Cash-strapped states consider virtual classes, despite lack of research
By Liz Goodwin

By Liz Goodwin liz Goodwin Thu Jan 27, 2:15 pm ET

In Florida and Utah, education officials have embraced the controversial cost-cutting measure of putting students in digital classrooms.

The move has caused anxiety among teachers and some parents, who are quite reasonably skeptical that a laptop can really replace a teacher. At a recent hearing over Idaho superintendent Tom Luna's plan to require two online courses per year for high schoolers, participant Pat Bollar said the classes would "demean" teachers. Sherri Wood, the president of Idaho's teachers union, told Citydesk, "I don't see how giving a computer to a child can be better than the one-on-one attention that so many of them need."

And indeed, the specter of an all-digital education invites the image of a classroom full of latchkey students staring into glowing monitors full of pages and pages of teeny text they are expected to read and understand without any outside help. (A largely unsupervised classroom could also readily degenerate into a "Lord of the Flies"-style of anarchy, with kids ignoring their computer-mandated lessons in favor of general mayhem. If that scenario sounds implausible, well, just talk to a substitute teacher sometime.)

Some online classes actually are essentially little more than rote digital workbook exercises, but others are much more interactive and supervised. Many courses employ full-time district teachers (or outside certified teachers) who communicate with students over email, chats, discussion boards, and phone.

The trouble is, it's often hard to tell online courses apart. And even if you know exactly what kind of online course a district or state may be adopting, there's very little research on which courses work better than others--and even less research on which courses work best for K-12 students.

With so little known, are politicians jumping the gun by requiring students to move into the brave new world of all-digital instruction? Below, we survey the chief questions that still revolve around the adoption of the virtual classroom.
Interesting. This wouldn't affect the smart kids, it might elevate some easily distracted dumb kids into the average category, and it probably wouldn't make a difference for the dumb and viscous kids.

The potential benefits seem enormous, though. You instantly eliminate face-to-face bullying and school violence. It makes buying drugs or soliciting blow-jobs slightly more difficult. No school shootings. No overhead costs. Girls and boys can learn in environments that support them instead of being forced to conform to scary gender biases in education. It reduces the face-time with inept teachers. It would push time-management and self-direction skills.

Of course, it wouldn't be as good for kids in terrible family situations.