State cuts would set back online learning in Ohio

Suzannah Herrmann, Ph.D.

Online learning is the fastest-growing sector in education. In the fall of 2008, 44 states reported offering significant full-time or supplemental learning opportunities for students. Ohio has been a leader in moving toward this powerful educational innovation, but it risks sliding backwards when it comes to cyber charters.

Gov. Ted Strickland proposes to cut $105 million in cyber-charter funds in fiscal year 2010. His proposal would also burden existing cyber charters with new requirements and limits, including outlawing the for-profit firms that operate some of the better e-schools, such as Connections Academy (see here) and the Ohio Virtual Academy (see here).

Whether called e-learning, virtual schooling, or cyber schooling, online learning opportunities provide an outlet to traditional classroom-based instruction for parents seeking to customize learning opportunities for their children. Just as important, they allow parents to be actively involved in their child's education. In short, e-learning programs offer learning opportunities for children and places for parents to turn if they and/or their children are unhappy with the education provided by their traditional schools.

Online learning also has the potential to help students access rigorous courses taught by high-quality teachers that they might not otherwise get. Students in a rural southeastern Ohio county, for example, could take an advanced physics course from a top-rate teacher in a suburban Columbus district. It opens new learning opportunities for students living in rural areas, attending hard-to-staff urban schools, or stuck at home or in a state institution. Some of these programs have also been remarkably successful with high-school drop-outs or those about to drop out-students who often gravitate toward learning at their own pace and in their own ways.

Online learning opportunities vary, which is, partly, why they're exciting. They may be either full-time or supplemental. They may involve teachers and students working at the same time or teachers and students working at different times. Students may take courses online at school, at home, or anywhere else where they have access to the Internet. Online education can be delivered by a host of providers such as universities, school districts, or independent entities. Online programs can reach across a district, a state, the nation, or globally. They may be district, charter, magnet, or private.

Because Internet-based learning models remove geographic, physical, and time barriers to learning, they allow successful educational models to expand rapidly. Entire states, for example, have embraced online learning opportunities. The Florida Virtual Academy (see here) is a full-time online school built and operated by the Florida Department of Education that has seen course enrollment grow exponentially, from 77 in 1997 to 113,900 in 2008. The Michigan Virtual School (see here), another state-supported effort, is an online resource that partners with brick-and-mortar schools to supplement course offerings. It has provided courses to more than 23,000 students since its start in 2000.

Ohio legislators have caught onto this trend and are planning to expand Ohio's school-based online opportunities. In February, Reps. Garrison (D-Marietta) and Harris (D-Columbus) introduced House Bill 4 creating Ohio's first state-led and state-wide online-learning pilot in district high schools (see here). It would offer Advanced Placement and foreign-language courses via teleconferencing to every Ohio public high school. The pilot promises to provide students access to classes that some individual districts can't offer because they don't have enough students who want to enroll to justify the expense or there simply isn't a teacher available to teach the students. Top teachers in advanced science, math, foreign languages, history, and other specialized subjects would suddenly be available to remote schools or, again, to schools otherwise unable to afford the services of these expert instructors.

Ohio's high quality cyber charters already offer similar opportunities-yet their funding is set to be cut by 50, 60, or even 70 percent. Cyber charters make fairly easy political targets as most people still don't understand how they work and there is skepticism about whether they actually do work. Nearly 75 percent of respondents in a 2005 Fordham survey on Ohio education (see here), for example, considered virtual schools to be a "fair" or "poor" idea. These numbers may have moved up some in the last four years, but when people think of school they still think primarily of school buildings, classrooms, desks, and teachers standing in front of students lecturing.

Added to this initial skepticism, the quality of Ohio's cyber schools has been decidedly mixed. The RAND Corporation reported last month (see here) that virtual schools constitute a large part of the charter enrollment in Ohio but students in these schools "have significantly and substantially lower achievement gains while attending virtual charter schools" than they experience in their traditional schools. Finally, lawmakers find it hard to understand why cyber charters need the same level of funding as regular schools when they don't have to pay for things like facilities, heating, and busing.

It would be a shame if the state of Ohio were to put the brakes on cyber charters by cutting their funding across the board. Done well, these schools offer important opportunities for traditionally underserved children and they serve as models that can spawn new innovations in delivering quality, 24/7 learning opportunities for the state's children. That said, the state is right to seek value for its educational investments and those schools that don't deliver a quality product don't deserve endless state support. Let's hope the search for quality drives funding for these schools.

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