Rob Jenkins: Coming soon to a school near you: another ill-conceived educational fad

Rob Jenkins

Rob Jenkins

Coming soon to a school near you: another ill-conceived educational fad

A growing trend in secondary education involves replacing traditional, face-to-face instruction with online classes.

For example, Cobb County recently announced plans to put a significant portion of its curriculum online as a cost-saving measure. If one of the best and most solvent systems in the state is instituting such a program now, how long before something similar shows up at a school near you?

Indeed, online education is one of those rare trends that enjoy nearly universal support across the political spectrum. Progressives embrace it because it seems, well, progressive, at least in a technological sense. And conservatives love it because it saves money.

The problem is that we know next to nothing about how online courses impact high school students' learning, not to mention their chances of succeeding in college and beyond.

However, although there is a dearth of research regarding online classes and high school students, we do have a number of studies that address college students. What we've learned isn't pretty, but it may well provide some clues as to what we can expect at the high school level -- especially among students who are academically deficient to begin with.

For example, two studies conducted by researchers at Columbia University examined nearly 100,000 community college students in Washington State and Virginia. They found that students in online classes are significantly less likely to pass than students in comparable face-to-face sections.

Even more alarming, they found that students who took at least one online class were less likely to return to school the following semester and less likely to earn a degree or transfer to a four-year institution.

Of course, community college students are not high school students. What this research suggests, however, is that online learning does not constitute an effective strategy for our least-prepared students. At a typical high school these days, what percentage of students do you suppose would qualify as "least prepared"?

Another study, this one conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, surveyed what we might call "end users" -- companies that hire college graduates. What the survey found is that, while employers still value a bachelor's degree -- and value a degree from a state college almost as much as one from a pricey private school -- they aren't nearly as high on degrees from online institutions.

None of this means that online courses are never effective, or that they don't work well for some students. I think what we're finding, as the online movement matures, is that certain courses -- especially those dealing with technical topics -- are well-suited to the online environment, and that students who are well-prepared academically, highly motivated, and technically savvy can excel online.

But the idea that online classes are no different from traditional classrooms, or that we can herd all our students into online and the majority of them will be just fine is, to be blunt, a little bit nuts.

Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and the author of Family Man: The Art of Surviving Domestic Tranquility. E-mail Rob at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com, follow him on Twitter@rjenkinsgdp, and visit www.familymanthebook.com.