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Are Online Learning Programs Killing Education?

Laura Preble

OnlineSomething sinister is happening to my school, to my school district, and probably to many other schools nationwide. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.

As we study the McCarthy era in my class, I can’t help but recall when ‘50s, broadcaster Edward R. Murrow quoted Shakespeare while commenting on the gross injustices perpetrated during the McCarthy hearing: “the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.”

This is no witch trial. This is no hunting of Communists. It’s more insidious than either, because it appears to be helping kids. It’s called online learning. Distance learning. Credit recovery.

Your student can’t succeed in regular school with regular teachers and regular assignments? Sign them up for this handy computer program that will allow them to complete a semester’s worth of work in only 25 hours! What a deal! And the best part? On the student’s transcript, that credit looks identical to the credit earned by another student who spent an entire year in a traditional classroom, who wrote essays and took quizzes, learned vocabulary words, read literature, dissected non-fiction texts, and interacted with real human beings.

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I know the phenomenon of online learning is not new, nor is it going away. It’s too easy and too lucrative. The question that burns, though, is whether or not we as a society value convenience and avarice over education and learning. 

At a department meeting the other day, some of my fellow English teachers brought up this very issue. We were told to remember that education “is a business” and therefore, decisions would be made that would be financially beneficial.

Oh, people say the right things: “We want high standards,” “We certainly want rigor in the curriculum,” “This only applies to a few students who are far behind in credits,” but the truth is, we are not doing these kids any favors. Letting them sit in front of a computer screen to take and re-take a test (as many times as needed to pass!) teaches them the monkey skill of pushing a button. And it teaches them that there’s always a shortcut, a quick way, an easy way. The default grade on the essay portion of this online program is 100 percent. Why? Because an essay was completed. Effort was put forth; quality is unimportant. The kid tried to write an essay.

Those who sell these programs to school districts claim that they can be very rigorous, which is true. If the school or district sets the acceptable level of work at a place comparable to the work in a regular classroom, there might be the shade of a similarity. However, on the ground, the rules are different. One teacher from another school told a colleague “You just keep resetting it until the kid passes.”

 Kids at my school have already started to talk. A social science teacher told me that a student said, “I’m not going to bother to do any work in this class because I can just take this in learning center and it will take, like, two weeks.” And why not? It will show up on his transcript as a high college prep grade (no surprise, everyone who does the classes gets a B or better), with no indication that it was taken as an online class.

In “Virtual Schools: Trends and Issues”, a 2001 report by Tom Clark commissioned by the Distance Learning Resource Network, there were 101 virtual high schools listed. That was nearly ten years ago; no doubt the number has burgeoned into many hundreds if not thousands. Most school districts are starting up their own online virtual high schools to compete. The prevailing logic is that this is what the customer wants, so we have to give it to him or he’ll go elsewhere.

They’re right, of course. If a kid doesn’t want to go to high school, he has a choice of dropping out or going to an online high school or getting an equivalency. But equivalency certificates aren’t diplomas, and nobody thinks they mean much; dropping out is usually a ticket to a dead-end job and everyone knows it.

What bothers me is that online schools purport to educate. They offer themselves up as an alternative to dropping out or taking the GED. The powers that be say, “Well, it’s better than having them drop out.” Why? Because we lose the money for their seat time. It’s not better. It’s selling a bill of goods to those kids, to their parents, and to our country in general.

The fault, dear Brutus, lies within us. Those kids are not educated, and they haven’t learned anything. And when they are sent out into the world with no skills and no ability to learn, that will truly be the lesson that sticks. It will affect all of us.

To get an alternative take on the possibilities on distance learning, read our interview with the 2010 Online Teacher of the Year.

 What do you think of online credit recovery programs? Share in the comments section!