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The rise of ‘virtual schools’ divides education world

By Cynthia Boyd | Monday, June 2, 2008 Small but growing numbers of students in Minnesota head to computers, rather than classrooms, for their daily lessons. And this fall, a for-profit online high school will offer a new option.

High school junior Alexis Anderson lives on her family’s 59-acre hobby farm in Lindstrom but goes to school in Spring Lake Park, some 30 miles away. Only, she doesn’t leave home.

When the orange school bus lumbers by, she turns to her kitchen computer and logs on to Spring Lake Park Online — a virtual high school — to study biology, world history, geometry and art.

Like an estimated 1 million other Americans in kindergarten through 12th grade who take classes online, Anderson is having education her way. For Anderson and 4,500 other Minnesota kids, the computer screen is the classroom.

Some say Anderson and her peers are harbingers of change in America’s public schools and that computerized learning is about to transform public education both inside and outside the classroom.

Others raise red flags, expressing concern that the for-profit sector is tapping on the public schoolhouse door. Because online school programs know no geographic boundaries, they create keen competition for students that could endanger some districts’ finances and futures.

Yet, online and computerized learning programs appear to be leveling the playing field between rich and poor school districts and between rural and urban students. Supporters tout it as customized education, a way of making the world every student’s classroom by catering to individual learning styles and answering the needs of kids who march to the beat of a different drummer.

For Anderson, 17, who says she is a B-student, online learning takes her away from “the gross stuff in public school, the smoking and sex” her Jehovah’s Witnesses parents feared she’d be exposed to.

Although a small number of students are going to school online, the numbers are rapidly growing, raising this question: Will computers someday replace teachers?

Michael B. Horn, co-founder and executive education director of Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank, doesn’t think so.  Computers, he says, will assist, not replace, teachers. The result will be better-educated students, he argues.

Online learning here to stay

Online learning will become the norm and expand a learner’s choices, says Adam Urbanski, a vice president with the American Federation of Teachers. He’s also director of the Teacher Union Reform Network, a Rochester, N.Y.-based group that represents hundreds of thousands of teachers in mostly urban areas, including the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts.

Like Horn, Urbanski sees an explosion of computer-assisted learning as inevitable. “I personally don’t think it is a threat to teachers or teacher unions. It represents a significant change, but it is an irrepressible change.”

That’s also the premise of a new book due out this month. Horn is co-author of the thought-provoking book on the effect of technology on public education, “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns,” written with Clayton M. Christensen and Curtis W. Johnson. The book applies a business change model devised by Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, to the technological changes lapping at the foundations of public education. By 2019, nearly half of all public high school courses will be taught online, Horn predicts.

According to the model, innovation first creeps into and around the edges of an establishment, in this case the monopoly of public education, until broad change occurs.

That’s happening in Minnesota, where more than 20 online learning programs cater to students with different needs, and this September, a national online high school will open its virtual doors.

Online schools are “part of a range of school choice options,” says Morgan Brown, assistant commissioner with the state Department of Education.

That’s the way it should be, says Steve Kelley, who as a state senator helped author the legislation passed in the early 2000s that gave public school students the choice of online learning classes, so long as they met Minnesota standards, were taught by Minnesota licensed teachers and were overseen by state school districts.

“We ought not shut down innovation. We need to test out whether these new technologies provide an effective option,” says Kelley. “We have to have this conversation. What are the valuable points of online learning? Can it help deliver learning, give practice?

“Digital teaching tools can be very effective with some kids. They can provide access to curriculum, particularly in rural areas where districts may not be able to afford a range of teachers in a variety of subjects,” says Kelley, director of the Center for Science Technology and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota. 

Online enrollment growing but still relatively small
Look at the numbers. In Minnesota, online enrollment last school year climbed 50 percent over the previous year, though the figures are minuscule, compared with the 840,000 who attend public school. The North American Council for Online Learning says 42 states have significant part- and full-time learning programs serving about 1 million kids, up from about 45,000 in 2000.

Still, there are concerns.

This fall, a new player, Insight Schools, the country’s largest operator of online high schools, will begin offering classes to Minnesota kids. So far, more than 400 students from around the state, but mostly rural areas, have enrolled, according to Valerie J. McCullough, the online school’s executive director.

Insight’s advent has ruffled some feathers. The nonprofit state company is governed by the Brooklyn Center School District but owned by Apollo Group, a for-profit company that operates the University of Phoenix, an online college.

Those for-profit ties disturb Education Minnesota, the teachers’ union. The organization is “fundamentally opposed to for-profit organizations running schools,” says spokeswoman Shelley Tougas.

Others are concerned about the quality of teaching positions. McCullough says if enrollment climbs to 500 pupils, staffing would likely be a mix of 1 full-time teacher and 21 part-time positions.

There is also the competition factor: an online school from out of state competing against Minnesota school districts for students and the state dollars that stay with them.

“Quite a few of us are not keen on someone else coming in. We like Minnesota dollars to follow students here,” says Pine River-Backus School District Superintendent Cathy Bettino. Her district and six other school districts in north central Minnesota operate their own online learning cooperative. 

She says Insight is here to raid her students. “You tell me why a for-profit corporation comes into a state. They’re here to make money. It’s at our kids’ — and our school district’s — expense. I’m certain they cannot provide the kind of individualized services we provide our kids.”

Is there a substitute for ‘the human element’?
Bettino says her online teachers know their students.

“We provide follow-up with human contact,” Bettino says. “We talk to parents and students. They’re not going to be holding the ball on that. It’s going to be falling back into the lap of the local district.”   

McCullough says Insight assigns mentors to each student and tutors are available 24-hours a day. “We provide a lot of support.”

Martha Airhart, coordinator of Spring Lake Park Online, which teaches Anderson and about 60 other students, is concerned Insight is too big to develop meaningful teacher-student relationships.

She doesn’t like its advertising either, which offers a free laptop and a stipend for the Internet, as well as the appealing idea that you can take a test in your pajamas. “They’re making it look so easy and so inviting to 14- and 15-year-olds. Of course they want to do that. The thing is, taking classes online is harder than doing it in the classroom.”

“Online is not always as engaging as a classroom can be. We try to duplicate it, but can you really duplicate sitting in a room of 20 kids and having a good interactive discussion? How can you duplicate a science lab?” Airhart asks. (Horn says a Utah professor has developed one effort that offers chemistry lab software.)    

On the other hand, Brooklyn Center School District officials who supervise Insight in Minnesota see potential. “We signed on because it is an opportunity for us to offer things we cannot offer anymore because of our deep cuts. Obviously, we’re looking forward to making money. It would be a lie if I didn’t say that. But the opportunity for our kids is huge,” says Brooklyn Center Schools superintendent Keith Lester.

Brooklyn Center students may choose to take a few online classes from Insight — say, certain foreign languages, such as Chinese, or calculus or Advanced Placement courses the district can no longer afford to offer, he says. (Students from other districts must enroll in Insight fulltime.)

The district is tiny by suburban standards — 1,750 students — but has large needs: 66 percent of students are poor, 72 percent are students of color, 30 percent are English language learners and 30 percent start the school year in Brooklyn Center but don’t finish it there.

Add to that money problems. Voters have defeated proposed tax increases five times since December 2005, and officials are talking about another levy vote in September. Still, it will be at least three years before the district could reap some financial benefit from the online operation, maybe $5,000 by the school year 2011-2012, Lester says. For now, state education dollars go through the district to Insight to finance kids’ educations. 

Lester disputes claims Insight is raiding other districts for students, as does Insight CEO Keith Oelrich.

Oelrich confirms his company expects to serve students at the fringes, those with different needs. That includes kids who have dropped out because of personal or family issues and students who “find themselves disengaged and lost in large, traditional high schools,” he says. 

In its quest for students, Insight has talked to county probation officers and visited homes for runaway teens.

Enticement of online learning troubles school districts

Still, there’s an enticement factor for school districts to contend with. In addition to the free computers and Internet allowance, Insight students can choose from among 120 courses and communicate with teachers and one another by email, text messaging and telephone. There also will be online clubs but also occasional real events, such as prom.

Because it’s a public school, there is no tuition.  When they graduate, they will receive their diplomas through the Brooklyn Center school district.

“We are coming very close to a simulated classroom,” says Oelrich, whose company will soon operate online schools in nine states.

Online school isn’t for everyone, Oelrich and others say. Only motivated, organized students succeed. 

Beyond that, is online teaching high quality?

“It’s one thing to put a qualified teacher on an email and another to make sure they have consistent and appropriate access to that teacher. The human element of teaching is important,” says Tougas of Education Minnesota.

“We don’t see online learning as replacing a teacher … but shifting a teacher’s role, from being the star on the stage as now to a guide on the side,” Horn says. Computers will assist students with their learning, giving teachers immediate feedback on the students’ progress. The teacher can step in with a different approach, providing personal instruction or a different software program, he says. 

That means more individualized, “student-centric” attention catering to each student’s learning style. “Kids need to learn the best way their brains are wired. If you don’t meet the dominant learning style in class, it’s a real struggle,” Horn explains.

For high-schooler Anderson, her days in front of a computer screen sometimes stretch long.  “We’re supposed to do two hours in each class every day, but as long as you get your work done, the teachers aren’t too strict about it,” she says. “I go in spurts. Some days I can concentrate better than others. If it’s a good day, I’ll do several lessons in one unit.” 

Software programs can be trying, too, she says. “It’s kind of like a boring computer game. It’s hard to look at the computer screen that long. It’s pretty much written information.” But when she needs a break, she takes one, for instance spending a recent morning with her mother planting potatoes, corn and lettuce in the family garden.

Anderson says lessons feature some illustrations and, often, neon green letters on a black screen. “In between, there are little quizzes to keep you awake.”

Software programs will become more engaging as the demand increases, Horn says.

Still, the Andersons like the online learning option. Says Alexis’ mother, Diane Anderson, “They can get distracted easily, but I have kids that do well at this.”

Cynthia Boyd, a former reporter and columnist for the Pioneer Press, writes on education, health, social issues and other topics. She can be reached at cboyd [at] minnpost [dot] com.