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The Online Revolution Comes to Public Education

Joe Klein, in a recent column about his visit with student leaders in Indiana, briefly touched on the potential of online education at the high school level. Interviewing a group of impressive students at the Girls State leadership program, Klein heard firsthand their enthusiasm for online courses:

Morgan was one of the three who were taking online courses. She was taking American History from the University of Miami. “It’s more work than all my other AP courses combined,” she said. “I wish I could take all my classes online.”

Martha Scott was taking college-level courses in government and economics. She said she had a weekly phone call with her online professors and participated in a chat room with her fellow online students. (This seemed to me a very promising educational development, a way to challenge top high school students and expand the curricula available in smaller high schools.)

Texas, where a lot of local high schools struggle to offer a broad range of courses, is experimenting with online programs. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports:

When Arlington teacher R.J. Williams speaks during her online multimedia classes, high school students all over Texas log on to listen.

Williams is among a growing number of educators who are teaching in the Texas Virtual School Network, a clearinghouse established by the Legislature in 2007. The network offers a statewide catalog of supplemental online courses to students in charter and public schools.

One state senator, the chairwoman of the Committee on Education, said that online learning should become an integral part of public schooling in coming years:

“The whole philosophy of online learning needs to permeate our public education system,” said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Education and a former teacher.

If online education can really be made to work in secondary school, the shift away from big box high schools and centralized school districts is likely to pick up steam. In practical terms, it will mean that smaller schools can offer a more diverse curriculum (Mandarin classes in small town schools, art and music classes without the expense in every school of full time faculty and so on).

America has the chance to build school systems that slash bureaucratic overhead and red tape while giving teachers more autonomy and parents and students more choice. Online instruction is a big part of making that happen; congratulations to all the students, parents, teachers and administrators brave enough to give this a try.

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  • maulerman

    My daughter will be a high school senior in the fall. One of her classes will be an online Macroeconomics class offered in a partnership of her high school with the local community college. I expect my son who is an incoming high school freshman will see even more online classes as part of this partnership.

    If my experience is any guide there will be a further secondary economic effect of this trend. My daughter’s argument is the online class justifies parental expenditures for a new computer.

  • Eurydice

    My niece here in Massachusetts is doing a similar thing. Her public high school, although considered a very good one, still doesn’t have the quantity and quality of science courses she wants to take. So, she’ll be “attending” a local college for her senior year, taking her classes on-line and attending her high school for physical education, extra-curricular sports and other events.

  • thibaud

    More school districts. Sure, that’s the ticket.

    Can you imagine having only 560 school districts in a state the size of New Jersey? Madness. They should have at least 5,000.

  • david

    Watch teacher’s unions and other vested interests fight this trend tooth and nail.

  • Bruno Behrend

    Please delete previous comment…

    Teachers should cut off their leaden union hand cuffs, and become professionals. They might consider starting “teaching firms” that bill by the time spent successfully inculcating their “clients” with knowledge.

    They could become tutors, and open tutoring/mentoring centers. They could offer their services for one set of low costs, but get high pay for their students earning “merit badges” for their mastery of sequenced content.

    Unshackled from the braindead idea of a “school district,” the US could leap ahead of other nations, especially as it spends vast sums to educate.

    Yes yes, we all know that poor parenting and hordes of Mexicans make this more difficult than if we were all obedient Fins, but we aren’t.

    Following this comment, we will hear from those who say that existing problems should cause us to ignore transformational changes so as to double down on this failed, expensive system.

    These are all poor arguments. Leave a substandard “public option” for the clueless suburbanites and lackadaisical urbanites if you must. Allow the rest to have the money follow the child to a vast new array of education options.

  • Bruno Behrend


    It isn’t so much more “school districts” as each school being independent and having its own board.

    Another way to look at it is that there should be Kipp districts, Rocketship districts, and all manner of independent and/or networked schools.

    We need to dismantle zip code based education, for all the reasons you have posted in the past.

  • crypticguise

    Of course more challenging programs can be added to a public school curriculum, but a MAJOR NEED in inner city schools is to TEACH THE BASICS to children who fail to get an education in either Elementary, Intermediate or High School.

  • Edwin Leap

    I am an emergency physician, and have worked odd shifts for my entire professional career. But because my wife and I choose to home-school, my schedule is a gift rather than a liability. We can take trips and engage in activities, I can help with studies and other things because we aren’t tied to a particular school schedule. So, the online revolution for secondary school may allow more family cohesion, so that parents who have to work second shift won’t have to miss their children! What a blessing to families where mom and/or dad are tied to industrial schedules!

  • JJ

    All this is very exciting. But I took college classes and correspondence classes when I was in high school in the 1970’s. It worked very well for motivated kids, and these online classes will give them even more options. The system does not do well by the talented kids, and if this allows them to compete with their peers in Asia and Europe, and bypass the educrats who are trying to make everyone sit still and obey orders, so much the better.

    For the average kids, there is Gibbon’s line “the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.”

  • Old School Conservative

    The NEA and AFT will have a fit over online ed that doesn’t depend on high dollar physical plants and featherbedding union members.

    The next biggest obstacle to effective education after the union thugs is administrative cost that would get any manager in the privater sector run out on a rail. Far too many superintendents, principals, and advisors who are over-paid and under-worked.

    Public education is one of the best scams going, for the providers.

  • Jewel

    My experience with this was not good. We went through the Pennsylvania K-12 program for 10th grade. I don’t blame the concept, but in our case it was the execution. Remember that in some online educational programs, the money is still coming from taxpayers, so, as with public education, you get what you don’t directly pay for.
    In our case, it was a matter of consistency. We kept getting different teachers, so when my daughter turned in work, we found the homework assignments changing. Also, sitting for a great length of time in front of the computer was like a prison sentence to her. If I had to do it again, I might consider only part of her education at the computer.

  • Greg Swann

    No argument remains for public schools, their vast structures and their even more vast payrolls. Most American children can goof off just as easily from home — and with better computing hardware. The motivated children will do much better without the interference from “professional” “educators.” When the National Education Association finally figures out that it has been completely disintermediated, the shrieking will be deafening.

  • Boo

    Meanwhile, my modest, heavily indebted blue collar/middle class town, which typically graduates around 300 students a year, just added construction of a $100 million high school to its five year capital plan.

  • Jeff Pittman

    I’m 58 years old. When I was in elementary (not high) school in Birmingham, AL in the 60s — you know, the home of backward, knuckle-dragging southern mouth breathers — we had no foreign language instructors on staff. We did have big clunky B&W televisions in classrooms and so we had our French lessons several times a week courtesy of “educational television.” This was when public television was actually about educating people, not indoctrinating them. Nothing new here, but it’s nice to see this old idea coming back around.

  • Bruno Behrend


    The secret Sith Lords behind School Districts and local governments are the municipal bond dealers.

    These guys have inserted themselves into every aspect of gov. and have made it exceedingly difficult to slow the rate of debt. They have destroyed IL.

    Ask your board why a HS cost 3X more per Sq. ft than a comparable commercial building. Dig, and you’ll find debt service is exempt from most spending caps.

  • Jim.

    If you really want to realize the potential of online education, ban Elsevier’s business plan (lock down academic papers behind a paywall, while paying little or nothing to the writers).

    Nothing will revolutionize online learning more than the ability for talented high school kids — and anyone interested in continuing their education or engaging their curiosity — to access those papers for free.

    On second thought, only ban that business plan for hard sciences and engineering… discouraging kids from wasting their time with social science drivel would be very, very helpful.

  • Ari Tai

    If you are, or you know a student who is behind, ahead, or just bored in math (and perhaps the sciences) please do point them at the Khan Academy (and if they’d like to learn to program, the Code Academy). A web search will find them in an instant. Sal Khan’s talk to the MIT club of Northern California (on his web site) lays out a strategy for changing the nature of education, recreating the dynamics of the one-room schoolhouse where students taught and teachers coached.

    If you don’t have the time for the MIT talk, listen to the GEL presentation for its essence. There’s no reason that every child can’t be an “A” student through Algebra 1 (as China is demonstrating and America needs to emulate if we’re to stay competitive).

  • Kris

    Boo@13: “a $100 million high school”

    Wow, that’s one big box!

  • An

    Learning mandarin online is great for the top 1/3 of students, but I haven’t seen a good online vision to help those on the left hand side of the bell curve. My opinion is most of these proposals will help the elite students sprint further ahead. It requires students to be motivated to learn in the first place.

    Perhaps someone out there can improve upon the textbook. Relevant information can be presented in forms of games, videos, or some other form of multimedia instead of long narratives. The new form of interactive learning can provide immediate feedback. The new “text book” would be smart, so it can present problems and ideas adapted to the students performance much like the GMAT CAT targets problems where testers get wrong.

  • teapartydoc

    The kids that go to those “leadership programs” are usually teachers pets who go on to live rather mediocre lives of non-leadership.

  • Herb

    This online idea follows logically from what we have seen now for decades in progressive education. The educational models at work in our schools, the models that have come from our graduate schools of education, are mechanical ones. Pour information in, spit it back out,and variations of that. The human being is now thought of as a machine, so let machines teach them.
    How cool, say the students. How wonderful, says the educational establishment. How neat, says Silicon Valley. How very progressive. Instead of having young people attached to their mechanical devices for half their waking life, we can move it closer to 100%.

    We have seen that what our professors think of for college students travels down to high school, and later to elementary school. There was a time not so long ago when the idea of computers in elementary education was thought to be ridiculous. Not so anymore. Now I see one year olds with Ipads in their strollers. Progress?

    Direct human interaction between pupil and teacher is essential for true education. The computer has already led to various temptations, and there will be much more. And people will fall for the apple.

  • Jean Casey

    Excellent article! Right ON! I teach online Masters in Education classes for teachers at National University and this is certainly the wave of the future for all levels of schooling. Amazingly when I compare a face to face class like I used to teach at CSLUB to the online classes I now teach, I find that I know these students much better for they all must respond to the materials daily, as opposed to a face to face class where some students contribute but others sit there with nothing to say.

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