A new study is sounding alarms at the quick expansion of virtual education programs in states like Florida, saying for-profit companies are pushing states to offer full-time virtual instruction paid for by state tax dollars with little research on the quality of these programs.
The study, written by two professors at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and released Tuesday, highlights a number of emerging problems with the growth of online learning.
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The study raises questions about the quality of virtual education, such as the lack of supervision, as well as the financial motivations of for-profit companies that have pushed state legislatures to expand virtual instruction. (See the full study below.)
“Private corporations, most of which are for-profit, have recognized a huge potential market in virtual schooling,” wrote the study’s authors, who urge states to more closely examine how much they pay for virtual instruction.
Florida has long been at the forefront of virtual education. There is the state-backed Florida Virtual School, which offers full-time and part-time virtual classes paid for by taxpayer dollars and each school district in the state is required to offer virtual classes, either through its own program, the Florida Virtual School, or private companies. Flagler County offers iFlagler, which enrolled 250 students last year, most of them part-time.
And this year, a new state law requires all public high school students to take an online course prior to graduation as well as allow charter schools to offer full-time “virtual” classes.
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- Invitation to a Dialogue: Computers in School?
Other states have also rapidly expanded their full-time virtual programs in a way that allows more private companies to compete, such as by allowing “virtual” charter schools.
In 2010, the study says, 27 states offered full-time virtual schools, up from 20 states six years ago.
A number of private companies have lobbied for this expansion, such as K12 Inc. and Educational Options Inc., which are approved by the Florida Department of Education to offer online courses in the state.
After reviewing several studies analyzing learning gains in virtual education, the National Education Policy Center authors concluded that “no study examined test performance over an extended period of time, none attempted to compare outcomes for virtual and traditional full-time schooling, and none looked at a complete curriculum. Concerning this last point, the vast majority of research in this area has examined achievement in highly structured curricular areas such as science, math, and technical knowledge. Missing from all this research are studies that investigate less easily codified subjects, for example, art, music, interpretation of literature, and the like.
“Accordingly,” the authors continued, “the question whether virtual education can substitute in toto for traditional face-to-face education is substantively different from the questions addressed in these studies. No reasonable person doubts that learning can take place ―over a computer network.‖ Perhaps no reasonable person likewise believes that everything students learn in a traditional education can be acquired working alone on a computer. Surely there are things to be learned at a deeper level that cannot survive the translation to cable, processor, and LCD screen.”
One Florida-based expert on virtual education has conducted studies of virtual education that show students don’t perform worse on tests in online classes than in traditional courses.
Cathy Cavanaugh, a University of Florida professor who studies virtual education, said one study comparing part-time virtual students with full-time virtual students showed the full-time students performed better.
Cavanaugh cautioned against reading too much into that Missouri-based study, saying it wasn’t an apples to apples comparison. Part-time students had the added challenge of navigating two educational systems, she said.
In Florida, the biggest provider of online education in the state is the state-run Florida Virtual School. It is funded based on the number of successfully completed courses. Last year, it served 122,700 students.
Though the survey suggested online instruction made it easier for students to cheat, a Florida Virtual School administrator said steps are taken to prevent students from taking credit for work that isn’t theirs.
Polly Haldeman, the senior manager for district relations with Florida Virtual School, said the school runs essays and other written answers through TurnItIn.com, a service that compares how authentic a student’s answer is. Instructors also check in monthly and can give oral pop quizzes, she said.
“It is not all bubbling in the answers and writing out the problems,” Haldeman said. “It is recording and taking pictures and a multiple of ways to demonstrate mastery of (the subject).”
The study focused primarily on concerns over private companies offering virtual education courses rather than state-backed providers such as Florida Virtual School. The study suggests states audit these private providers to determine how much money is required to offer online courses and whether the companies are being overpaid.
Cavanaugh said she shares the concerns raised about the rise of for-profit virtual education companies.
“It is a concern,” Cavanaugh said. “I think we have learned that lesson through health care. There are different motivations when profit is brought into a public service.”
–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida