Online learning has become a popular way for many college students to earn a degree, but it is also making its way into many primary and secondary schools as well. With the rising popularity of cyber-charter schools nationwide, some public school districts are turning to cyber-education as a means of competing with other schools in their areas. But is online education the answer for public schools today? The answer depends on who you ask.
What is Cyber-Education?
According to K12, an online school, cyber or virtual schooling takes place on the Internet, rather than a traditional classroom. Students go online from anywhere they choose, allowing them to keep up with school work from home or on the road. Access to teachers is completed through phone calls, online through conferencing, or face-to-face in some instances. Teachers that work in cyber-schools are state-certified and oversee virtual classrooms, where students often have the opportunity to interact with their instructors and peers.
While cyber-schools maintain a sense of structure in their virtual classrooms, there is flexibility in education that is not seen in a brick-and-mortar classroom. The success of students in cyber-education rests more squarely on parents, who must ensure students remain focused even if they are doing their learning from the comfort of home. However, unlike homeschooling, parents do not act as instructors in the cyber-school experience.
This video from SUNY offers an overview of online learning.
The Benefits of Cyber-Schooling
Those who have participated in cyber-schooling tout numerous benefits with the model, including:
- The ability to individualize lessons to a student’s ability and learning pace
- Students who are unable to attend traditional classrooms due to illness or disability don’t have to fall behind in school
- Students can keep up with studies during travel
- Cyber-schools offer the opportunity to get a quality education without fear of getting picked on or bullied
- These virtual classrooms allow students to get the bulk of their influence from home – through parents and siblings
“I think the education is a lot better,” Cameron, an 11-year-old student at Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School (a cyber-school), told Lehigh Valley Live. “My favorite part is being home and learning about science because I can research the things I am doing.”
For those concerned about social interaction, many cyber-schools include a network of parents that organize outings, field trips, and other events that allow students to get together in a face-to-face environment. Some of the cyber schools also provide on-site activities that allow students and teachers to connect on a personal level. For example, Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School offers extracurricular activities, including a performing arts program and honors classes, at their Pennsylvania building.
Online schooling excels in situations where it is impossible for students to attend school for in-person teaching. The pandemic of 2020-2021 has shown the efficacy of digital teaching. It's not been perfect. It assumes that every student has access to a robust internet connection. But it is better than nothing.
In this video, Kristen Ruppert-Leach reports on the history and impact of online education.
Online education in charter schools
Charter schools are one of the most popular types of schools for cyber-education since they traditionally tend to march to their own drum in the world of academia. These schools can take the funding they receive from the state and apply it to a virtual classroom that costs much less to run than a brick-and-mortar building. According to the Post-Gazette, cyber-schools in five Pennsylvania counties spent $15.3 million on cyber-school tuition during the 2009-2010 school year. PBS.org reports that at least one of those cyber-schools, the Pennsylvania Cyber School, made profits of more than $20 million over two back-to-back school years.
Profits made by the school have gone to pay for additional research and development designed to benefit the students within the school. Students that decide to attend cyber-schools may receive all the equipment and supplies they need to get started absolutely free. However, some educators are complaining that the cyber-schools are taking funding directly out of the hands of public schools at a time when those classrooms need the money most. Other educators are examining ways the public school system can compete with popular cyber-charter schools, by offering their own alternatives in online education.
In-person versus online education
The Post-Gazette reports that in Pennsylvania, where cyber-charter schools have been particularly popular, other public schools are beginning to offer their own version of virtual education in order to compete. Superintendents are finding that cyber-education may be the best way to compete with charters offering foreign language at the elementary school level and other perks, in light of increasing budget cuts and dwindling sources. Because their taxpayer dollars move to the charter schools with every student that enrolls in cyber-education, the school system is doing everything in its power to bring those students – and their funding – back to the public schools in the state.
In addition, Pennsylvania districts are touting the benefits of online education through traditional schools, citing poor test scores at many of the cyber schools throughout the state. According to the Post-Gazette, cyber schools have performed significantly lower on standardized PSSA tests than their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
Oversight of Cyber-Schools
In Michigan, the popularity of cyber-education may lead to a change in how funding is allotted and how virtual schools are monitored. According to mLive, state lawmakers are considering changes that will allocate funding to cyber-schools based on a combination of factors including student performance, rather than relying solely on enrollment and attendance for funding figures. The state is also looking at ways to monitor cyber-schools in the state, offering parents, students, and educators a more comprehensive understanding of how these schools are performing.
Ever the visionary, Bill Gates opines how online courses can radically improve education by 2030.
With technology permeating every aspect of our culture today, cyber-schooling will be another way of delivering K-12 education especially in situations and times when it is not possible to attend in-person classes. While the verdict is still out on whether these online schools are an effective way of educating students, there is no doubt that virtual education is the model for the future.
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