Nostalgia hampers online education progress

Matt Bowman · September 24, 2009 · Short URL:

Why reminiscing about the Rick-Rollin 80s is bad for the U.S. school system

 I had a brief but revealing twitter conversation earlier this year over online schooling:

me: Comprehensive directory of online degree programs: ... Why do we still use buildings for school?

ardenfaye: @mattwbowman bc some people are social learners. like, er, me. :-)

I admit to being on the introverted end of Meyers-Briggs, and realize that not everyone is with me. But I'm still skeptical about the "social-interaction" argument against online schools.

The WSJ has an article today about the rise of online education and the difficulty some kids have adjusting. The article follows seventeen-year-old Tatyana Ray who spent the last year-and-a-half at an online school and found she "missed the human connection of proms, football games and in-person, rather than online, gossip." The human story is interesting, but anecdotal. What is quantifiable on a large scale is the rise of school on the screen:


Online high schools are growing more popular. Roughly 100,000 of the 12 million high-school-age students in the U.S. attend 438 online schools full-time, up from 30,000 five years ago, according to the International Association for K-12 Learning Online, a Washington nonprofit representing online schools. Many more students take some classes online, while attending traditional schools. The National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, says 1.5 million K-12 students were home-schooled in 2007, a figure that includes some who attended online schools. That is a 36% increase from the 1.1 million in 2003.

Anyone who attended high school in the US, understands the movie Napolean Dynamite, and has the Emo habit of reminiscing whistfully about the last decade's b-rated pop stars will regard this transition as beyond tragic.  How will these online kids ever grasp reruns of Saved by the Bell?

 What's even more tragic is that such emotions may well guide public policy. Homeschoolers routinely score higher on standardize tests, a natural result of being able to move at their own pace. At the Stanford Summit in August, I asked James Shelton, Advisor to US Secretary of Education, whether the $100 billion federal education package or the $4.4 billion "Race to the Top" stimulus might be used to transition our country's ailing system to a web-based infrastructure with remote instruction that would allow the academic benefits of homeschooling to be more widespread, reaching further into high-needs areas. He started shaking his head before I finished, as if to say "unthinkable." No, that money is destined for the status-quo.

No doubt, most of us remember our high school years with at least some fondness, if not out-right Uncle-Rico-esque dreams of time-travel. But reach back a little further than the Rick-Rolling 80s, and you'll find humans managed to survive before they were systematically huddled together for 15 of their first 20 years into a crowded box full of peers. For the first hundred years of our country, kids interacted with adults, older and younger siblings, their friends in town... and things turned out alright. Jefferson's Agrarian Ideal, which shaped 200 years of public policy, may involve pig pens, but not kid pens.

The arguments against the online education movement are really arguments against the transition. Tatyana Ray spent some time in a traditional high school before moving online and finding that the "the digital clubs for fashion, books and cooking [...] felt more like work than fun." That's the same feeling a 40-year-old business man has for his Twitter account. But for the next generation that grows up online, digital social interaction may not be so third-nature.

The transition to energy independence is difficult, too. Lots of incumbents will resist. Would that we could apply the same resolve to fixing our education system as we're do to solving our energy woes.


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