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Opinion April 11, 2011 //  by  // Comments

Online courses cause schools to suffer

Faced with scathing budget cuts and significantly more criticism of teacher performance, many primary schools are now turning to non-traditional methods of educating students. These novel approaches usually aim to reduce costs and maintaining or improving the quality of teaching, but because these goals often conflict, fiscal matters usually end up taking the priority.

As a result, the most prominent of these strategies dispenses with teachers altogether and minimizes the importance of the school setting.

Despite limited evaluation of its efficacy, web-based learning is now the predominant alternative to standard forms of education, due to its low cost and relatively low use of school resources. But the monetary savings could soon be overshadowed by poor student performance, inferior curriculums and high school graduates ill-prepared for college.

More than one million kindergarten through grade 12 students are enrolled in online classes, with schools benefiting from estimated savings in the thousands of dollars per student. A typical online course costs a school approximately $100 to $275 per student, while the same course taught in-person can be up to four times this amount, according to The National Education Association.

However, this is an incomplete comparison because it fails to account for both the accrued expenses of having to remediate the students who receive sub-standard education and the intangible costs of lost student potential.

Granted, both traditional and web-based schooling have the potential to perform poorly. In fact, the quality of in-person education is more variable in that it depends on the proficiencies of the teacher. However, certain aspects of online courses render them far more likely to be deficient from the onset.

To begin with, online classes are by necessity non-scalable, meaning that they cannot be tailored to meet the individual needs of students. They essentially reduce the education process to an algorithm, as if there were a simple formula for teaching students.

A good teacher can assess a student’s strengths and weaknesses and personalize the curriculum accordingly. In addition, teachers engage students by forcing them to articulate their ideas and foster the development of critical thinking and effective communication. This type of learning is of special importance for primary school students and cannot be taught an impersonal computer interface.

By comparison, online courses are uniform in design and are structured in a way that only addresses the needs of the average student in order to ensure a sufficient pass rate. As a result, the high performers are unchallenged and the low performers face continuing difficulties.

As a further detraction, many web-based classes are intended for students who fail in their traditional classes and are intentionally less rigorous. The online classes then become a means by which schools can deceptively boost their graduation rates.

This cheapens the value of a high school degree and allows unqualified students to game the education system. Colleges then end up bearing the cost of re-educating these students as they flood into their systems.

Even non-remedial classes emphasize rote memorization over deeper understanding. As an example, in one online high school level English class, students were ostensibly learning to evaluate the life and works of Jack London.

Yet, according to an article published in The New York Times by Trip Gabriel, the curriculum did not require them to read a single book — it only offered short excerpts of the author’s writings.

This fractured approach to teaching that is implemented by online courses favors fleeting attentiveness, and given the prodigious number of children with attention deficit disorders, does little to promote focus and intensive thought.

Budget shortfalls are a legitimate concern, but it would ultimately be more cost effective to focus on providing better primary school teachers.

This in itself is a daunting problem, and one that does not have an immediate answer. However, the standards of education should not be further eroded while a solution is devised.

Online courses may have a place in universities, but only if the incoming students have the ability to think independently, attentively and critically.

It is far too difficult to learn these skills from a computer screen, and we can’t justify the use of online courses in elementary and high schools.


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