Online Education Programs Booming

A generation growing up on the Internet may now get their formal educations there — from new schools offering kindergarten through 12th grade online.

Backers of education technology say the Internet can help children isolated from traditional schoolhouses by distance or disabilities or benefit children already schooled at home by their parents.

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

The for-profit school, K12, begins enrollment next fall in kindergarten through second-grade and promises eventually to offer lessons in all grades from math and science to arts and sex education. Costs would range from $25 for skill tests to about $2,000 for full lesson plans and software for a year.

From F- to Passing Grade

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

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

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

Classes are held by computer, teachers and staff work from a central office, and students sign in from their home desktop or laptop computers. Standards for teachers ideally are the same as those of traditional schools.

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

Linda Deafenbaugh said online schooling has filled a void for her son, a third-grader with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Each morning, despite his behavioral disorder, Douglas Meikle, 8, signs on to the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School and downloads his reading, science and math assignments himself. 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 point teachers were not letting him in the door of the classrooms,” said Deafenbaugh, a cultural anthropologist who works for the federal government. “Not only was his social life falling apart, but his academics were, too.”

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

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

Hacking and Other Potential Problems

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

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

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

But the marriage of education and technology is needed, say educators who believe teaching is becoming more difficult in today’s environment. Growing enrollments and shrinking budgets are leaving less room for one-on-one, hands-on learning at the side of an attentive teacher.

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