(A version of this article originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press on
Apr. 6, 2011.)

The two most significant factors contributing to student achievement are related to socio-economic status and teacher quality. In large part, these are determined by factors outside of an individual student’s control. Fortunately, virtual learning, a phenomenon that’s rapidly expanding, can break down these age-old barriers.

Virtual learning is a new method of delivering instruction to students. Lessons are provided by teachers working remotely through the Internet, by specially designed software or by a combination of both. Some courses don’t require daily attendance in a brick-and-mortar building, while others simply supplement a regular class schedule.

The benefits of virtual learning are numerous. The variety of course offerings far surpasses what a single school district could provide. For instance, students can choose from about a dozen different languages through GenNET, an online program run by the Genesee Intermediate School District. Most school districts struggle to find and keep foreign language teachers, let alone advanced mathematics and science teachers.

Computer software programs can customize instruction to meet the individual needs of students. Students can slow or accelerate their progress without fear of standing out.  Concerns about asking “dumb” questions or sounding “too smart” are eliminated, and students too shy to ask a question in a classroom might be willing to speak up in an online forum.

But perhaps the greatest advantage of online learning is that it enables students to transcend the circumstantial limitations they face based on where and to whom they were born. Students in the most impoverished neighborhood can learn from the same teacher and material that’s available to students from the wealthiest community.

Of course, all of this would be meaningless if students couldn’t succeed in an online environment. The most recent research shows that they can. Several studies, including one from the U.S. Department of Education, suggest that students in online courses perform just as well — better, in some cases — than students in traditional classrooms.

In addition, there’s research that shows that virtual learning costs less on average than conventional schools. Florida, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania all spend less on virtual schools than they do on brick-and-mortar ones. And in Michigan, students can complete nearly all the required courses for a high school diploma from Michigan Virtual School at an annual cost of less than $5,000 per full-time pupil. GenNET is even less expensive.

Full-time virtual instruction might not be the best fit for every student. But the one-size-fits-all, cinder-block classroom definitely isn’t the best fit for everyone, either.

Not surprisingly, students that most schools find difficult to educate in conventional settings are some of the first ones taking advantage of virtual learning. Districts are using online programs to serve students who have dropped out, been expelled or suspended, or who are at risk of failing. St. Clair Virtual Learning Academy and Westwood Cyber School are two examples of these kinds of programs.

 

Unfortunately, Michigan limits the ability of schools and parents to take advantage of online learning. For instance, the state still appropriates money based on the number of students sitting in classrooms. Current law also forbids full-time virtual charter schools from enrolling more than 2,000 students. Legislators should address these unnecessary limitations to unlock the full potential of this approach.


Virtual learning isn’t science fiction anymore: The International Association for K-12 Online Learning estimates that 1.5 million students enrolled in at least one online course in 2010, and in Michigan, students signed up for at least 20,000 online courses. In a system that has too long settled for mediocrity at greater and greater expense, virtual learning can be a new method for meeting the unique and diverse needs of students.

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Michael Van Beek is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich., and author of the study titledVirtual Learning in Michigan's Schools.”