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Opinion: Virtual schools are a critical piece of education’s future

Educational technology expert credits Florida lawmakers for seizing on the promise of virtual academies

Classroom and lecture hall disruption can be important for students on every level of education.

Classroom and lecture hall disruption can be important for students on every level of education, writes Michael Simonson.

Technological innovations might be categorized along a continuum from sustaining to disruptive. In education, a sustaining technology might be a SMART Board, which in most applications is a way to present information dynamically and efficiently—a sustaining upgrade to the chalkboard and overhead projector—while a disruptive technology would be a virtual school.

As a matter of fact, most attempts to integrate instructional technology into the traditional classroom are examples of sustaining technologies: data projectors, DVD players, eBooks—all which improve the performance of established products.

Most integrated technologies sustain, and do not disrupt.

On the other hand, distance education and virtual schools are probably not sustaining technologies. Rather, distance education, virtual schooling, and eLearning are disruptive.

For example, distance education is aimed at students (often older, working, remotely located learners) who are ignored by established companies (traditional schools).

Distance education presents a different package of performance attributes that are not valued by existing customers. Distance education might come to dominate by filling a role that the older technology could not fill.

Education technology expert Clayton Christensen—author of Disrupting Class and The Innovator’s Prescription, among other books—has written extensively about the concept of disruptive technologies.

Christensen’s work has been widely embraced in the business world, and his work helps explain why some established industries fail, and others spring up, seemingly from nowhere.

No better example is the personal computer: Not a single mini-computer manufacturer was a successful manufacturer of personal computers; they did not see the power of the new technology until others had captured market share.

Similarly, most in education have ignored the potential of looking at the ideas supporting Christensen’s theory, and how disruptive technologies might be transforming education and training.

For example, in Florida there is a mandate that every public school district must establish a virtual K-8 and K-12 program. Many have wondered why Florida legislators would pass such a sweeping law; perhaps the answer is that in Florida, there existed a desire to try a disruptive technology.

Whatever the reason for Florida to establish virtual schools, it is clear that distance education and virtual schooling are disrupting traditional education, and this might not be as bad as it sounds. It might be a good idea for educators to become more cognizant of Christensen’s work, and the power of disruptive technologies to change education.

Florida legislators’ support for virtual schooling was recognized by the Center for Digital Education (CDE) last year. For the second year in a row, CDE named Florida as the No. 1 state in online education.

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Comments:

  1. erika hansen

    January 18, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    I have read Christensen’s book and I agree that technology needs to be embrace in settings where it is beneficial to the student. Virtual school and online technology allow another portal for students who otherwise wouldn’t receive the education they desire. It is a bridge I am sure the education industry will need to cross sooner or later.

  2. erika hansen

    January 18, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    I have read Christensen’s book and I agree that technology needs to be embrace in settings where it is beneficial to the student. Virtual school and online technology allow another portal for students who otherwise wouldn’t receive the education they desire. It is a bridge I am sure the education industry will need to cross sooner or later.

  3. frharry

    January 18, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    This is a pretty good example of why virtual education is not only disruptive, it is questionable in terms of its pedagogical value. This entire editorial is speculative, speaking of might, could, possibly, et al. yet the headline reads “Virtual schools are a critical piece of education’s future.” This is little more than a puff piece with little evidence to support any of its contentions. In many ways it resembles virtual education, high on technology, low on content. For the record, I teach online courses at a major state university. They are poor shadows of their actual counterparts in classrooms.

  4. frharry

    January 18, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    This is a pretty good example of why virtual education is not only disruptive, it is questionable in terms of its pedagogical value. This entire editorial is speculative, speaking of might, could, possibly, et al. yet the headline reads “Virtual schools are a critical piece of education’s future.” This is little more than a puff piece with little evidence to support any of its contentions. In many ways it resembles virtual education, high on technology, low on content. For the record, I teach online courses at a major state university. They are poor shadows of their actual counterparts in classrooms.

  5. scdebaca

    January 21, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    I know my colleagues are threatened by online schools and that many of the current online schools cannot compare to good classroom instruction. However, the truth is that not all teachers are talented at their craft and that some schools are poorly run or not run in a way that allows a student to take care of family responsibilities (a reality of the current economic situation) and attend a class that seems to have only limitied relevance to their lives (not all curricula is good in either setting). At the heart of good online instruction is a teacher who is managaing content, responding daily to e-mail, reading and posting in chats and discussions. Online learning is not the evil some think. What we have to resist as educators are the multitude of shallow courses that some will try to pass off as education and that some districts will adopt because they are cheap. Let’s use what we know about how students learn and let the technology reach more kids. If you teach a poor counterpart of a classroom online you are not exploring the multitude of available technologies to make the student-teacher connection meaningful and to connect the students to content in ways a lecture based course could not. Online is a threat becasue it is disruptive. But, we do not seem to grow unless some innovation shakes us up and wakes us up.

  6. scdebaca

    January 21, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    I know my colleagues are threatened by online schools and that many of the current online schools cannot compare to good classroom instruction. However, the truth is that not all teachers are talented at their craft and that some schools are poorly run or not run in a way that allows a student to take care of family responsibilities (a reality of the current economic situation) and attend a class that seems to have only limitied relevance to their lives (not all curricula is good in either setting). At the heart of good online instruction is a teacher who is managaing content, responding daily to e-mail, reading and posting in chats and discussions. Online learning is not the evil some think. What we have to resist as educators are the multitude of shallow courses that some will try to pass off as education and that some districts will adopt because they are cheap. Let’s use what we know about how students learn and let the technology reach more kids. If you teach a poor counterpart of a classroom online you are not exploring the multitude of available technologies to make the student-teacher connection meaningful and to connect the students to content in ways a lecture based course could not. Online is a threat becasue it is disruptive. But, we do not seem to grow unless some innovation shakes us up and wakes us up.

  7. harry674

    January 21, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    While this article could have presented a more robust defense of virtual education, it did hit on important points. The example in Florida is much more far-reaching than you’d realize from reading this modest piece.

    If a virtual class is a “poor shadow” of its classroom counterpart, it’s because the available technologies are either not being utilzed well or are not, for the class under consideration, well developed.

    Virtual education is not fully mature but is well developed. In many instances, it matches the F2F results. As it matures, it will eclipse ordinary classroom instruction and will be incorporated into F2F classes more and more.

    This truly is an exciting time in education. I work in science education and have found a way to deliver excellent lab experiences to virtual students through a combination of do-it-yourself experiments with prerecorded real experiments. I avoid simulated animations entirely. There’s no Flash at all. It’s all real and highly interactive. Furthermore, it puts students in the role of scientists.

    Keep the disruptive innovations rolling!

  8. harry674

    January 21, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    While this article could have presented a more robust defense of virtual education, it did hit on important points. The example in Florida is much more far-reaching than you’d realize from reading this modest piece.

    If a virtual class is a “poor shadow” of its classroom counterpart, it’s because the available technologies are either not being utilzed well or are not, for the class under consideration, well developed.

    Virtual education is not fully mature but is well developed. In many instances, it matches the F2F results. As it matures, it will eclipse ordinary classroom instruction and will be incorporated into F2F classes more and more.

    This truly is an exciting time in education. I work in science education and have found a way to deliver excellent lab experiences to virtual students through a combination of do-it-yourself experiments with prerecorded real experiments. I avoid simulated animations entirely. There’s no Flash at all. It’s all real and highly interactive. Furthermore, it puts students in the role of scientists.

    Keep the disruptive innovations rolling!

  9. frharry

    January 22, 2010 at 12:13 am

    “If a virtual class is a “poor shadow” of its classroom counterpart, it’s because the available technologies are either not being utilzed well or are not, for the class under consideration, well developed.”

    Actually, the burden is on the offeror of the original and subsequent assertions here. My observations are based upon 1. my own experience with teaching the same class in both formats, 2. the responses from students within our discipline, and 3. the responses from faculty at our university. The overall pattern of those responses supports my observation, not the unsupported boosterism found in this article or these responses.

    For the record, I am not threatened by online technology. Indeed, I use it regularly. I simply demand that when people make unsupported assertions about its ultimate utility, they be held accountable.

    The reality is that some disciplines (such as humanities) do not lend themselves as well to online presentation as others (such as computer science). Moreover, the situations in which online approaches work vary with the student. Older students with life experience including time management skills who are physically far removed from the site might well benefit from having the opportunity to learn online otherwise denied them. On the other hand, hung over frat boys who take online courses because the conventional wisdom is that they’re easier and don’t require them to rise from their beds after party nights probably aren’t good bets. And universities who admit more students than they can physically house and force students into online courses used to absorb the excess are absolutely abusing the technology.

    While I readily agree that online technologies can readily supplement F2F teaching, I have to insist that assertions that these approaches can be readily substituted for in-person classes be supported by evidence. That, I suspect, will be hard to find if anecdotal evidence from our university’s use of the same is any indication.

    For the record, the assertion that “we do not seem to grow unless some innovation shakes us up and wakes us up” may or may not be true. Bear in mind, Plato, Shakespeare and Einstein did not require online classes to grow and become successful contributors to their societies. Again, the burden is on the offeror.

  10. frharry

    January 22, 2010 at 12:13 am

    “If a virtual class is a “poor shadow” of its classroom counterpart, it’s because the available technologies are either not being utilzed well or are not, for the class under consideration, well developed.”

    Actually, the burden is on the offeror of the original and subsequent assertions here. My observations are based upon 1. my own experience with teaching the same class in both formats, 2. the responses from students within our discipline, and 3. the responses from faculty at our university. The overall pattern of those responses supports my observation, not the unsupported boosterism found in this article or these responses.

    For the record, I am not threatened by online technology. Indeed, I use it regularly. I simply demand that when people make unsupported assertions about its ultimate utility, they be held accountable.

    The reality is that some disciplines (such as humanities) do not lend themselves as well to online presentation as others (such as computer science). Moreover, the situations in which online approaches work vary with the student. Older students with life experience including time management skills who are physically far removed from the site might well benefit from having the opportunity to learn online otherwise denied them. On the other hand, hung over frat boys who take online courses because the conventional wisdom is that they’re easier and don’t require them to rise from their beds after party nights probably aren’t good bets. And universities who admit more students than they can physically house and force students into online courses used to absorb the excess are absolutely abusing the technology.

    While I readily agree that online technologies can readily supplement F2F teaching, I have to insist that assertions that these approaches can be readily substituted for in-person classes be supported by evidence. That, I suspect, will be hard to find if anecdotal evidence from our university’s use of the same is any indication.

    For the record, the assertion that “we do not seem to grow unless some innovation shakes us up and wakes us up” may or may not be true. Bear in mind, Plato, Shakespeare and Einstein did not require online classes to grow and become successful contributors to their societies. Again, the burden is on the offeror.

  11. ray826

    January 22, 2010 at 10:54 am

    While the article may not have provided the evidence about the efficacy of virtual education, it does exist. Last summer the Dept of Ed released a study showing that students in online courses performed better than students in on-ground courses. The study looked basically at K-12 programs, and it’s clear that there’s more professional development and development of online pedagogy in K-12 than there has been in higher education.

  12. ray826

    January 22, 2010 at 10:54 am

    While the article may not have provided the evidence about the efficacy of virtual education, it does exist. Last summer the Dept of Ed released a study showing that students in online courses performed better than students in on-ground courses. The study looked basically at K-12 programs, and it’s clear that there’s more professional development and development of online pedagogy in K-12 than there has been in higher education.

  13. margaret.goodlin

    January 22, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    I think it takes a very special kind of person to be an online teacher/ instructor, just as it takes a very unique kind of person to study online as a student. I am speaking from my own experience as I have earned both my Bachelors’ and My Masters’ degrees online from UOP (phoenix.edu) , and I am going to start on my 2nd Master of Online Teaching (wilkes.edu/pages/2983.asp) to become an Online teacher/instructor.
    This type of education may NOT be for all students, just as it may NOT be for all teachers, but I feel that ALL schools of the tomorrow whether they are public or private schools need to have this options out there for their students to decide how they want to attend school or for their teacher to decide how they want to teach classes. Schools who fail to fit into this new form of learning will soon be out of business or losing money.
    Going to school/college online is NOT EASY, just convenient, I often found myself stressing out over assignments or the amount of reading one must do in one week, while working fulltime and dealing with family life. Online students & teachers must have GREAT time management skills and much self discipline to balance work, school and family life in general. This is a great topic to get people thinking about learning online and where our schools are headed in the future.

  14. margaret.goodlin

    January 22, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    I think it takes a very special kind of person to be an online teacher/ instructor, just as it takes a very unique kind of person to study online as a student. I am speaking from my own experience as I have earned both my Bachelors’ and My Masters’ degrees online from UOP (phoenix.edu) , and I am going to start on my 2nd Master of Online Teaching (wilkes.edu/pages/2983.asp) to become an Online teacher/instructor.
    This type of education may NOT be for all students, just as it may NOT be for all teachers, but I feel that ALL schools of the tomorrow whether they are public or private schools need to have this options out there for their students to decide how they want to attend school or for their teacher to decide how they want to teach classes. Schools who fail to fit into this new form of learning will soon be out of business or losing money.
    Going to school/college online is NOT EASY, just convenient, I often found myself stressing out over assignments or the amount of reading one must do in one week, while working fulltime and dealing with family life. Online students & teachers must have GREAT time management skills and much self discipline to balance work, school and family life in general. This is a great topic to get people thinking about learning online and where our schools are headed in the future.

  15. sburke443

    February 8, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    I am the Site Coordinator for the Virtual High School program in a brick & mortar 9-12 school. VHS has enabled our students to enroll in courses of interest to them that we do not have the staff or ability to offer in a face-to-face classroom. Students have enrolled in Meteorology, Astronomy, Oceanography, History & American Pop Music, Forensic Science, Criminology, and Animal Behavior/Zoology, as electives they otherwise would have missed without our participation in the VHS program. Some students have taken AP level courses and do quite well on the AP exams – last year a student earned a 4 on his AP Psychology exam. In previous years AP Statistics, and AP Computer Science have been successfully completed with students earning college credit through the College Board. An independent college-style learning experience is a significant benefit of the program for our twelfth graders. Even when the grade isn’t quite what the student wanted, the online experience, the problem-solving and decision-making skills are priceless. Let’s base a commentary on facts and examples rather than on opinion and speculation.

  16. sburke443

    February 8, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    I am the Site Coordinator for the Virtual High School program in a brick & mortar 9-12 school. VHS has enabled our students to enroll in courses of interest to them that we do not have the staff or ability to offer in a face-to-face classroom. Students have enrolled in Meteorology, Astronomy, Oceanography, History & American Pop Music, Forensic Science, Criminology, and Animal Behavior/Zoology, as electives they otherwise would have missed without our participation in the VHS program. Some students have taken AP level courses and do quite well on the AP exams – last year a student earned a 4 on his AP Psychology exam. In previous years AP Statistics, and AP Computer Science have been successfully completed with students earning college credit through the College Board. An independent college-style learning experience is a significant benefit of the program for our twelfth graders. Even when the grade isn’t quite what the student wanted, the online experience, the problem-solving and decision-making skills are priceless. Let’s base a commentary on facts and examples rather than on opinion and speculation.

  17. bobblomeyer

    February 15, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    GOOD DISCUSSION!

    Michael: It depends of what type of “choice initiative” the particular virtual school program represents.

    The program described by my collegue “sburke443″ is a good example of “Democratic Choice.” It’s situated WITHIN a public school district in her state, and subject to the school district’s existing procedures and “regulations” governing credentials. PTR, accountability, and other important administrative and supervisory concerns.

    If, on the other hand, the online program is a “Market Choice,” like many of the private-sector, FOR PROFIT charter school programs that many colleagues out there ARE JUSTIFIABLY AFRAID OF AND APPALLED BY, that’s a virtual horse of a different color! Christensen’s right in calling the unregulated, for-profit cyber charter schools disruptive.

    Please don’t take my work for it! If anyone wants to read graphic illustrations showing why unregulated, for-profit cyber-charters are disruptive, please visit my Online Teaching and Learning Twine archive and have a look around for some of the “Critical” bits archived there.

    http://www.twine.com/search?type=text=Online+Teaching+and+Learning

    It not only contains “critical” bits. It also contains plenty of links to research and policy analysis that advocates for using online education as a lever for educational reform and improvement. (Especially the pieces written by me.)

    BobBl

  18. bobblomeyer

    February 15, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    GOOD DISCUSSION!

    Michael: It depends of what type of “choice initiative” the particular virtual school program represents.

    The program described by my collegue “sburke443″ is a good example of “Democratic Choice.” It’s situated WITHIN a public school district in her state, and subject to the school district’s existing procedures and “regulations” governing credentials. PTR, accountability, and other important administrative and supervisory concerns.

    If, on the other hand, the online program is a “Market Choice,” like many of the private-sector, FOR PROFIT charter school programs that many colleagues out there ARE JUSTIFIABLY AFRAID OF AND APPALLED BY, that’s a virtual horse of a different color! Christensen’s right in calling the unregulated, for-profit cyber charter schools disruptive.

    Please don’t take my work for it! If anyone wants to read graphic illustrations showing why unregulated, for-profit cyber-charters are disruptive, please visit my Online Teaching and Learning Twine archive and have a look around for some of the “Critical” bits archived there.

    http://www.twine.com/search?type=text=Online+Teaching+and+Learning

    It not only contains “critical” bits. It also contains plenty of links to research and policy analysis that advocates for using online education as a lever for educational reform and improvement. (Especially the pieces written by me.)

    BobBl