So, 2012 may have been, as The New York Times declared, The Year of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses), but that wasn’t an apex so much as a portent: 2015 saw an overall increase in online education that now has 28% of all American higher education students enrolled in at least one distance learning course. Online schooling is here, and with for-profit groups like Connections Academy and K12 running large swathes of it, it’s big business. Is this a good thing? Are distance learning programs the fulfilled promise of hyperconnectivity, making knowledge accessible to those least served by traditional schools? Or is it an insufficient solution for a real problem? The answer is, annoyingly, that it depends.
What does distance learning actually refer to?
The prevalence of online discussions in face-to-face classrooms muddies the waters here a bit, but distance learning or online education only encompasses classes entirely or overwhelmingly completed remotely.
When so many classes have an online component, it can be difficult to draw the line between distance learning and face-to-face instruction, but the discussion is centered on classes entirely or overwhelming completed remotely. From there, there’s a distinction between MOOCs—which are huge, usually free lecture hall-esque experiences done more to satisfy curiosity than graduation requirements—and traditional courses online, which takes the closed, evaluation-focused classroom model of face-to-face classes and puts it on the internet. Further complicating the debate is that most of the research has been done on college level online courses, which function much differently than K-12 classes.
Does distance learning work as well as face-to-face learning?
It can; however, that’s not always the case. A reasonably sweeping Department of Education study had numbers that “demonstrate that in recent applications, online learning has been modestly more effective, on average, than the traditional face-to-face instruction with which it has been compared.” It goes on to qualify this claim by saying “this overall effect can be attributed to the advantage of blended learning approaches over instruction conducted entirely face-to-face.” In addition, the study clarifies that its scope doesn’t extend to K-12 students with confidence.
In a more specific study, MIT looked at its own MOOCs and found comparable levels of learning in both mediums. What’s more, learning occurred at similar rates for everyone in the class, even those with no experience in the topic. This isn’t to say everyone came out a certified engineer, but post test scores improved across the board. Meanwhile, closed online courses in Masters of Public Administration programs saw no significant difference in student performance based on the type of instruction, though online students did withdraw at a higher rate than their face-to-face counterparts.
On the other hand, a 2013 National Education Policy Center paper was less impressed: Compared with conventional public schools…full-time virtual schools serve relatively few Black and Hispanic students, students who are poor, and special education students. In addition, on the common metrics of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), state performance rankings, and graduation rates, full-time virtual schools lag significantly behind traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
K12 Inc., one of the major players in for-profit online high schools, sees substandard results as well. Online charter schools have problems of their own: a survey of online charter schools showed slow academic growth for its students, and another—with the conclusion “it’s literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year.”– paints an even grimmer picture.
Students absolutely can succeed in online-only environments, but there are a lot of factors as to whether they will. There’s indication that higher education translates well to distance learning on a whole, while K-12 schools remain up in the air, though the positive example of Florida Virtual School suggests online high schools may fail due to mismanagement more than inherent issues with the model. All this points towards online schools occupying a complicated space in education that makes a straightforward opinion hard to justify.
What are the advantages of distance learning?
Though the Department of Education study referenced in the last section establishes how value of blended approaches to school, pretty much no one is arguing that online-only learning should entirely replace the face-to-face version. The advantage of distance learning has been and continues to be its accessibility to people who, for one reason or another, don’t have their needs met by traditional schools. 40% of students at Connections Academy reported choosing an online school for the increased flexibility, but significant percentages of students had issues about receiving adequate attention or merely being safe in their brick and mortar schools.
There are certainly students who respond better to the stresses of an online course than the stresses of a classroom. If anxiety keeps a student from participating fully in class discussions, then a text-based interaction with a more flexible timeline than a face-to-face setting can be less intimidating. Anna Ya Ni, the author of a study on virtual education in MPA programs, also argues that hierarchies are much less likely to develop remotely than in person, leading to a more equal learning environment.
Another advantage—though one for the district, not the student—is cost. CREDO’s study found that online-only charter schools received less funding than ones with physical classrooms, and NPR notes distance learning’s value in sparsely populated rural areas with infrequent demand for specialized classes. Distance learning teachers are typically paid less than their counterparts as well, trading salary for the option to work flexible hours at home. It’s not too surprising, then, that school districts have been eager to expand their online program, despite doubt about the education quality.
What are the disadvantages?
Exclusively online schools can be—and sometimes are—mismanaged and underperforming, but that isn’t a feature unique to distance learning. There are some features that are, though.
Tracking attendance can be difficult: virtual schools in Ohio face budget cuts after an audit showed that many students were logged in for just an hour a day. An equivalent absence in a brick and mortar school would be much easier to spot. The ease of cheating is another issue in student accountability, though groups like Florida Virtual School randomly call in students to take a test in-person to discourage this.
One of the benefits of distance learning is its capacity for individualization, whether in scheduling concerns or the pace of the material, but that individualization can just as easily become loneliness.
The parent of a first-year college student taking all her classes online said “I think the virtual classes isolated her in her room, and she met far fewer freshmen than she would have in a classroom. As she didn’t get along with her roommate and had so few classes, she had no one to eat with and ate virtually every meal in her room. She was unhappy with the academic and social situation and transferred to another university.”
Ni expresses a similar sentiment: “the advantage of online interaction may not be realized if close connection among the learners is absent.”
How can distance learning improve?
Much like charter schools, online schools are primarily regulated by state laws, and not every state is finding that their oversight is sufficient. There’s the case of Ohio above, while Georgia is finding its own issues with verifying attendance. Combine that with horror stories of unaccredited online schools or schools whose accreditation is dubious and you’re left with a system governed by patchwork oversight that seems to pretty regularly fail at accounting for issues specific to an online-only education. There’s potential for high-performing distance learning to meet the needs of students ill-suited to a traditional classroom, but the issue is in realizing that potential consistently.
This is the difficulty in discussing virtual schools, or any innovation in teaching more broadly: it becomes difficult to separate the model from the practice. How much of K12 Inc’s failures stem from its online status, how many are due to its for-profit nature, and how many are just poor teaching decisions? Varied, questioned, and sometimes contradictory statistics don’t offer clear answers to these questions. Distance learning can be a highly effective alternative to traditional schooling. It can also be a scam. And without ways to ensure quality, it will be some of each.