Online Education Programs Booming

ByAnjetta McQueen

W A S H I N G T O N, Dec. 28, 2000 -- A generation growing up on the Internet maynow get their formal educations there — from new schools offeringkindergarten through 12th grade online.

Backers of education technology say the Internet can helpchildren isolated from traditional schoolhouses by distance ordisabilities or benefit children already schooled at home by theirparents.

“Education is what America cares about the most, and technologyis what we do best,” said former Education Secretary WilliamBennett, introducing a new online school today.

The for-profitschool, K12, begins enrollment next fall in kindergarten throughsecond-grade and promises eventually to offer lessons in all gradesfrom math and science to arts and sex education. Costs would rangefrom $25 for skill tests to about $2,000 for full lesson plans andsoftware for a year.

From F- to Passing Grade

As a past critic of education technology, Bennett once gaveschools’ efforts to increase use of computers in teaching anF-minus. Yet he is joining companies and school districts willing,even eager, to sail into uncharted cyberspace despite skepticalchild development experts and the spiraling business failure ratein the dot-com world.

There’s no exact count of public and private elementary andsecondary schools that have followed the lead of Web-basedcolleges: The nonprofit, Orlando-based Florida Online High Schoolhas offered online courses since 1997 for grades 9 to 12nationwide. Public charter schools from California to Pennsylvaniateach children online. At the state-funded Valley Pathways onlineschool based in Palmer, Alaska, roughly 300 students take one tosix courses a semester on the Web.

“We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think it could produce an equaleducation — or better,” said Pathways teacher Kathi Baldwin. “Iknow my students online and in detail. They tell you things inwriting they would never tell you face-to-face.”

Classes are held by computer, teachers and staff work from acentral office, and students sign in from their home desktop orlaptop computers. Standards for teachers ideally are the same asthose of traditional schools.

It’s not all reading, writing and arithmetic. In gym class overthe Web, pupils keep daily logs of their exercises. They learnmusic theory online, then go to a designated campus for piano orguitar lessons. They can fax, e-mail or bring in art projectscompleted at home. Parents even dial in for an online PTA meeting.

Linda Deafenbaugh said online schooling has filled a void forher son, a third-grader with attention deficit/hyperactivitydisorder.

Each morning, despite his behavioral disorder, DouglasMeikle, 8, signs on to the Western Pennsylvania Cyber CharterSchool and downloads his reading, science and math assignmentshimself. He completes the lessons, working with online teachers,who include a special education expert, to keep him focused.

“He definitely had a bad school experience, to the pointteachers were not letting him in the door of the classrooms,” saidDeafenbaugh, a cultural anthropologist who works for the federalgovernment. “Not only was his social life falling apart, but hisacademics were, too.”

Douglas, who stays home with his father in Pittsburgh,socializes with other children at after-school sessions, sportingevents and church groups, she said.

The going has been bumpy for some online schools. Teachers haveto keep up student interest with interactive lessons, guard againststudent cheating and do without body language or verbal cues totell them whether students understand lectures.

Hacking and Other Potential Problems

And in October, a 15-year-old in an online charter school inCalifornia hacked into the system and racked up $18,000 in damage,knocking the school offline for two days and destroying homeworkassignments, lesson plans and attendance records.

“There simply is not enough research,” said William Rukeyser,coordinator of the nonprofit Woodland, Calif.-based Learning in theReal World. “Too often, people say let’s spend the money and maybethe wisdom will miraculously transfer from the computer to thechild.”

Schools spent more than $5 billion on education technology lastyear, and a congressional panel concluded last week that 70 percentof America’s classrooms are connected to the Web.

But the marriage of education and technology is needed, sayeducators who believe teaching is becoming more difficult intoday’s environment. Growing enrollments and shrinking budgets areleaving less room for one-on-one, hands-on learning at the side ofan attentive teacher.

“We shouldn’t be stuck with one model,” Bennett said.

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