Progress on virtual learning in Massachusetts

The delivery of learning content to students — the exposition of lessons — is quickly changing and, in the long run, the change will be profound and for the good. Massachusetts is just starting to recognize the potential of online learning.

Massachusetts, although a hot bed of educational innovation in its universities, has been lagging other states at the secondary school level. Florida, for example, offers a complete virtual high school free to all residents and, for tuition, to non-residents. The 16 states of the Southern Regional Education Board have been collaborating to strengthen online learning options.

Last year, the town of Greenfield proposed a virtual high school, partnering with a national online learning vendor, K12. Students from across the state would have been able to enroll through the school choice program. The Commissioner of Elementary Secondary Education vetoed the arrangement, in part out of concern for the fiscal impact on sending districts — the home school district of a student choosing to enroll would have had to pay Greenfield $5,000 per year — but also out discomfort with a virtual model.

The legislature responded by inserting into Section 8 of the Education Reform act language explicitly allowing school districts to create virtual schools through the ‘innovation school’ process — a new process intended to allow school districts broad flexibility in program design in consultation with teachers and the community.

I was pleased to serve on an advisory group created by the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education to assist him in developing regulations to cover virtual innovation schools. The Department ran a good consultative process and has produced reasonable draft regulations.

The regulations are going through a public comment period now. The most important remaining concern about the regulations is the extent to which they circumscribe enrollment — a child may enroll in a virtual high school only with the consent of the district running the school, the student’s home district and his or her family. In my view, enrollment should require the consent only of the receiving district and the family. The school choice cost level of $5,000 is well below the per student cost in most districts (well under half of the state average expenditure per pupil which in 2009 was $13,055). With the low $5,000 ceiling, a virtual school will have limited incentive to enroll out-of-district students — in their current incarnations, virtual schools continue to involve a large amount of teacher time and are not radically less expensive per student than traditional schools.

The obvious advantage of virtual schooling is that kids can learn on their own time — they can work, play sports at a high level or weather health issues — while continuing to learn. But the greatest advantage of virtual schooling may be that kids can learn at their own pace. Our industrial model of schooling moves kids at more or less the same pace through 13 years of elementary and secondary study. One can only differentiate instruction to a limited degree if the content is being delivered by a teacher to a room full of kids. But if the content is being delivered online and the teacher is coaching and facilitating, then kids functioning in the same peer group can be learning at different levels.

Compared to Florida’s state-wide initiative, our proposed approach is extremely cautious and conservative. I believe we need to open the door wider for experimentation with virtual learning. It will allow students with special talents to move forward faster and keep students with special needs enrolled and engaged. In the long run, highly-differentiated virtual learning will help every child come closer to realizing their potential and yield a more competitive workforce.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

3 replies on “Progress on virtual learning in Massachusetts”

  1. Check out a nice news piece from NPR about information retention from online reading: (the piece references a book that, admittedly, I have not read).
    As a teacher, someone who posts online content and someone who has taken several online classes, I have to say that this is a red herring. Online coursework can be a nice supplement to what goes on in the classroom, but I don’t see it working as a viable alternative to real-time in-class learning (and this belief has been echoed by several of my colleagues in the field who have taught courses in VES–or “Virtual Education Space”–which is used by rural districts, primarily).
    Online courses are not as rigorous because there is no way to gauge a students’ comprehension at the point of learning and press them to truly understand a concept. Furthermore, successful online learning relies upon a level of motivation and diligence in today’s youth that (unfortunately) I don’t see. I think that this is lost on thoughtful adults who browse the internet conscientiously and thoroughly (I suspect we learned that skill using actual books).
    Finally, I don’t see kids really “biting” into this concept. When I ask them to access online material in my course, or ask them to post a comment, groans are audible. Almost unanimously my students would prefer authentic in-person discussion to online discourse.
    Let’s experiment, but I have serious doubts about the potential here.

    1. The NPR piece makes sense — online reading does tend to involve more interruptions and distraction and less deep thought. I would also agree that personal contact plays an essential role in learning — for validation and motivation, if not necessarily delivery of content.

      But I think we are only beginning to scratch the surface of how to deliver ideas online — just putting a book online isn’t what we want to do. People are creating online peer groups, interaction with tutors online, multi-media interactive lessons (e.g. to experiment with math concepts), etc. How we put all these tools together is a question for the next couple of centuries. Print media have evolved enormously over the past few centuries — the text book of today bears little resemblance to the early books. The early books were entirely linear, mimicking speech but on a page (“Once upon a time . . .”). Today’s text books have boxes, exercises, illustrations, etc. In the same way, early online learning is mimicking books and not always well, but it will be very different very soon.

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