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Debate Heating Up Over Virtual Learning in Indiana: Part 1 of 3

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Because Bloomington’s New Tech High School wouldn’t accept his history credits, Shay McConnell is now making them up on his own time. The sophomore is just one of a number of students in a classroom full of computers, learning about the American Revolution one click at a time.

“I usually don’t like history, but this I can actually deal with,” McConnell said. “I’m reading and I don’t have to listen to a teacher lecture on and on over something that’s not even going to be on the quiz.  I learn more because it’s straight to the point.  It’s fast and easy and fun, I guess.”

What he’s doing is called virtual learning, or learning through educational software. And until recently, most virtual learning was done in the name of credit recovery.

“Basically I flunked freshman algebra and need it to graduate, I’ll find some time to take it before I graduate,” said Indiana University High School Director Bruce Colston.  So far his virtual learning outfit has equipped 13-thousand students not only with make-up algebra classes, but also with courses to help them graduate early, learn at home or cater to their particular learning style. Essentially, it’s school any time students want…in doses that fit their whims. As the number of young Hoosiers learning from computer screens — instead of from teachers — grows into the tens of thousands, Colston says state standards are badly needed. Right now, there are few.

“If you’re going to offer a course in a brick-and-mortar school, it’s got to match state standards, it’s got to be taught by a certified teacher.  Virtual courses?  Nothing,” Colston said.  “By them from anybody.  As long as a school will put it on a transcript, it goes.”

Colston says virtual classes and traditional offerings are, in some cases, miles apart from each other.

“Hundreds of providers all over the country, some of them accredited, some of them not accredited, some of them are being run out of somebody’s basement on Xerox machine.  Others are high quality and the the consumer is almost clueless as to what they’re paying for — and how to even judge what they’re paying for,” he said.  “Right now it’s the wild west.”

“Some have associated virtual learnign with the wild west of public education, where anything goes,” said Terry Spradlin of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, or CEEP. He’s helped write policy briefs aimed at swaying lawmakers on the issue.  Spradlin says the quality of virtual learning offerings varies greatly from school to school, thanks in large part to a lack of standards. Spradlin says the co-existence of for-profit and non-profit entities may even encourage the split.

“If they don’t choose wisely and shop wisely, then they could get a very low quality product that parents would not be satisfied with,” Spradlin said. “Caution must be used for our educators at the local level in making sure rigorous programs; high quality programs are selected.”

A recent CEEP policy brief asked lawmakers to write a bill requiring each high school student complete a virtual learning course before graduation.  But if the state requires virtual learning in classrooms and a school corporation farms out responsibility for those classes to a for-profit entity offering lower rates, then what’s to stop the company from offering a lower quality class, as well? If such a mandate is unfunded, as it might be, school corporations will look to get the most bang for their bucks, which are already in short supply. IU High School’s Bruce Colston says the issue will play out in the legislature in the next three to five years.

“The issues are bubbling up now and the players are aligning themselves,” he said.

And Colston and other heads of virtual learning outfits are most certainly players.

In Wednesday’s feature, details of a survey and report Colston and others commissioned to demonstrate a need for virtual learning in Indiana classrooms.

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