Years ago, when I was homeschooling my kids, I visited a school near the Poconos. I can’t remember why I was there, but I do remember the children sitting in their uniforms wearing headphones, parked in front of computer terminals.
It seemed that the students were teaching themselves with the aid of technology. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the individual isolation, the lack of engagement with a teacher, the lack of peer interaction.
But now online schools are offering public high schools a way to help students increase their graduation rates by taking online courses. The only problem? The courses don’t seem to actually be good.
Researchers at the Brookings Institution have found that taking online courses in college increases the odds that students will drop out. Of course, college and high school are different, and there are excellent online college offerings which Black Enterprise has covered in the past.
And here’s a true confession: My son took a few online classes when I homeschooled him through high school. But I enrolled him in courses I selected and had spent time researching. They also weren’t the only classes he took. He enrolled in a few College Now classes, which are college-level courses available to high school students in New York.
But according to Slate, which has done an extensive eight-article series called the Big Shortcut on online high school courses, most of their promise comes up empty. Slate even accuses some public schools of becoming diploma mills. Of course, the students who are already struggling and most at-risk are the ones taking these uninspiring, low-level classes.
Engagement Takes Effort
Of all the Slate articles only one sounded a hopeful note, and that one involved so much effort on the part of actual teachers that they eventually tossed out their canned online curriculum and developed their own.
Teachers are important, and even good technology is no substitute. When I wrote recently about Mother Caroline Academy in Boston, one of the keys to its success with low-income, largely immigrant girls of color is its hiring of professional teachers instead of relying on volunteers. Professional teachers make the difference—as they are doing at a “last chance” New York City high school, Bronx Arena.
“The school’s experience underscores the vast importance of implementation when it comes to online education: When virtual classes are used to supplant textbooks, teachers, and peer discussion—all the things we associate with traditional classroom instruction—they can render the high school experience virtually meaningless. But when, by contrast, online courses are customized and treated as one teaching tool among many, they can play an important role in helping students catch up quickly,” says a quote from an article in the series, “Online Education Doesn’t Have to Be Isolating.”
By designing an online curriculum with their students in mind, the teachers at Bronx Arena are creating a path of possibility, not parking them in front of laptops.
To read the series, visit Slate.