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.