Sunday, January 5, 2014


Today I want to shift my attention from MOOCs to another promising form of online education, virtual schools. I have some personal experience with these, as my son is a graduate of one - PA Cyber in Pennsylvania. 

Houston C. Tucker, over at E-learning Industry, proposes three ways to improve virtual schools: treat the students as honored guests, stay flexible, and train your virtual teachers to deliver every instructional message with as much love and care as they can muster. These ideas are sound, and I wanted to think about them in relation to the virtual school I knew at first hand.

So let me say up front I am a big supporter of virtual schools. They fit the special needs of come young people and their families. As a pluralist, I oppose all one-size-fits-all policies. (Of course this does not mean I support just any virtual schools - only the good ones).

Some may counter idea by saying that that young people are NOT guests in school but instead are there - by force if necessary - to be subjected to some important lessons - whether algebra or democratic values or whatever.

There is no credible evidence that high school students cannot learn algebra on line as well as in a conventional classroom. Further, no one can learn democratic values in a compulsory, prison-like institution. The whole institutional message is passivity, docility, obedience. One reason I like virtual schools is because in the home environment parents can zero out a lot of those messages.

My son Sjoma attended PA Cyber. It did a great job on #1 - it treated its students with great respect, providing lots of course choices and formal academic mentoring. But is t also was demanding. When he fell behind his mentor called him - and then us - and demanded that Sjoma show up at the learning center for faced-to-face academic counseling. Between his mentor and his counselor he got back on track. 

It also had an excellent college-study program - students could begin to take in-person or online college courses as soon as they were ready. So it got an A+ on flexibility -- until the commonwealth of PA came in and dictated that virtual schools, unlike their conventional counterparts - could not offer college study programs. So in this case PA got a flat F. 

Unlike many virtual schools, PA Cyber offered no courses of their own - all were outsourced to educational provider firms. Some teachers were better than others, but I doubt that all content messages were delivered with maximum love. On the other hand, none of the teachers was cruel or incompetent - market logic pretty much took care of that - for better or worse - by provider firms hiring their teachers on a contingent basis and eliminating those low on the star system.

And of course there are many problems about that, but so far as i could tell they did not include low quality teaching or teachers not well-adjusted to the online context.

The obvious question is whether the states could provide virtual colleges - let's say PA-Cyber College in Pennsylvania - for free or at a very low cost, using MOOCs as the backbone?  This would be one concrete step to ending the student debt problem.

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