Cyber-schools on the rise

In The Rise of Cyber-Schools in The New Atlantis, Liam Julian points out that home-based cyber-schools rely on a parent to keep students on task, even if parents aren’t acting as instructors.

The curriculum is provided by an agency such as Connections Academy; a teacher with state certification oversees instruction, communicating with students and parents via e-mail, Web chat, telephone, and video-conference. . . .  Students review material at their own pace, allowing gifted children to accelerate and stay engaged, and permitting those children who need extra time to get it, with plenty of help and individual attention along the way. Cyber-school pupils take the same state-mandated standardized tests as their peers in public school.

For this approach to succeed, cyber-students need discipline, motivation, and self-direction — just the qualities that they may have been missing in the real classroom in the first place. Also, parents of younger pupils must be deeply committed to their children’s schooling and able to devote several hours a day to facilitating lessons.

Most at-risk children don’t have an “education parent” at home, Julian writes.

. . . the millions of youngsters who languish academically, the data show, do not need self-guided learning but intense, hands-on, in-your-face teacher-guided learning. Struggling pupils require the opposite of what virtual education provides.

To escape a “fuzzy” pre-algebra class, my daughter took algebra in seventh grade through Education Program for Gifted Youth, which then used CD-ROMs.  You didn’t have to be gifted to succeed; it did require a high level of self-discipline.

I see a huge future for online learning in higher education, especially for people who are working and/or raising kids while trying to meet career goals. For K-12, I think it may remain limited to kids with involved, at-home parents and the super-motivated.

About Joanne


  1. Joanne,

    I agree with you that Cyber-schools are on the rise and that they have a unique, and interesting place in the future of education. However, I think that everyone that relies on the internet and technology for this, should consider that their children are probably already using the internet and technology for good chunks of their other needs. Interpersonal communication skills are also invaluable to kids growing up both as they enter the workforce, as they communicate internationally, and as they form non-cyber relationships.

    I just think that a balance between ‘cyber’ and ‘real’ is also incredibly important.

  2. The assigned textbooks in my Colleges of Education courses promoted an advisory role for the classroom teacher: be “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage”, they recommended. Classroom teachers endure resource teachers and workshops which promote “discovery” methods of Math instruction.

    Parents can just as easily act as “guide on the side” as can any teacher. Expect the defenders of brick-and-morter schools to discover that direct instruction (but not, for heaven’s sake, Direct Instruction) matters.

    (Joanne): “I see a huge future for online learning in higher education, especially for people who are working and/or raising kids while trying to meet career goals. For K-12, I think it may remain limited to kids with involved, at-home parents and the super-motivated.”

    When Alaska started subsidizing homeschooling (correspondence schools), some parents used the subsidy to pay tuition at independent schools. Some people objected (likely, the teachers’ unuion’s thugs), and the State of Alaska built new restrictions into the policy. I do not know how the State of Alaska addresses tutors. A tutor who doubles as a day-care operator might find self-paced on-line instruction very useful.

    Beyond a very low level, there are no economies of scale at the delivery end of the education business as it currently operates. The State-monopoly school system survives on dedicated lobbying by current recipients of the taxpayers’ $500 billion+ per year K-12 revenue stream.

    “What works?” is an empirical question which only an experiment can answer. A State-monopoly school system is like an experiment with one treatment and no controls: a retarded experimental design. A competitive market in education services would provide strong incentives to education providers of both curricula and facilities to address the issue of student motivation.

  3. I wonder if this phenomenon opens up the possibility of a middle ground between dedicated school buildings and home schooling? A small, very local – like within walking distance – storefront facility that provides physical security, modest facilities and freedom from distractions.

    Charters raise the question of the value of the school district but they don’t answer the question of what the best size/model is for a school.

    Technology may do to the brick-and-mortar aspects of public education what technology’s done to the brick-and-mortar aspects of retail sales – supplemented, extended, and modified the model in ways that are still evolving.

  4. “For K-12, I think it may remain limited to kids with involved, at-home parents and the super-motivated.”

    I completely agree. I teach a pretty at-risk population and when I think of my kids, a handful of them wold probably do really well with online learning. The rest? I can name a dozen kids who passed my class and almost no other because I was hands on and in their face about their education. If they were at home alone, they’d never get anything done (and that’s assuming they even could afford online access in the first place, which is true of less than half of my students).

  5. Margo/Mom says:

    “For K-12, I think it may remain limited to kids with involved, at-home parents and the super-motivated.”

    I think that this is true so long as cyber-schooling is based on the models that we are currently familiar with: home schooling or post-secondary work, completed at home. This is not, however, the only possibility. In fact, I would judge that both of those are still relatively in their infancy. Cyber schooling within a school building, under the supervision of an onsite teacher, or tutor, or motivator, or scheduler of some kind has the potential to expand the learning options of a school.

    Imagine, for instance, a cadre of five students with an interest in advanced calculus, or Japanese or Medeival literature. Too small a group to warrant hiring a teacher for. But, when grouped with one or two other such cadres, and linked by technology, might still be structured around a common daily meeting time, provide for interaction with class members and authentic supervision. A class with divergent incoming proficiency levels might offer time for individualized modules to support needed skills for some and offer additional challenge for others.

    Currently, despite teahin’s apt observation that “at risk” kids are seldom the ideal group for anything individually motivated, this group is serving in large part as the guinea pigs for development of online classes (frequently little more than digitized work-books), simply because no one is fighting to keep them in a classroom with a teacher. But, given time, other uses will evolve, until we wonder what we ever did without.

  6. As a former online teacher for a private virtual school, I agree that these schools are not for all students. My students were typically from wealthier homes and were extremely motivated in many areas outside of education. Many only completed their online school work only when their athletic pursuits were threatened. However, I do know several public school students who, in need of credits, took online schooling very seriously and with minimal supervision achieved high levels of success. Like all new models, online education continues to evolve. Is it currently for all students? Absolutely not. Can it eventually be? Maybe.

    What remains to be true, ultimately, is that our public schools are bulging and teachers are still paid poorly compared to other college educated professionals. If online schooling continues to challenge conventional wisdon, then it is, at least in its infancy, a success.

  7. Why can’t there be a learning center set up (perhaps adjacent to a community library) where kids can go and do their online classes supervised by an adult? That would be a way for children from dual income or single parent families to be able to enroll in a virtual charter.

  8. Margo/Mom says:

    CW–I know at least one such school. It operates in a church, has a mission of providing for some kids who are a really poor fit for schools (with disabilities, emotional issues, etc) and utilizes an online charter. The kids are actually enrolled in the charter and the facility provides the adult supervision.

  9. linda seebach says:

    Colorado has an online charter that operates a large number of “learning centers” throughout the Denver metro area, under the overall supervision of one or more teachers, but with lots of staff available to help students keep on track with their online curriculums. It went through some early difficulties, but it does seem to offer a middle way for students who can’t count on help at home.

  10. Our alternative school (for kids kicked out for drug offenses, assault, that sort of thing) is all computer based learning. They tend to do OK when they don’t have to interact with others very much.

  11. Connections Academy is a Godsend and has done wonders for my daughter, not to mention keeping her safe, healthy and not dealing with the BS that goes on in B&M schools. She will NEVER go anywhere but Connections Academy!