Jean Robinson: Online ed faces challenges


Published: Sunday, July 21, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 19, 2013 at 8:00 p.m.

The state of Florida requires public high school students to take an online course prior to graduation and districts must provide online programs for all grade levels. As a result, Florida leads the nation in student enrollment in virtual education.

This mandate can improve access to specialized courses and some high quality-activities that offer exciting alternatives to traditional instruction. Students may enroll in the Florida Virtual School, local school district franchises, Virtual Charter Schools or in Virtual Instruction Programs that are offered by approved corporations. The average student will take two online classes per year.

For full-time students, the Florida Virtual School hires teachers, manages tests and student progress, issues diplomas and offers core and Advanced Placement courses. For part-time students in grades 6-12, curriculum is provided while local school districts maintain transcripts, determine when students graduate and award diplomas.

Alachua County has a franchise of the Florida Virtual School with about 400 full- or part-time students in grades 6-12 who can use school computers. The program has 30 students in grades K-5 and operates under contract with a for-profit company, K12 Inc. Next year, the K-5 program will be a franchise version of K12 Inc.

Franchise arrangements give the school district advantages over state- or corporate-managed programs, because they allow local districts to choose their own teachers, maintain a low teacher/student ratio, manage student records and closely monitor student progress. Staff reports results in a higher course completion rate for the district's eSchool than for the Florida Virtual School.

All virtual programs must be accredited by the state and hire state certified teachers. Online and offline content must be delivered with adult oversight. When a student enrolls, the parent is required to accept responsibility for honesty. Virtual education places special expectations on students, which include good time management, perseverance and independence.

Teachers monitor student progress and provide help and testing by phone and online. Most students enrolled in online courses (with the exception of home-schooled students) must take FCAT and end-of-course exams at local district sites. The league's Education Team found that although the dropout rate in the first few weeks is high, about 85 percent of the state Florida Virtual School students successfully complete their program.

The Alachua County league's study posed questions about some serious management and accountability issues associated with online education. A 2013 Florida Auditor General report on the state's virtual instruction programs cited numerous failures to meet accountability standards, including the use of uncertified teachers, large student-to-teacher ratios and failure to submit audit reports.

The league suggests solutions to these problems, including better management of student records, closer teacher evaluation based on student performance, oversight of teacher workload, adequate funding for technical support and methods to control cheating.

The league asks if parents are adequately prepared to provide the time, motivational techniques and computer skills necessary for success. And do the parents understand that if they allow their student to cheat, they are cheating no one but their own child?

Great care is needed to prepare students and parents for the responsibilities of online education. Enrollment of unprepared students in online courses delays student progress, results in loss of funds to public schools and places responsibility on public schools for “catch-up” education.

Jean Robinson is president of the Alachua County League of Women Voters. This is the last in a series of three articles researched by the league's Education Team. The non-partisan study was done to inform and educate the public on the issues facing education in Florida.

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