Reflections on the Virtual School Symposium

A few weeks ago I attended the Virtual School Symposium, which is organized by iNACOL (the International Association for K-12 Online Learning) in Indianapolis. As mentioned by Susan Patrick, President and CEO of iNACOL, this conference has grown rapidly, from about 160 attendees five years ago to 1,910 attendees this year.

This reflects a larger trend of an increasing number of K-12 students who are taking online courses. Some students are in blended environments that combine online learning with face-to-face learning in a traditional “brick-and-mortar” school, while other students are enrolled in full-time virtual schools. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal with the title “My Teacher Is an App” states that there are “an estimated 250,000 students are enrolled in full-time virtual schools, up 40% in the last three years,” and that many new virtual schools are opening all the time.

As I browsed the exhibit hall on the opening evening of the conference, I noticed many companies competing for this growing field of online courses providers. But what surprised me most were the universities represented: Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Nebraska. As I have a bit of a coastal bias, it struck me as odd that the universities involved were not the big names from the east and west coasts.

I spoke to Bruce Colston from the Indiana University School of Continuing Education who explained to me that many of Midwestern universities have a long history of offering correspondence courses. I remember myself taking a few correspondence courses from one of them in the mid-90’s, which were based on reading articles, listening to cassette tapes, and filling in answers in a packet which I had to send in when I finished. The advent of the internet has greatly simplified the ability of these programs—which have served remote learners for decades—to offer their courses: PDFs of articles, links to videos rather than cassettes, Learning Management Systems rather than paper packets. It made me appreciate the role online learning has in the larger historical context of remote learning.

More generally, I can appreciate how blended learning could greatly enhance student learning. I can envision history courses in which students watch high quality PBS documentaries online, or foreign language courses where students watch (and listen) to foreign movies or videos. I see the need for AP or other specialized courses online for students in rural communities or in small schools with limited elective choices.

Cover of CA Parent-Teen Training GuideI’ve certainly found value in online courses I’ve taken as an adult, and more and more college students are taking some courses online as well. And there are  courses that are no longer offered in traditional schools, such as Driver’s Ed., which I happen to know since my daughter turns 15 1/2 in three weeks. California law requires students under 18 to take an online course to obtain a learner’s permit.

But I find it hard to envision schools where students do not physically interact. I’m biased toward the belief that students actually need to learn how to deal with each other appropriately, and that learning (for better or worse) happens largely in non-virtual schools. In fact, despite the enthusiasm expressed for the burgeoning world of online learning, those I asked who are parents had their own children in traditional schools.

I also share the concerns expressed by others, such as those expressed by Will Richardson in his response to “My Teacher Is an App,” about the movement toward outsourcing education to profit-motivated companies, minimizing the role of the teacher, and undermining unions. To be fair, at the Virtual School Symposium, iNACOL was clearly honoring teachers and provided a vision of online learning that is still based on teachers.

For me though, I still feel that students, especially the younger they are, need to physically interact with their teachers and peers. And my daughter—despite spending a good deal of her time outside of school online—agrees with me.

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