Virtual schools


Nearly 30,000 stu­dents in Ohio, from kin­der­gar­ten through 12th grade, take on­line classes. Na­tion­ally, more than a mil­lion stu­dents en­roll an­nu­ally in In­ter­net-based courses. But whether the rush to re­place teach­ers with tech­nol­ogy is a good idea re­mains an open ques­tion.

Net-based ed­u­ca­tion can ben­e­fit stu­dents who have trou­ble fit­ting in at school, are bul­lied, can't keep up, have to make up classes, or need classes that aren't of­fered by their schools. On­line work also pro­vides teach­ers new ways to track stu­dent prog­ress. Toledo Pub­lic Schools has made on­line acad­e­mies and a Web-based credit-re­cov­ery pro­gram parts of its school re­form plan.

Last year, Idaho be­came the first state to man­date that ev­ery high school stu­dent take on­line courses to grad­u­ate. Mich­i­gan, Flor­ida, and Ala­bama also re­quire an on­line-learn­ing com­po­nent.

In Flor­ida, though, thou­sands of stu­dents en­rolled in on­line courses have no con­tact with teach­ers. The trend is grow­ing, of­ten pushed by school dis­tricts that are strapped for cash and pri­vate com­pa­nies that profit from on­line courses. 

Ohio's vir­tual schools re­ceived $209 mil­lion in state aid in 2010-11, But they may have spent only half that amount on di­rectly ed­u­cat­ing stu­dents.

De­trac­tors warn that stu­dents in on­line courses could be tempted to cheat more of­ten, and that schools might make on­line makeup classes too easy to in­flate grad­u­a­tion rates. They won­der whether com­puter courses can rec­og­nize and ac­com­mo­date dif­fer­ent learn­ing styles. They worry that stu­dents al­ready spend too much of their time at­tached to tech­nol­ogy — text-mes­sag­ing, play­ing video games, and vis­it­ing so­cial me­dia sites.

Few stud­ies com­pare the ef­fec­tive­ness of on­line and face-to-face learn­ing. A 2010 U.S. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion re­view of re­search found that stu­dents in vir­tual class­rooms per­formed bet­ter than their peers in tra­di­tional class­rooms — but only when the on­line course had an in-per­son teach­ing com­po­nent. Stu­dents who learned ex­clu­sively on­line, the sur­vey found, did no bet­ter than those who at­tended brick-and-mor­tar schools.

In Ohio, ev­ery on­line school met value-added mea­sures on the 2010-11 state school re­port card. But pre­lim­i­nary re­sults from 2011-12 sug­gest they all failed to meet the mea­sures last year.

The num­ber of Ohio stu­dents tak­ing on­line courses has in­creased 12-fold since 2000. Col­lec­tively, they would form the state's third-larg­est school dis­trict. State and lo­cal school of­fi­cials should pro­ceed cau­tiously as they col­lect more data about what works.

Gov. John Ka­sich rightly ad­vo­cates a blended ap­proach that re­quires stu­dents in on­line courses to have reg­u­lar face-to-face con­tact with teach­ers. In the long run, that ap­proach may pro­vide stu­dents the best of both ed­u­ca­tional worlds.