Critics Ought to Stop Bashing Straw-Constructed Online Education Facsimiles

With all the breathless attention on K-12 online education these days, you’d almost think it was a brand-new phenomenon — not something that got its start in Colorado more than a decade ago. This time it’s the Washington Post, chiming in to note that some are questioning the educational value of cyberschools.

Am I surprised? No. Let me repeat what I’ve said many times: Full-time online education is by no means the best option for all students, or even most students. But it works very well for many families who have chosen the learning option. Which some might have a hard time understanding if you believe the straw man presented by an opponent in the Post story:

“Kindergarten kids learning in front of a monitor — that’s just wrong,” said Maryelen Calderwood, an elected school committee member in Greenfield, Mass., who unsuccessfully tried to stop K12 from contracting with her community to create New England’s first virtual public school last year. “It’s absolutely astounding how people can accept this so easily.”

Well, if the idea people carry around in their head is of a 5-year-old sitting in front of a computer screen all day, then it would be astounding for people to be so accepting of online education. But simply put, that’s a caricature. For a better picture of what an online student’s day looks like, listen to this 10-minute iVoices podcast interview with three students from the Colorado Virtual Academy. While some lessons (though less for younger students) as well as the assessments and teacher interactions are on the computer, cyberschool also includes real textbooks, science kits, art supplies, and even field trips!

I’m not sure if the person quoted in this story really believes in the caricature or not. The way her quote is worded makes it oh so unclear. She could read later on in the Post story and also get a good idea. But I’m guessing she might disapprove of a 5-year-old blogging. (Note: I don’t spend anywhere near the whole day in front of the computer, though sometimes that’s the case for some of my Education Policy Center friends.)

Instead of rushing to implement harsh responses rooted in oversimplified misunderstandings of what online education is and is not, let’s look at making smart policy changes that bring education into the 21st century. There needs to be room for families to choose a quality full-time online option, as well as room for students to blend their education with customized online course opportunities.

Some knotty (not naughty) questions remain as the innovative online sector experiences some growing pains, but some really have gone overboard in seeking to use blunt instruments to bash virtual learning opportunities — or at least their straw-woven facsimiles. While I may be perpetually young, I wasn’t born yesterday.