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A critique of the NEPC report on K-12 online learning

I have great respect for the folks at the National Educational Policy Center. In particular, I hold Gene Glass and Kevin Welner in very high regard; they are genuine, world-class scholars. But, I think they fouled up their newest policy brief, Online K-12 Schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain Private Ventures in Need of Public Regulation.

[go ahead and read the brief; it’s brief not very long. I’ll wait until you come back…]

[welcome back]

Generally, Glass & Welner show a serious lack of understanding of modern, web-based technologies and what’s possible by way of online learning. I think they’re outside of their respective areas of expertise here. I also think they have legitimate concerns about corporate creep in the domain of online learning, but they overreach here by generating a biased brief about online learning in general.

More specifically, here are some statements in the brief and my associated thoughts:

  • “Some areas of the curriculum (the arts, for example) are likely beyond the successful reach of these new arrangements.” I disagree. This is a classic argument I hear from people who have little to no understanding of modern technologies and what’s possible with computers. What about web design? Digital storytelling? Heard some of the music being made with computers these days? Seen Kevin Honeycutt play instruments on his iPhone? Have you seen any of the online art exhibits showcased through Omeka.net? There are plenty of artistic endeavors and learning experiences that can be facilitated from a distance. Relatedly, a school district near where I live offers PE class “online.” I was really, really skeptical until I investigated further. There is some “traditional” online coursework around health, nutrition, etc. for the online PE class. But, the students are also required to do a very significant amount of physical activity certified by a professional. They can work out at a gym and have their exercise logs signed by a trainer. They can swim at a Y and have their logs signed by a lifeguard. Kids can go on hikes and have logs signed by a trail guide. There are lots of possibilities. Online PE!
  • “However, the challenges are particularly acute for states, because states bear responsibility for sanctioning and chartering online providers.” That’s not necessarily true. Here in Virginia, the state has “approved” 13 providers of online learning, but school divisions (districts) are free to contract with other vendors. The school district in which I reside uses a non-approved vendor to provide credit recovery courses for thousands of students.
  • “In its contemporary form, virtual education provides asynchronous, computer-mediated interaction between a teacher and students over the Internet.” Asynchronous only? What about all of the online educators using Skype and other forms of videoconferencing technology to “meet” with students to go over learning plans or to do academic advisement? What about real-time webinars? I believe if Glass & Welner had done a little investigation and observed what happens in some online courses, programs, schools, they would have learned that there are great possibilities for synchronous online learning.
  • “This brief focuses on privately owned and operated virtual schools, most often taking the form of charter schools.” That’s just not true; I wish they’d have stayed focused on that. But, throughout the rest of the brief, there’s NO effort to separate out this particular segment of the market. The “incidence” data are not limited to this segment. The research they cite is not at all about this segment.  Same with expenditures. It is not until page 11 that Glass & Welner turn exclusively to the issues presented by commercialism and corporate interests. This is simply NOT a brief “focused on” private providers; it’s a policy brief about K-12 online learning in toto.
  • “However, the Wikipedia entry for ―virtual schools lists more than 200 full-time virtual K-12 schools.” Wikipedia? That’s their source? Whatever.
  • “No reasonable person doubts that learning can take place ―over a computer network. Perhaps no reasonable person likewise believes that everything students learn in a traditional education can be acquired working alone on a computer.” Maybe I’m unreasonable, but I disagree. First of all, Glass & Welner seem to imagine that online learning can only happen outside the existing bricks-and-mortar infrastructure. But, nearly two decades ago, Roger Schank and Kemi Jona outlined a scenario where the “academic” learning takes place on computers in schools where teachers become, essentially, camp counselors whose (very important) job it is to foster socialization; to counteract the isolation that comes with online learning. Secondly, Glass & Welner imply that learning is limited to schools. Combine online learning resources with community-based educational experiences (see e.g. museums, libraries, etc.) and, yes, schools may not actually be necessary.
  • “…there exists no evidence from research that full-time virtual schooling at the K-12 level is an adequate replacement for traditional face-to-face teaching and learning.” OK, fine. But, how will we ever realize innovation in education if everything has to be “research-based?”
  • We believe that, because online education is merely a tool and can take on a variety of forms and quality, all of these are important concerns.” This statement comes at the end of the section about equity, which I believe is a very important consideration. But, “…online education is merely a tool…” Really, a tool? Bias much? Online learning, in its best forms, equips students with a host of tools for collaboration and learning.
  • “Thinking back to our own schooling days, we can recall how teachers organized and supervised the classroom environment to minimize the possibility of cheating. But in a virtual classroom, how does one…know that the student who signed up for the course actually did the assignments and took the tests?”  Here’s where Glass & Welner show a limited understanding of how assessment might happen in an online learning scenario. Going back to the synchronous/asynchronous issue, what if students had to demonstrate mastery by doing a presentation to the teachers via Skype? What if they had to videotape themselves working on assignments and document their learning with video and other artifacts?
I could go on…

I have real concerns about online learning at the K-12 level, including some of the same issues Glass & Welner raise. The equity issues are important. Pedagogically, I’m concerned; it’s really, really easy to put a bad online course online. Commercialism and corporate creep is a real concern.

But, this policy brief is not about what it claims to be about and generally overreaches badly. It’s possible I’ll run into Dr. Welner at the UCEA conference in a few weeks. I hope we can talk about this brief and my critiques.

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