by David Safier
I've written often about the problems with online charter schools, the largest and most problematic being K12 Inc. But I'm no Luddite. I was an early computer/internet adopter when I was a teacher, and I know the spread of online education is inevitable and has a number of things going for it. But those who push it as equal to or better than brick-and-mortar, face-to-face education -- the for-profit CMOs and conservative "education reform" advocates -- are wrong. Online education is in its early, clunky stages and will take awhile before it should be adopted as a mainstream alternative to face-to-face education, if it ever gets to that point.
In today's Star, there's an article about a new startup by some Stanford profs, Coursera, which is trying to take online coursework from top universities -- Stanford, Princeton, Caltech, Duke, etc. -- to the next level. (Most often, when you read research about online education's successes, it's about college level work. That's not surprising, since it's more likely a motivated college-level student will succeed without supervision than a semi-motivated or unmotivated K-12 student.)
Let's compare online education to early digital cameras. Remember those things? Ridiculously bad images that pixellated when you blew them up bigger than 4"x5". No one advertised them as "Better than film cameras!" Their appeal was, they might take crummy pictures, but they add convenience. You can see the photos you take instantly, put them on your computer, print them out -- and you never have to spend a penny on film! Everyone knew they were substituting convenience for quality. Gradually, of course, the cameras got better, and now they're so good, film has become the province of people who are in love with old photo techniques.
Like all comparisons, this one isn't absolute -- I don't think online schools will replace more traditional schooling, not by a long shot -- but it's fair to say, today's online education is like the early stages of digital photography.
And at the college level, while it's better if you can be at Princeton, the possibility of taking a course from a Princeton prof, either in real time or in the form of taped lectures, is pretty incredible. And free, or a nominal tuition, is a very, very good price.
At this point, online education is less effective than the equivalent face-to-face learning, but its convenience can make it very attractive for some people. However, it's definitely not for everyone, or even for a large portion of students, especially at the K-12 level. For-profit online CMOs push their product to the wrong people because they need the numbers to make a profit. Conservatives push the product because it's another way to marginalize district-based public schools and their mostly union employees -- and also because it makes their friends a bunch of money. But they might as well be telling you a two pixel camera with a plastic lens is as good as a reasonable quality film-based camera. It's just not so.
Online education will get better. As a matter of fact, it's already getting better. People are beginning to develop innovations which improve both quality and flexibility, making it a more attractive alternative for more people. But don't believe the beat-the-drum hucksters and promoters who tell you today's online education is as good as or better than what's offered in face-to-face schools. All the evidence, especially at the K-12 level, shows the opposite to be true.