Deep within America's collective consciousness, there is a little red schoolhouse. Inside, obedient children sit in rows, eagerly absorbing lessons as a kind, wise teacher writes on the blackboard. Shiny apples are offered as tokens of respect and gratitude.
The reality of American education is often quite different. Beige classrooms are filled with note-passers and texters, who casually ignore teachers struggling to make it to the end of the 50-minute period. Smart kids are bored, and slower kids are left behind. Anxiety about standardized tests is high, and scores are consistently low. National surveys find that parents despair over the quality of education in the United States—and they're right to, as test results confirm again and again.
But just as most Americans disapprove of congressional shenanigans while harboring some affection for their own representative, parents tend to say that their child's teacher is pretty good. Most people have mixed feelings about their own school days, but our national romance with teachers is deep and long-standing. Which is why the idea of kids staring at computers instead of teachers makes parents and politicians extremely nervous.
However, it's time to take online education seriously—because we've tried everything else. Education Secretary Arne Duncan debuted his Blueprint for Reform this month to mixed reviews, joining at least 30 years' worth of government officials who have promised that this time, honest, they're going to fix education. Even the reforms promoted by the much-ballyhooed federal Race to the Top funds, which are supposed to encourage innovative educational practices, offer mostly marginal changes to the status quo. In an early March speech on technology in education, Duncan touted $500 million in new federal spending over 10 years to develop post-secondary online courses—an area of online education already thriving without federal assistance—thus arriving at the dance 15 years late and an awful lot more than a dollar short.
Since the Internet hit the big time in the mid-1990s, Amazon and eBay have changed the way we shop, Google has revolutionized the way we find information, Facebook has superseded other ways to keep track of friends and iTunes has altered how we consume music. But kids remain stuck in analog schools. Part of the reason online education hasn't taken off is that powerful forces such as teachers unions—which prefer to keep students in traditional classrooms under the supervision of their members—are aligned against it.
So children continue to learn from blackboards and books—the kind made of dead trees! no hyperlinks!—rather than getting lessons the way they consume virtually all other information: online. Putting reading materials and lecture notes on the Internet, like many teachers do today, is just the first step; it's like when, in the early days of movies, filmmakers pointed a camera at a stage play. Kids are still stuck watching those old-style movies, when they could be enjoying the learning equivalent of "Avatar" in 3-D. Thousands of ninth-grade English teachers are cobbling together yet another lecture on the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare's day, when YouTube is overflowing with accessible, multimedia presentations from experts on Elizabethan theater construction, not to mention a very nice illustrated series on the Kennedy Center's ArtsEdge site.
In the 2010 annual letter from his foundation—the biggest in the United States, with a $33 billion endowment—Bill Gates listed online education as one of his top priorities and rattled his pocket change in the direction of reform. He wrote: "Online learning can be more than lectures. Another element involves presenting information in an interactive form, which can be used to find out what a student knows and doesn't know."
Right now, other than the venerable pop quiz, teachers have very few tools to gauge just how many students are grasping a concept in real time and reshape the curriculum to meet their needs.
How do we know online education will work? Well, for one thing, it already does. Full-time virtual charter schools are operating in dozens of states. The Florida Virtual School, which offers for-credit online classes to any child enrolled in the state system, has 100,000 students. Teachers are available by phone or e-mail from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. The state cuts a funding check to the school only when students demonstrate that they have mastered the material, whether it takes them two months or two years. The program is one of the largest in the country. Kids who enroll in Advanced Placement courses—39 percent of whom are minority students—score an average of 3.05 out of 5, compared with a state average of 2.49 for public school students.
In his book on online education, "Disrupting Class," Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen estimates that half of all high school courses in the United States will be consumed over the Internet by 2019. But we have a long way to go to reach 50 percent. Seventeen percent of high school students nationwide took an online course for school last year; another 12 percent took a class for self-study. Many of these students, along with younger kids taking online classes, might be considered homeschooled, though that very concept is changing as they sign up with virtual schools connected to state systems.
Few people have a clear picture of what online education really looks like, which is one reason so many people are reluctant to consider what it has to offer. Learning online won't turn America into a nation of home-schooled nerds, sitting in their basements, keyboards clacking. And it doesn't mean handing your kids over to Rosie the Robot from "The Jetsons" for the day.
Moving lesson planning and delivery online can provide students with more supervision, not less, says Michael Horn, one of the co-authors of "Disrupting Class." It would free teachers, Horn says, "to do hand-holding and mentoring, something which is pretty much impossible in the current model." After all, where is it written that the babysitter, disciplinarian, lecturer and evaluator must all be the same person? Or even that they all have to be in the same building?
Some online learning models eliminate human interaction, but the vast majority do not. Instead, they connect students and teachers via polls, video, chat, text and good old-fashioned phone calls. The Virtual Virginia program focuses on offering Advanced Placement classes to every student in the state, bringing college-level courses to rural districts and inner-city Richmond, where high-level instruction is difficult to get. Rocketship Education, in San Jose, Calif., brings at-risk elementary students together in a safe, cheap, modular space along with a small staff and hands their studies over to online curriculum for part of each day.
Online education has already become a boon for kids with special needs, the students least served by the traditional system. Education entrepreneur Tom Vander Ark launched Internet Academy, the first online K-12 establishment, in 1995 in part to serve kids with unorthodox education requirements, from serious athletes to children with health problems or learning disabilities.
One of the most successful areas of online education so far is helping kids who have fallen off the educational grid. Companies such as AdvancePath Academics scoop up students classified as unrecoverable by traditional schools and help them complete their education. Some dropout-recovery programs can be found in shopping malls and gyms.
Online courses that allow kids to master material on their own schedule provide "a significant opportunity for students who were behind," says Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education. "Because if you require the same amount of time in a traditional classroom, how can anybody ever catch up?"
Online education gives students in dysfunctional urban districts the chance to enroll in high-quality classes or language instruction without an expensive move to a suburban district or a private school. Cities benefit, too, as families uncomfortable with the quality of urban public schools can continue to live near their downtown offices while enrolling their children in Web-based programs, reducing white flight and suburban sprawl.
Students and parents aren't the only ones dissatisfied with the way American education works right now. Teachers are unhappy, too. They say they don't have time for the kind of personal interaction that can make the biggest difference for a child. According to Julie Young, the president and chief executive of the Florida Virtual School, "most teachers and most students who are taking classes online say that they have more interaction with their teachers and students than they do in a traditional setting."
While many remain skeptical, online educators say parents are more open to the idea than they used to be. Baltimore-based Connections Academy has an enrollment of 20,000 students in 14 states, providing a full educational package primarily outside a physical school. Chief executive Barbara Dreyer says that "questions like 'does this even work?' have died down."
But though the families of students enrolled in online programs rave about them, cultural resistance has been slow to fade. And winning hearts and minds isn't the only hurdle to widespread adoption: Virtual education remains essentially illegal in many states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Seat-time requirements—which mandate that students' butts be in classroom chairs, often within the sightline of a qualified teacher, for a certain number of hours—are a major barrier.
Old budgetary mechanisms aren't well suited to the online world, either. In many states, if traditional schools lose students they lose state cash. In Wisconsin, legislators are trying to stop the Internet at county lines. State Sen. John Lehman, who heads his chamber's education committee, secured a cap on out-of-county virtual school enrollment last year. His initial objections were budgetary: "Local districts have ongoing bricks-and-mortar costs," he told me. But then he went on to repeat substantive objections shared by many opponents of online education, accusing the school firms of "profiteering off of kids," and worrying about quality control and the mechanics of online education for young grade-schoolers. He also traced the opposition back to teachers unions. "I think they're fearful of virtual education in Wisconsin," he said. "They don't like to see the money leave bricks-and-mortar schools."
Unions are right that virtual schools are competition. Oregon teachers unions, alarmed about declining enrollment in traditional schools, made fighting a Connections Academy charter school their top legislative priority last year, eventually forcing the legislature to cap enrollment in online schools and mandate face time with teachers, killing prospects for growth at one of the top-rated schools in the state.
The only way online education companies can respond to concerns about quality and age-appropriateness is if they are given the chance to experiment and win over students and parents. Government policies need to be tweaked, and companies need investment to grow. But for online education to really take off, we need to let the chalkboard in the little red schoolhouse go, and learn to love the glow of a child's face lit by a laptop screen.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine. The article originally originally appeared in The Washington Post on Sunday, March 28, 2010.