Online Education: A Brief Thought

Since moving to Minneapolis in 2002, I have worked only in charter schools, and the majority of that time has been in charter schools that happen to also be online schools.  This is a tough business.  Being on the edge of what is coming, being a part of the change before it is accepted by all, and being part of the team who fights for innovation in education is tiring and thankless work.  This week has been unexpectedly tiring in this business for me.  I am currently in an exhausting email exchange that often becomes an exhausting phone conversation (or five) and could eventually be an exhausting in-person meeting. 

All of this because we are part of innovation.

The history of online education in Minnesota is one of the oldest in the nation. Legislation (click here to read the “real deal language”) governs public online schools, and the Department of Education approves programs to be a part of the public school system.  The advantage for families is that they can “school choice” into an online school as full-time students.  There is also legislation that allows students to take up to one half of their academic day from an online provider (or, as in the case of our son, several online providers).  Providers that want to be a part of the public education (as opposed to being tuition based and requiring families to pay for the classes) in Minnesota must apply to the Department of Education for approval.  A rigorous process requires them to prove their worth by providing information about their curriculum, including how they teach the content area standards, attendance policies, interaction with students, and how they will fulfill state testing mandates.

With state public dollars in education comes state department of education oversight, and this is very reasonable.  I am completely in favor of this.  The department of education ran a posting (that ends today…want to apply???) for a new online learning specialist – a position that has been open for over two years, that has been cut from funding a few times in those two years, and that will be a difficult job to take on at this time because of the state legislative audit report released this fall. The job of the department is ensure that the online schools approved in Minnesota offer quality education.  If a school – of any kind – does not offer quality education, it should be questioned. 

The difference with online schools (even more than charter schools) is that they have to prove their level of quality before they can open their doors.  And they are reviewed more than any other type of school in Minnesota.  Does this seem fair?

Because of the amount of fine-tooth combing that goes in the approval of online schools before they open, one would assume that the traditional schools (please, please don’t call them “normal”) would see the credits and students from online schools as equals. 

Not the case. Hence – the headache of this week.

While some school districts have embraced online education, others have clearly not done so.  It is easy to tell which ones have and which ones have not.  Those who have embraced online education typically partner with an already approved online provider or become an online provider themselves in order to offer the full menu of educational options to their students.  Those who have not continually question the validity of online education and how that can be “real teaching.”  I would assert that it is – when done correctly – very authentic teaching, easier to create differentiated instruction, and has the ability to have more personalized teaching.  As in all good teaching, the teacher-student relationship is really important. 

So – this week’s headache stems from one too many interactions with traditional schools who think that they are better than online schools.  I do not mind when a school wants to see our course syllabi – that is their right.  I do not mind when a school wants clarification about how the content is paced or even to see how our courses meet standards.  I do mind when people in traditional schools make blanket, sweeping statements about all online schools.  I do mind when people in traditional schools make ill-informed assumptions about online schooling.  The funniest thing to me is when someone who is part of a district that has an online component mocks online as if it is a passing fad that will go away tomorrow. 

I am not ignorant to the fact that online education is not a cookie cutter that should be applied to all students.  However, there are many students for whom online is perfect and may even be better for their situation. Cutting it down or ignoring it are mistakes on any educator’s part.  The same is true for the population at large. Rather than talk about this as something that is not going to happen, we need to start thinking about how it will happen.  Will there be online aspects of the majority of classrooms someday?  Yes, there will.

And you can take that to the bank.

Part of my job as an employee at an online school is to help educate others about online education and its positive aspects.  What I would love to do is to formulate future blog posts from readers’ questions.  Please leave questions in the comment area, and I will attempt to pull together some future blog posts answering those questions.  I have also included logos from a few providers in Minnesota. Click on the logo to go to the provider’s website.

mvhs logoedvisions logowc logo

iQ logoblue sky logomnva logoconnection logosocrates logomnohs logo

1 Comment

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One response to “Online Education: A Brief Thought

  1. I completely sympathize with your situation. I’ve been in this online-education business a long time, and opinions seem very slow to change with regards to its credibility. One question that I get asked frequently, and that you may want to address in your blog is, “How can you securely test students’ acquired knowledge/skills in a distance education class?” Best of luck to you.


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