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The Promise of Online Education (And the Hurdles in its Way)

Posted in Knerds on August 9, 2010 by

Jonathan Bethune is a Content Developer at Knewton.

As both a teacher and the father of a three month old child, I find myself often wondering what the future holds for education. What will schools look like fifteen years from now, when I send my little guy off to high school? I am encouraged when I consider the last fifteen years, from 1995 to 2010, and I think of the marvels of the information age. In particular I am enthusiastic about online schools, as the ubiquity of broadband internet access has dispelled the technological challenge and made real the possibility of top quality distance learning.

Yet as Reason magazine’s piece “Teachers Unions vs. Online Education” points out, there are several stubborn barriers to the realization of this field’s potential…

Traditional schools and educators will not go quietly into the night, and unlike alchemists and horse and buggy drivers, they have powerful allies in today’s government. For example, the NEA complained that programs like online charter schools “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.”

As a former public school teacher, this lament is laughable to me, particularly the last point. The NEA complaining about the misuse of public funds is sort of like Karl Rove crying about cynical political tactics. Nevertheless we should not discount the powerful political pull teacher unions carry. As the article documents, they have successfully shut down or gutted virtual school programs in Indiana, Oregon, and elsewhere.

The article points out another hurdle, a fact noted by Michael Horn in his thought-provoking book Disrupting Class–namely that one of the major functions of compulsory education is to provide supervision for the children of working parents. Whatever innovations online education may offer, its technology cannot easily solve this problem (web-cam babysitters, perhaps?). For this reason I am intrigued by the hybrid approach mentioned in the article, where students go to special learning centers where they complete most of their academic work via computers.

There is room for a lot of experimentation and innovation in this field, particularly in the inner-city where I worked for many years. I envision small programs with supervisors and educators managing a group of students while answering their questions and providing resources for subjects not easily taught via the internet (art, music, P.E., etc.). For many, an option like this would be a godsend. A lot of the kids I taught in Harlem were very savvy with computers, and their failures and frustrations with school stemmed not from the actual material, but with the artifices and coercions inherent in city public schools. To put it simply, they enjoyed technology and learning, but weren’t crazy about bathroom passes and after-school detention.

Some would argue that kids need the discipline and socialization aspect of school in order to be prepared for the “real world.” I am skeptical of this notion. From what I saw, the “tough love” good-cop-bad-cop world of school behavior management rarely taught meaningful self-discipline; rather it taught kids the value of uncritical obedience, system gaming, and a contempt for formal education. The socialization claims are even more dubious. Anyone who’s ever been to a park or seen a Facebook page ought to know that kids do not need school in order to make friends and learn how to relate to others.

The current landscape of virtual education options is a mixed bag, both domestically and internationally. The Reason article quotes Tom Vander Ark, founder of America’s very first online k-12 school in 1995, who says of the current state of online education, “we’re a generation behind where we should be in terms of online tools, platforms and options—a state government caused market failure. Where competition is welcomed, we’ll see innovation.” This is more true than I think he realizes.

The market failure to which he refers has curtailed not only the adoption of online education, but any form of genuine educational reform. Our schools have undergone no fundamental structural change since the 19th century, the major “reforms” of the 60’s and 90’s being largely superficial shifts in pedagogical trends. Innovators have avoided tackling public education because they know they aren’t wanted there. My hope is that technology can dissolve this state of affairs and lead to a change in how we see the education issue as a society.