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August 2, 2010

NEAL: Let’s embrace online learning

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — As a classroom teacher, I’m not crazy about online schools. I like to think that I can challenge, question, excite and ignite students in a way no Internet program ever could. I’m also a realist. If Indiana wants to improve high school and college graduation rates, we must make education as flexible as possible. On-line learning is the way to do that.

On Aug. 23, the inaugural class will enroll in Indiana Connections Academy, an on-line charter school being offered on a pilot basis by the Indiana Department of Education for students in grades 1-8.

Pupils work at home under guidance from family mentors and on-line certified teachers, who can deliver interactive lessons to groups of students or individuals as needed. The students take part in extra-curricular activities, such as Internet chess clubs, and go on field trips with peers from the online community. It’s home schooling but with a standardized curriculum aligned to state proficiency requirements. As with other public schools, taxpayers foot the bill.

The program goes a step beyond Hoosier Academies, Indiana’s first online charter school, which opened in 2008-09 under the auspices of Ball State University. At Hoosier Academies, students do much of their coursework on-line but also attend classes two days a week at the school’s Indianapolis or Muncie “learning centers.”

A similar innovation at the college level is Indiana’s new partnership with Western Governors University. Few Hoosiers had heard of WGU before radio ads began advertising the program this summer. Gov. Frank O’Bannon helped found the on-line college back in 1997. In June, Gov. Mitch Daniels signed an executive order establishing a more formal relationship with the school through which Hoosiers can earn degrees in business, teacher education, information technology and health professions.

Much like the K-12 online programs, WGU assigns faculty mentors to students to supervise their work. Students get credit not based on hours in the classroom but by writing papers, completing assignments and passing exams that demonstrate content knowledge. Tuition averages $6,000 a year.

The wave of the future? In a July 20 commentary, Katherine Mangu-Ward <http://reason.org/experts /show/katherine-mangu-ward>  of the Reason Foundation reported that “nationwide more than 1 million K-12 public school students are enrolled in online classes, up from about 50,000 a decade ago.” At the college level, on-line enrollment has been growing much faster (17 percent) than traditional college enrollment (1.2 percent).        

The boom in distance learning is not without critics. The National Education Association, the country’s main teacher’s union, has opposed virtual charter schools since 2001 because of fears they will draw more students away from regular schools. Its policy favors “an absolute prohibition against the granting of charters for the purpose of home-schooling, including online charter schools that seek to provide home-schooling over the Internet.” The union’s forceful objections explain why the Indiana legislature has allowed only two small pilot projects so far and one of those requires a classroom component. Combined, the schools’ enrollment is capped at 500. Compare that to Florida where 80,000 children are in virtual schools.

It’s the economics of online competition that concern the universities whose costs keep rising faster than inflation. A comment by an American Association of University Professors official was revealing. “The economic underpinning of a lot of online education is that it amounts to slave labor,” said Martin Snyder, director of the AAUP’s Department of External Relations.

There’s no denying online education is more convenient and cheaper than traditional education. But does this mean brick-and-mortar schools will soon be obsolete? I can’t imagine that. Education is so much more than information transmission. It is a process that involves teaching and learning - probing, questioning, reflecting — and when it works as it should, it creates an intellectual high that could never be matched at a computer screen.

Our schools don’t always work as they should, and for a variety of reasons students don’t always have access to a classroom. Online education should be embraced as one more option for families on a menu of choices. It’s time to quit fearing our options.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.   org.

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