Friday, March 8, 2013

Virtually Real

You may have noticed that your guide for Slackers has allowed another long stretch between posts. In addition to the glaringly obvious reason--the very nature of Slackers is that we experience bursts of productivity, interspersed with normal life--there is another reason. I have been taking my first-ever online course this semester, so the majority of my particular brand of Internet banter has been directed toward the Master of Music in Choral Conducting people at Messiah College.

This has, as you might expect, resulted in some discoveries that must be shared.

In the early days of the Internet, we talked a lot about portals. Portals are an important factor in the online course thing: picture a full and real world on my side, a full and real world on your side, and in between a window through which we can pass things back and forth. If everything is great on both sides, as has been mostly the case for me, the little window is only moderately problematic. I can see, however, that when the little window is not the only impediment to the process, it must quickly become difficult to tell whose side isn't working well. If one of the sides is not entirely genuine in its efforts, how easy it must be blame the little window, or the other side.

Though my class is going fairly well, considering, there is the issue of tone of voice, which is extremely important for teacher/student communication. Our professor deals with this with liberal application of emoticons and text speak. I earned an LOL on one of my comments--I'm hoping for a ROFL, or even an ROFLMAO before it's all over. I don't really know how many points a FML or a NSFW would be worth in this class, but I guess we'll see.

The topic of cyber school is, of course, much larger than my Messiah program. In fact, it is one of the most dynamic, expensive, exciting, and terrifying things happening in public school right now.

There are subtle differences among the online K-12 schools, and I don't know enough about each to dissect them. Instead, we're going to talk about the Pennsylvania Virtual Cyber Charter Academy. None of them is actually called that, but they're all called something like that and it's the aspects they share rather than the aspects that differentiate them that matter for this discussion.

Their name tells us a lot, some of it even true:
  • Pennsylvania - The company that runs our virtual academy may be from Pennsylvania, but it is a company--not Pennsylvania itself. PDE certainly does have problems with waste, fraud, and abuse, but they're not answering to shareholders. The 500 school districts in Pennsylvania need to balance a budget, and do so mostly with property taxes (a regressive, ageist system rife with regional inequity--but I digress), but they don't need to pay investors, demonstrate growth, or meet market expectations. Bad decisions in public education are typically the result of incompetence, not greed. It makes a difference.
  • Virtual - If you're picturing a room full of students' avatars sitting in a virtual classroom, with Max Headroom at the lectern delivering inspired and engaging lectures, forget it. Most of online learning is more like assigning and collecting homework through e-mail. The tragedy here is that many parents put their kids in cyber school because they're not engaged and inspired in their brick and mortar schools. So they put their kid in front of a computer to type homework eight hours a day. This works when the kid is in cyber school because he plays the violin, or competes at the Olympics, or has no immune system. When the kid is in cyber school because he doesn't like getting up for school, he's not going to like logging into school much more. Since virtual schools get paid for the students they have enrolled, they have very little incentive to let anyone know about a student who hasn't turned on the computer for any non-World of Warcraft activity in months.
  • Cyber - Okay, I guess it's cyber.
  • Charter - The law in Pennsylvania that lets all of this happen is based on not such a bad idea. The concept is that a few dozen teachers, an administrator, and some pupil-services folks look at the school they're working in and decide that they can do better. They rent an industrial space or empty school building--lots of towns seem to have those--somewhere in the district, renovate it to their specifications, apply to the district for a charter, and put out a sign. It makes sense for the charter school to be aimed at a particular demographic: artists and musicians, scientists and mathematicians, at-risk students, etc. Since the new charter school is taking students out of the regular public school, the district pays the charter school what it would have cost to teach him/her themselves. More on the money stuff in a bit.
  • Academy - Some part of the school's name should be a bit elitist, so as to obscure the image of kids in their pajamas, eating Cap'n Crunch, and completing their entire day's schoolwork between 10:30 AM and lunchtime.
The money for all of this is the biggest scandal of all. Sometimes in government, when we're not paying close attention, we figure out how much money to pay for something before we figure out what it's worth or what it should cost. When this happens, the money always finds somewhere to go. When there are stockholders involved there's actually no mystery. In the case of cyber school, the school district pays the average of total costs per student.

Here's the thing, it doesn't cost $8,500 for each regular ed student and $21,000 for each special ed student in our district. The first student enrolled in our district for the year costs $41,747,445, but the second is basically free. The one student who bumps the second grade classroom above the class-size limit costs $50,000 for an additional teacher, but he or she can bring fifteen or twenty more students along for close to nothing. Our average cost per student includes the lights, the heat, the buses, the cafeteria, the football stadium, and--this will make your head hurt--the $8,500 we pay for each regular ed student and $21,000 we pay for each special ed student enrolled in cyber schools. In other words, by increasing enrollment and therefore payments from us to more than $1 million a year, cyber schools also increase their per-student rate.  Their payment is in no way tied to what they actually spend per student; in fact, lots of this money is spent on advertising to increase enrollment..

Because this seems like such a large problem, it feels like it needs a large solution. I don't think it does. We could go a long way if we:
  1. Blend schools - My Messiah program does have some on-campus elements, which I think is important. Having to face the people I'm learning from and learning with at some point makes the whole thing more real. Acknowledging that some topics just don't work over the Internet (diction classes and conducting classes), while others do (research methods), and some sort of do (music theory and vocal pedagogy) lends credibility to the whole virtual model.
  2. Fix the funding - Force the cyber schools to justify their budget, just like all of the other schools. The fact that it's possible to do things more cheaply online than in buildings should result in savings to school districts, not profits for corporations. Taking the for-profit entities out of the process altogether may be necessary.
  3. Require accountability and access - Public schools of every kind must be required to enroll any student who requests it and submit to the the same accountability standards, regardless of where and how the actual learning takes place. My charter school would serve only gifted kids, who sing and play multiple instruments, and who agree to read my blog. They would ace their standardized tests because I know how to make that happen. Therefore, my charter school should never be given any public funds. Ever.
Like so many other things in education, virtual learning isn't in itself an entirely bad idea. And, like so many other things in education, we have allowed greed, laziness, and a desire to smooth over the fine details turn it into something perverted. There are lots of people like this out there selling the idea of virtual charter schools, and lots of success stories about highly motivated students who would succeed anywhere. If you've never seen this as a problem to be fixed, you're contributing to the problem.

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