Two years ago, Ball State University chartered two for-profit virtual charter schools, but the legislature refused to fund them. In 2008, a summer study committee delivered policy recommendations for virtual learning that were translated into bills. Most of that language failed to pass. Why?
Commission for Higher Education Director Teresa Lubbers, who before this summer was a legislator herself, says widespread ignorance on the issue of virtual education has translated into little progress and a lack of urgency.
“People just don’t understand. You know we all have a nostalgic view of how schools look and how education is delivered. People don’t understand how this is done. If you ask them what this is, most walking-around Hoosiers, they couldn’t tell you what a virtual charter school is,” Lubbers said.
Virtual learning almost looks like a chicken-or-the-egg issue. Not many Hoosier students enroll in virtual classes, of which there are relatively few and for which there is little state money. However, surveys have found lack of access and high course costs keep students away.
But Indiana Virtual Learning Consortium Director Bruce Colston says if more students take virtual classes, competition in the marketplace will push the cost of those classes down. If the state becomes more involved, then virtual learning providers could be funded, at least partially, by the General Assembly. Virtual providers would have many more customers, which is one reason they’re lobbying so hard to encourage changes to education policy.
Monroe County Community School Corporation Superintendent J.T. Coopman says a heavy commitment to virtual learning bears a hefty cost. And virtual learning vendors are looking to tap into possible future dollars.
We still are a capitalist society and people are looking to make profits. And that’s certainly one of the ways they can make profits., either by having virtual schools, software, hardware, carious broadband, wi-fi opportunities. There’s just a multitude of things that I think whether it’s expressed or not expressed, people have agendas,” he said.
Arguing for a school corporation’s – or a software company’s – best interest in front of decision makers in Indianapolis is nothing new, Coopman says. But it’s true intent of such lobbying that’s the key, he says.
“We all know people have specific agendas people want to push forward. Now whether it be for their company’s personal gain or whether they have an interest in education, I hope it’s because of an interest in education,” Coopman said.
But virtual learning advocates, when asking for standards, also refer to mandates. For example, the legislature could direct each high school in the state to provide each student with X number of virtual learning classes prior to graduation. Coopman says he has no time for such talk.
I think that’s appropriate for those kinds of things to be mandated by the legislature. I think those are school and community-based decisions. The other section that we need to certainly visit with a relationship with [whether] they are mandated is: are they going to be funded appropriately?” Coopman said.
Bringing uniformity in virtual learning opportunities to Hoosier students could be tough. There’s a wide disparity between the technological capabilities of urban, rural and suburban schools. While evening the playing field could mean big business for some, the state’s recent budget woes suggest there’s little money to start a new initiative.
But Coopman says he worries about the unintended consequences of pushing students to learn on computers. He says the practice could discourage face-to-face interactions with educators and fellow students. And those experiences, Coopman says, are essential to students’ social and personal development – a facet of public education, he says, that’s often overlooked.