The problems with virtual schooling

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Virtual schools are common in America and their role is being increasingly debated in the UK. Psychologist Dr Stephanie Thornton considers the implications of this model of learning and issues a warning.

What will the schools of the future look like? How will they operate? Modern technology is offering radical new possibilities for education which are only just beginning to be realised. 

Why invest in thousands of teachers of variable effectiveness, when online resources can offer the very best of the best to all? 

Why leave responsibility for children’s progress to teachers in under-resourced classrooms, trying to offer something that will meet the needs of 30 different individuals, when computerised teaching systems can be exquisitely tailored to meet each individual’s needs? 

Why congregate children in brick-and-mortar schools at all, when the traffic congestion (and green-house gasses) associated with the school run, and the problems of bullying and other anti-social alignments can all be avoided by delivering that education to the child’s home – or to some smaller, localised facility?

In sum, why not let school enter the world of social media which increasingly dominates life: a “virtual school” where children meet in virtual classrooms, communicate with teachers and peers through tweets, chatrooms, Facebook and the like, and meet as avatars in virtual playgrounds – as in popular virtual worlds such as Second Life?

The rise of the virtual school

This science fiction scenario is already turning into fact, led by the USA, where the first virtual school opened in Florida in 1997. 

Today, encouraged by the economies possible through virtual schooling in a world of slashed budgets, 30 US states offer “full-time” online schools – that is, schools where education and the school experience are delivered wholly and solely through the internet to the individual’s home. 

A quarter of a million American children from kindergarten to 17 or 18-year-olds are now being educated in full-time virtual school in this way (only 0.5 per cent of the age group, but this represents a rise of 25 per cent over the past year). 

More dramatically, half a million American children are already enrolled in “part-time” virtual schooling – still attending a traditional school, but taking one or more courses primarily through the internet programs offered by virtual school.

And it is this “part-time” virtual schooling that is growing fastest: experts at Harvard University predict that at least half of all the courses taken by school pupils in the USA will be delivered by virtual school internet systems by 2019 – with important consequences for the role of classroom teaching.

Coming our way?

Full-time virtual schools are expanding around the world. A number are already in operation in the UK, covering education from primary to secondary level, some wholly in the private sector, others working in collaboration with local authorities. Currently these serve restricted populations (the excluded, children living abroad or who have mobility or health issues, or who are being home educated). 

It is hard to say if or when full-time virtual schooling will move into the mainstream in the UK (though there are groups lobbying for it now). But it is likely that pressures will mount to use online resources of the kind used in virtual schools as the primary means of delivering whole courses alongside other activities in our traditional schools. 

A brave new world?

The case for using the fantastic resources of the internet to deliver education is strong, and seductive. Who could argue that it is better to let children learn about – gravity, say – in the traditional classroom where pot luck determines the teacher’s skills, interest, insight and resources, when all could watch something like a BBC documentary on the subject, with graphics to die for and fronted by the delectable Brian Cox? 

Who could argue with the claim that computerised teaching systems have the potential to monitor an individual’s progress, to analyse individual strengths and weaknesses and then to deliver a custom-made teaching programme in ways that are far beyond the resources of even the best classroom teacher?

The potential of online resources seems immense and obvious. But as with so much in life, there are issues. 

Making the technology work?

Online or virtual courses are only as good as the programs that deliver them. Who is going to write, and who is going to regulate, those programs? You get what you pay for – and you get what regulators demand. 

These issues are already presenting problems in the USA. Who funds a virtual school? Under current systems, there (and here), educational resources tend to flow regionally, and to be planned for on the basis of regional population predictions. How to make such predictions, or justify regional budgets, for a virtual school whose pupils might be anywhere in the world? The inadequacies of current systems for regulating online teaching are also becoming clear. Many critics in the USA describe the virtual school programmes as woefully under-regulated, under-inspected. 

The fact that a university survey (rather than a government agency) provided the data revealing that 72 per cent of the online resources provided by the largest USA supplier failed to meet federal standards speaks to the point. 

In the UK, too, provision for inspection and regulation for virtual schools, or individual online virtual courses, seems thin. 

Furthermore, there is actually staggeringly little research to support the claims that online tuition will offer anything better than a traditional classroom. 

Such research as there is has focused on higher education, where it seems that around 60 per cent of pupils do better when using online materials, particularly when these are used in conjunction with traditional classroom teaching. 

But studies of the impact of virtual education courses at secondary level show very small gains over traditional classroom teaching methods, and suggest that drop-out rates might be higher. 

However, there is so little research at secondary level, and what is out there is so little differentiated that it is impossible as yet to draw strong conclusions. For example: do online courses work better at secondary level for some than for others? Do some ways of implementing online education work better for some than others? The intuitive answer to both questions is “very likely, yes”. But we do not have the data to know the answers – still less to know how to implement online resources optimally, nor for whom.

Is this the future?

The idea of full-time virtual schooling makes many uneasy. Obviously, for some groups of children (living abroad or in remote areas, excluded from traditional school, suffering from health or mobility issues) it is potentially a godsend.

But extending this virtual community to the majority raises a number of social issues. It physically isolates children from their peers; and while that may reduce bullying (it may not, of course), it also reduces the opportunity to learn the social skills vital for survival in the hurly burly of everyday life.

Full-time virtual school also isolates the young from their geographic community – in fact, it powerfully undermines the very notion of “community” defined by physical propinquity. 

Of course, the vast use of social media is already taking the young very rapidly down that path. At present, bricks and mortar schools counter that trend. The consequences of letting ties to a physical community weaken through “attendance” only at a virtual school have not been deeply explored – though what research we have sounds warning bells. 

And all of this ignores the fact that, for young people “at risk”, traditional schools offer a safety net. How will such individuals be supported, in a virtual school system?

Full-time virtual schooling is almost certainly not for all. Many argue that the risks of full-time virtual schooling can be avoided, and the bonuses gained, by introducing their online resources into traditional classrooms – not just as supplements to a traditionally taught course, but as substitutes, as in the USA: as the main delivery system for teaching. At first this seems like a neat solution – but again, there are questions yet to be asked, let alone answered.

For example, will introducing online courses level the playing field or exacerbate educational inequalities? Providing every student with the same high quality teaching materials and programs to address in their own time offers only an illusory equality, if some have a supportive home environment and others do not.

Obviously, teachers will not become redundant as virtual courses expand. We will always need teachers to field the problems that will inevitably arise, and to facilitate in one way or another, even if we need fewer of them. But if the main tutor on a course is an online virtual teacher, a program that presents and explains all the material and assesses and sets work for the individual, the role of the classroom teacher is radically changed. What will the new job description look like – and how will training need to change to meet it? 

In sum

The seduction of the potential offered by online teaching systems (for quality of education, economies of scale and reduction of costs) is so great that we can surely expect mounting pressures to embrace this new approach to teaching. Let us hope that we can resist the temptation to jump on this bandwagon before doing the research to understand how to make it really work.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and a former lecturer in psychology and child development.


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