The frustration and promise of virtual education: We must do better than we’re doing, but online courses could short-circuit the push to improve – or lead it

Redefinedonline today posted about a study showing that virtual school courses – specifically those from Florida Virtual School – are as effective as classes in brick-and-mortar schools.

I am not writing to dispute that finding.

Instead, I’m writing to say that at least in the subjects I address on this blog – math and science – we have to do better than we’re doing in brick-and-mortar schools.  And that there is a danger that in falling back on virtual education we will lose sight of the need to improve.

Both the study and the post emphasized one of the obvious advantages of virtual schooling – access to courses that would otherwise not be available.  Certainly in my field (physics) and my state (Florida) this is a concern.  I received data from the Florida Department of Education yesterday showing that of the state’s 67 schools districts, 11 (all rural) did not offer physics at all in 2013-2014.

But the students who take the standard physics or honors physics courses in Florida’s high schools aren’t learning much of anything.  My own pretesting of students in my courses demonstrates that the physics understanding of incoming engineering and science majors who have taken a standard or honors physics course in a Florida high school is nearly indistinguishable from the level of understanding of students who haven’t taken any high school physics.  And that level is zero (random answers on my multiple choice pretest).

I have recurring nightmares about a conversation I had with a few high-ranking Florida education officials last year.  I was asked to record my lectures so they could be beamed into rural physics classrooms, thus solving the lack of physics courses in rural districts.  Here’s a hint about my response:  I don’t lecture in my classroom – at least not for more than a few minutes at a time.

Here’s another hint – a picture of my classroom:

Class PanoramaThis is a classroom in which learning gains are more than double those typical of a traditional lecture class, which is how the vast majority of physics instruction takes place in Florida high schools.  The model shown in the picture above is just as effective in a high school classroom (see, for example, Bishop Moore High School) as it is at the introductory college level.

The danger of the move to virtual education is that we will decide that recording lectures or adopting other didactic practices in a virtual environment solves all of the problems of the science and engineering pipeline, and we will lose sight of the fact that our instructional practices in physics (and chemistry, and math) need a complete overhaul – in both virtual and brick-and-mortar environments.

Virtual instruction could, in fact, lead the way toward improving student understanding in science and math.  There are hints of progress in virtual science learning being made by some of the world’s leading educators and educational researchers.  But continued progress in this area will requires hard work by experts in learning and investments and patience from policy-makers.  In case you’re wondering, it’s the policy-makers I’m worried about.  Taking the easy way out by simply adopting ineffective but cheap instructional practices may be too tempting for our leaders to resist.

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