William J. Bennett, the former secretary of education during the Reagan administration and best-selling author who once wrote, “So far there is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning,” has become chairman of new company that will open an online school this fall for students in grades K-12 nationwide.

As a past critic of educational technology, Bennett once gave schools’ efforts to increase the use of computers in teaching an F-minus. In his books The Book of Virtues and The Educated Child: A Parent’s Guide From Preschool Through Eighth Grade, he advocated traditional educational approaches and values.

Yet, Bennett is now joining the list of companies and school districts willing, even eager, to sail into uncharted cyberspace—despite skeptical child development experts and the spiraling business failure rate in the dot-com world.

“Education is what America cares about the most, and technology is what we do best,” said Bennett, who introduced a new online school Dec. 28. The for-profit school, called K12, begins enrollment next fall in kindergarten through second grade and promises eventually to offer lessons in all grades, from math and science to arts and sex education. Costs would range from $25 for skill tests to about $2,000 for full lesson plans and software for a year.

K12, based in McLean, Va., was launched with a $10 million investment from Knowledge Universe Learning Group, a division of Knowledge Universe that was founded in 1996 with investments from Oracle’s Larry Ellison and financier Michael Milken.

The company has recruited David H. Gelernter, Yale University computer science professor and recipient of a package from the Unabomber that exploded in 1993, as its chief technology adviser. Gelernter has expressed similar skepticism of internet education ventures and the use of educational technology.

Although many internet companies offer online curriculum and schooling without much proof that it improves learning, Bennett has made the decision to try to get it right, said Jason Bertsch, vice president of government relations and public affairs at K12.

“He thinks technology can improve student achievement but, so far, it hasn’t,” Bertsch said. “Most studies show that it hasn’t had a significant impact on achievement—and that’s why we are doing this.”

In response to Bennett’s announced plans, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) expressed concern about the prospect of teaching the early grades through the internet because of the lack of personal contact and technical support.

“An excellent elementary and secondary education cannot be based solely on technology,” said Sandra Feldman, AFT president, in a statement. “We will have to wait and see if the quality of this particular product is as grandiose as Mr. Bennett’s quotes.”

Backers of educational technology say the internet can help children isolated from traditional schools by distance or disabilities, and it can benefit children already schooled at home by their parents.

“I can see the benefits of an online learning program for children being home-schooled. I can see such a program providing an enormous enhancement to a teacher in a remote community,” said Lauren E. Pomerantz, programs coordinator of the California Space and Science Center.

However, Pomerantz added, “I think that most children do not have the discipline to start such a program in kindergarten or elementary school, and most parents do not know how to implement such a thing.”

The Florida High School, a nonprofit online school based in Orlando, has offered internet courses since 1997 for students in grades nine to 12 statewide. Also, several public charter schools from California to Pennsylvania teach children online. At the state-funded Valley Pathways online school based in Palmer, Alaska, roughly 300 students take from one to six courses a semester on the web.

“We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think it could produce an equal education or better,” said Pathways teacher Kathi Baldwin. “I know my students online and in detail. They tell you things in writing they would never tell you face-to-face.”

Classes are held by computer, teachers and staff work from a central office, and students sign in from their home desktop or laptop computers. Standards for teachers ideally are the same as those of traditional schools.

It’s not all reading, writing, and arithmetic. In gym class over the web, pupils keep daily logs of their exercises. They learn music theory online, then go to a designated campus for piano or guitar lessons. They can fax, eMail, or bring in art projects completed at home. Parents even dial in for online PTA meetings.

Parent Linda Deafenbaugh said online schooling has filled a void for her son, a third-grader with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Each morning, despite his behavioral disorder, Douglas Meikle, 8, signs on to the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School and downloads his reading, science, and math assignments himself. He completes the lessons by working with online teachers, who include a special education expert, to keep him focused.

“He definitely had a bad school experience, to the point [where] teachers were not letting him in the door of the classrooms,” said Deafenbaugh, a cultural anthropologist who works for the federal government. “Not only was his social life falling apart, but his academics were, too.”

Douglas, who stays home with his father in Pittsburgh, socializes with other children at after-school sessions, sporting events, and church groups, she said.

The going has been bumpy for some online schools. Teachers have to keep up student interest with interactive lessons, guard against student cheating, and do without body language or verbal cues to tell them whether students understand lectures.

And in October, a 15-year-old in an online charter school in California hacked into the system and racked up $18,000 in damage, knocking the school offline for two days and destroying homework assignments, lesson plans, and attendance records.

But the marriage of education and technology is needed, say educators who believe teaching is becoming more difficult in today’s environment. Growing enrollments and shrinking budgets are leaving less room for one-on-one, hands-on learning at the side of an attentive teacher.

“We shouldn’t be stuck with one model,” Bennett said.

Links:

K12
http://www.K12.com

American Federation of Teachers
http://www.aft.org

California Space and Science Center
http://www.teachspace.org

The Florida Online High School
http://www.fhs.net

Valley Pathways
http://www.seeUonline.org

Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School
http://www.midlandpa.org/wpccs