The Network for Public Education has released a new guide, "Online Learning: What Every Parent Should Know." At twenty pages, it's not exactly a quick skim, but for folks who are trying to sort through the basic issues of the online delivery of education-flavored product, this is a good place to start.
After an introductory overview from NPE head Carol Burris, the guidebook looks quickly at how we arrived here (spoiler alert: both Obama and Trump administrations like online education just fine). Then we break down some other issues.
The Different Flavors
Online learning is now part of several different products being sold to the public, so NPE breaks it down:
Virtual schools aka cyber-schools refer to a set-up in which the student logs on full-time for "school." Course content is delivered on line, often with the student at home. Blended/hybrid learning is when students are in a bricks-and-mortar school, but get a significant amount of their instruction via computer. You'll also hear "competency based" and "personalized" in reference to online schools, emphasizing the mastery of specific skills and adaptive software that supposedly adjusts what it delivers to the student next based on the work that the student just did.
I Can Haz Money
NPE notes that for-profit educational management organizations (EMO) make a squatload of money. Note my own state, where the cyber-schools are paid based on the cost-per-pupil of the sending district and not based on the actual cost of providing virtual school. And it could get even more profitable outfits like blended learning schools are allowed to ignore any and all class size rules.
How Many On Line Students Are There?
We don't know. Next?
How Do Online Students Perform Compared To Their Meat Widget Peers?
Short answer: poorly.
Long answer: Here are a bunch of different studies, each of which has its own special problems (including, and this is me talking, that many of them use test scores as a proxy for student achievement despite the fact that test scores have not been proven to be a useful or accurate proxy).
But the report does break down studies and results as they relate to the different types of online learning listed above.
The results from full-time on line learning are lousy. Nobody thinks cyber-schools actually work, except, apparently, the various legislators who have enjoyed that sweet, sweet lobbying support.
A study of blended personalized [sic] learning seems to show some positive results there, but that study has enough holes in it to swallow a fleet of semis. But NPE looks at that RAND study in some detail.
So Let's Look At Some Specific Blended Learning Models in Action
NPE takes a look at particular businesses. Like our old friend Rocketship Charter Schools, a blended learning model that was going to revolutionize education, except that it pretty much hasn't. Not even a little.
There's also a blended learning model strictly for math called Schools of One (from way back in 2009 in NYC) that, while backed by the usual gang of pseudo-edu-philanthropists, never generated any real positive results except for some good positive PR. It eventually changed its name but, unsurprisingly, rebranding did not result in new awesomeness.
And there's the Summit platform, the Facebook-backed platform that is currently hot and has spread widely. Summit is notable for waving a huge number of red flags regarding the privacy and ownership of student data.
If This Stuff Doesn't Work All That Well, Why Hasn't It Gone Away
Short answer: because money.
Long answer: Many for-profit companies have a big stake in this business, and the money they spend lobbying for favorable rules is a mountainous thing, indeed. They are also well-connected by groups like ALEC, which like the idea of chipping away at public schools. NPE offers a couple of instructive examples, like the way that lobbying and what we used to call bribery opened up Maine and turned it into a playground for the personalized education biz.
What Else Do We Have To Watch Out For?
NPE talks about some other players in the cyber-sandbox of education flavored businesses.
There's I-Ready and the ever-lovin' MAP exams, examples of online tests that are used to shape and direct instruction in public schools. There's credit recovery, which in this context refers to products that let a student log on, do some work (or have somebody do some work) and get credit for courses they failed.
And, in some ways the most creepy, behavior management apps like Class Dojo, which both allow teachers to track student behavior data and also store that data to be shared with heaven-only-knows-who.
Man of these products are piloted and financed by people who are from the world of venture capital and business, and not education. It's also worth remembering that when programs like these are free, that's a red flag. Remember the old on-line adage-- if you aren't paying for the program, then you are the product.
Yeah, What About Privacy Protections, Anyway?
NPE gets into a lot of specifics and detail here, which is useful because parents should understand just how minimal the privacy protections. are. Really minimal.
Also (and I'm not quite sure why NPE slips this point in here), parents should also be aware that just because these are computer programs, that doesn't mean they aren't loaded with bias. Every "personalized" program involves predictive software, and the research suggests that those predictive algorithms are just loaded with bias and prejudice.
How Can A Parent Tell Whether a Particular Program Is Bunk?
NPE spends a page and a half on this, and while the rest of the report suggests elements for parents to consider, they crystalize some of that advice here.
First, cyber-schools are bunk. Don't put your child in one.
Consider class size and teacher-student ration. Consider how much time your child will interact with a real, live human teacher. How much time will you have to spend as a parent monitoring and supporting your child. What is the program's track record-- how many students are passed or retained. How freaking boring is it (you van collect this info from your child). How much screen time will be involved (because more screen time is not a good thing). What is the program's purpose, and can the vendors provide any evidence that it actually works (studies that the company performed themselves don't really count here). Can you talk to schools that already use the product.
There's more, but you get the idea.
And That Brings Us To The End of the Report
If you are reading this blog, you probably know much of what is included in the report, but if you know a parent who's trying to sort this all out, this report can be an excellent resource to pass along. It's well-sourced with plenty of links and references, and it lays things out pretty clearly, with both a big-picture look at the issues and some very specific ideas for parents who are starting to navigate this world.
Parents need to understand that slick glossy ad copy coupled with high-powered hype does not equal quality educational material. This report is a good primer for cutting past the shiny fog.
Save the link and pass it along to someone who needs to see just what the problems with online learning are.