace the virtual world as a cure-all for problems in public education. The end result in our view will be significantly more damaging for the students and for Florida.

David R. Colburn is director of the Reubin Askew Institute at the University of Florida, and Brian Dassler is principal of a KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) High School in New Orleans.

Technology can't replace classroom learning 10/25/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:32pm]

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