Open access to online school not cool, say critics

The Government's push for any child to be allowed to opt for full-time online learning rather than going to school is facing intense criticism, in part because of bad experiences in the United States, Lynn Grieveson reports.

Should all children be given the chance to learn online rather than going to school?

Keen to be seen as an 'early adopter' of digital education, the government is pushing legislation that would allow any child to opt for fulltime online learning instead of attending school. But research from the US shows poor outcomes, and the Parliamentary Ombudsman is warning of harm to children's mental health and educational attainment, with resulting financial and societal costs.

Just the right fit

Alex is 23. He loves Star Wars, singing, and the swing in the yard of his family's Utah home. He graduated high school and has completed several online college courses in English, history, philosophy and criminal justice.

But Alex hasn't been in a classroom since he was 11, when his parents decided to take up the new option of online schooling in the hope it would be a better fit for their bright but anxious autistic son.

He has done all his education online, at one of the hundreds of online virtual schools in the US and later at an online college.

His mother says the decision worked out well and the virtual charter school was "just the right fit" for him. He could work at his own pace, and the online mentors provided great support, she says. "He especially enjoyed having the safe and familiar home environment to do his work in and being able to enjoy daily life, and even some travels, with the family while working on his schooling."

Coming to a kitchen table near you

Here in New Zealand, the government plans to amend the Education Act to give all primary or secondary students the option to enrol part-time or full-time at an accredited "community of online learning" (COOL). If the Education Update (Amendment) Bill currently before parliament is passed, there would be both state COOLs and private COOLs.

Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye says the government expects most COOLs would offer supplementary online schooling in partnership with existing schools, providing access to extra subjects. Not all private COOLs would be able to enrol all students, and not all would offer full-time schooling.

But all children would be allowed to choose to enrol in an online school rather than attending school, just as Alex did.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman has concerns about that – saying online schools should not replace physical schools and "should only be available as a full-time education choice where there is a proven need for a pupil not to attend a physical school" (similar to current Correspondence School entry criteria).

The Ombudsman's office told the Education and Science select committee it was concerned that full-time online schooling "could have significant adverse social impacts."

"In addition to the potentially isolating effect on the learner, the likely absence of social interaction of the attendees could have downstream health implications as well as fiscal and societal costs."

The "incredibly abysmal" overseas experience

Not every student is as motivated and well-supported as Alex in Utah, and a 2015 report from the Stanford University Centre for Research on Education Outcomes suggests his experience is the exception rather than the norm in the US.

The Stanford researchers followed students over five years, and found that most US online charter school students had "far weaker academic growth" in both maths and reading compared to their peers at traditional public schools. They equated the shortfall in achievement to a student losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in maths.

"Current online charter schools may be a good fit for some students, but the evidence suggests that online charters don’t serve very well the relatively atypical set of students that currently attend these schools, much less the general population.

"Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule," their report says.

It calls for the need for screening of children before they enrol, saying "online charter schools should ensure their programs are a good fit for their potential students’ particular needs."

Now teacher organisations and human rights groups here are worried that the very children most at risk of educational disengagement and social isolation are the ones most likely to opt – or be pressured – to enrol in online schooling, leading to poor mental health and educational outcomes.

Their concerns were echoed in a submission to the Education and Science select committee by Michael Barbour of Touro University, who described the performance of US students in full-time online learning as "incredibly abysmal".

Barbour said supplementing traditional teaching with online learning resulted in students achieving "about as well as or a little bit better than their classroom counterparts" – but, after summarising 13 research studies, he concluded bluntly that "the basic message was that the performance of full-time online students … is absolutely pathetic compared to their face-to-face counterparts."

Barbour believes the government should focus purely on enchancing the supplementary online learning programmes that already exist in New Zealand, including Virtual Learning Networks (VLN) and Te Kura (The Correspondence School).

Not a healthy option say the health schools

Currently, children are only able to enrol at The Correspondence School if they meet eligibility criteria, including: living in a remote location; being pregnant or a single parent; or having psychological or special developmental needs. For students with special developmental needs, a Ministry of Education Special Education report is required verifying no local school or service can meet that student’s needs.

Other children with challenging medical or mental health issues attend regional health schools. The regional health schools made a combined submission on the proposed changes, telling the select committee that any students with mental health and social issues would be "at high risk of disengagement from learning and from further disengagement from social and community life" if they were schooled entirely online.

The Ministry of Education says COOLs will be required to meet requirements around pastoral care and student well-being, and claims "quicker, real time data will enable educators to respond faster to signs of disengagement".

The Ministry told the select committee that some schools in the US have "virtual school counsellors" which children find easier to access and "less intimidating" to communicate with than face-to-face counsellors.

The health school principals said that their experience demonstrated there were students who were unsuited to online schooling, especially children and teenagers "who are poorly organised or supported, have inadequate literacy and information technology skills, lack of access to suitable technology, poor concentration and issues around overuse of technology."

"In particular, we have concerns about students who already spend significant hours accessing online communities and social media, often at all hours of the day and night across international time zones, with negative impact on sleep patterns, relationships and routines. Students who have a history of using screen time to mask their social isolation and poor interpersonal relationships would be further disadvantaged."

The Correspondence School, which supports the legislation and will become a state COOL (Community of Online Learning) itself if the bill passes, disputes that - saying it is "a myth" that achievement at virtual charter schools is worse than at traditional schools. It says achievement is determined by the quality of the educational service and the quality of the relationship with the provider, regardless of distance or technology.

"The key research issue is not so much about what happens on average, but in understanding in what circumstances online learning may produce better outcomes, for whom and at what cost, " it said in its own submission.

A convenient off-ramp?

Opponents of the plan also fear that students with learning disabilities or challenging behaviour could be pressured into switching to online classes.

During the difficult transition to school or during a period of disruptive behaviour, switching to online school might be suggested to parents as a "better fit" for their child.

The Secondary Principals' Council warns of the potential for "off-ramping", saying it could be a way to remove students who are "under the bar for expulsion or exclusion but who are causing difficulty … or who will put charter school performance agreements and bonus payments at risk."

"Managing entry to avoid this is critical."

Keep an open mind, please

Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye says she hopes the sector will "keep a very open mind," adding that the COOL model would "address the deficits in the American online charter school model" such as poor regulation and limited accountability and intervention options.

The original plan was for the new regulations to come into operation from December this year, but this has been pushed back. The regulations should now come into force by December 2019.

Kaye says this will allow for more debate on the detail of how online schooling will be regulated and monitored.

"I think we are going to have that debate with the sector," she says. "There's still a lot of detail to be worked through in terms of policy but as the Minister responsible in this area I am really keen to engage with the sector and I think what we need to separate is enabling this via the legislation versus the detail of how they actually work."

But she is firm on the change allowing children to choose online schooling, saying a COOL that was also a state school or a partnership school would be required to accept any student.

"Thus, a ‘screening’ process could not be used by a state school or a partnership school/kura hourua that is a Community of Online Learning to determine whether to accept the enrolment of a student," she says.
 
"If there are private schools or tertiary providers that are Communities of Online Learning, they will be able to decline the enrolment of a student. These provider types could therefore use a ‘screening’ process as a tool to determine whether to accept the enrolment of the student."

Enrolment policies may also include a requirement that students are assessed to determine their academic, social, health and emotional wellbeing.  

So for now the government still seems focused on regulating by imposing conditions on schools rather than by screening children to ensure fulltime online schooling is the healthy choice for them, and that leaves the sector worried.
 
Consultation on the policy settings is expected to begin in early 2018.