I had the great pleasure of working with Dara Zeehandelaar and the staff at the Fordham Institute on our recent report, Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio's Virtual Charter Schools. The findings add to the emerging and disconcerting evidence that online charter schools are not serving students well. We found that students who enroll in Ohio’s e-schools tend to be the ones who need the most support and investment—having failed or struggled academically in brick-and-mortar schools—yet they’re faring even worse in these virtual classrooms than similar students in neighborhood schools.
Because of this, we ought to substantially limit the expansion of online charter schools and hold them accountable until they can show that they serve students effectively.
The question, then, is how to improve online learning through experimentation, iteration, and innovation while avoiding the major pitfalls that often plague new implementations of educational technology.
Here are two possible ways forward:
1. Understand that today’s implementation of online learning falls far short of what it takes to offer rich learning environments for children.
I lay out some similar arguments in an upcoming book chapter, but the short version is that new technological developments often allow us to do new things faster and more efficiently. However, the ways in which we structure our use of technology—through our laws, institutions, and the constraints of our human capabilities—largely determine what outcomes we’ll see.
The case of online learning is no different. Fundamentally, online learning allows us to:
- Put educational content online and disseminate that content more widely, quickly, and efficiently
- Provide access to this learning content, unbounded by time and geographical constraints
- Network individuals and help them communicate with each other via text, audio, and video
These basic features can be employed in a vast array of configurations and for very different aims. For example, take two hypothetical ways that we might employ features of online learning for K–12 students. In scenario one, students are sitting at home alone, clicking through readings and videos at their own pace. Perhaps they complete some problem sets and assignments after each content module, and they have some email interactions with a teacher for periodic feedback. Or maybe they get distracted by other aspects of their day and don’t do any coursework. This scenario is actually quite likely in current versions of online schools.
In scenario two, students access educational content at home through their online school. Their parents are very active in helping them work through material, answering their children’s questions and guiding them through problem sets. Maybe there is a school campus where students can visit teachers for personal attention a few times each week. And the students augment their content learning with extra activities and learning experiences that their parents set up on their behalf.
It’s easy to see which environment is likelier to provide a rich learning experience. The second scenario is also much more difficult to orchestrate, as it demands that parents work side-by-side with teachers and the community. Both scenarios involve online schooling. But it’s the configuration of resources—social, instructional, and cultural—surrounding the learner that will amplify the positive aspects of online learning (having access to content as one part of a holistic learning experience, for example) instead of the negative ones (merely using online content as a replacement for learning experiences).
While the potential of online learning is enticing, using its current form as a general replacement for brick-and-mortar schooling probably sets us up to fail. As many educators and researchers can attest, school is a vastly more complex social, cultural, and institutional environment that goes beyond merely presenting content to students. While we’re making strides in designing better online learning over time, online schooling still has a ways to go. And the question of what form online schools should take remains an open one.
2. Uncritical expansion of any new educational technology is likely to exacerbate inequality, not fix it. Assume this, and create ways to experiment with new innovations in a measured way while mitigating exploitation and negative consequences.
Technology researcher Kentaro Toyama observes that technology doesn’t change education as much as it amplifies whatever existing forces are already present. So what forces are getting amplified by online charter schools in Ohio?
Current online forms of schooling are likely to promote more didactic and passive learning experiences, such as lectures and the consumption of visual media. In Ohio, charter schools are intended to be an alternative to the traditional school system, and they primarily serve needy and underserved student groups. Even if both are created with good intentions, this unique combination of technology (online schooling) and governance (charter school regulations) unfortunately has the potential to extend limited forms of pedagogy to students who need richer learning supports.
The frequent result is that learners most in need of support are ineffectively served by technology. Certain actors (such as companies and providers) will profit in the short term from increased investment. Existing inequalities in our education system will be amplified, and outcomes for learners will be mediocre or negative.
If we begin with the assumption that uncritical implementation of technology will exacerbate inequality, what should we do? One knee-jerk reaction is to avoid anything new out of fear that we’ll hurt students. A more nuanced way forward would be to always think critically when arriving at the intersection of policy, technology, and pedagogy. As a rule of thumb, I naturally gravitate to the question of what good learning looks like. Returning to this question can also provide guideposts for future policy, as well as what innovations researchers and entrepreneurs should strive toward.
For example, when I think of what makes for rich learning, I see:
- Situations in which children can identify interests and ideas that inspire them
- Ready access to the technologies, tools, and content that allow learners to get information and actively participate in the activities that give them new learning experiences
- The presence of caring adults who make personal connections with learners, provide social and emotional support, and inspire them to keep going
- The availability of peers to learn together, collaborate, and encourage each other to strive toward common goals
- Activities—such as making, doing, experimenting, analyzing, discussing, and critiquing—that deeply embed content knowledge into applications that stay with learners for the long term
It’s not difficult to see that what online schools often provide—content via a computer screen and network connection—only constitutes a small slice of what is needed for rich learning experiences. Operators and designers of online schools need to consider how the other aspects of rich learning can be facilitated.
In my own work with school districts and educators, we are learning that online coursework has benefits like opening up access to content. But merely sitting students in front of that content leaves much to be desired. Students continually seek meaningful activities and interactions with their teachers and peers. This last statement is a good litmus test when we’re designing new education systems that utilize online learning.
Iterative and continued innovation in this space should always address the question of whether we’re providing meaningful experiences for students, as well as whether we are expanding their interaction with expert teachers and supportive peers. Online tools (and maybe, in time, online schools) have a role to play in that vision. We should encourage critical thinking about how technology, policy, and pedagogy intersect—and invest in pilot projects to build up our knowledge base of what works and in what conditions. Finally, we should avoid combining new technologies with governance and policy decisions that uncritically expose our most vulnerable learners to untested programs.
June Ahn is an associate professor at New York University. He is the author of the recent Fordham Institute report Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio’s Virtual Charter Schools.