Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


A Cyber Future for Education

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By Connie Langland

The John Paul II High School in suburban Montgomery County has all the bells and whistles of a brand-new school--including two cyber learning labs.

Advanced Placement courses, once the bragging right of the highest functioning, best funded schools in the region, are becoming commonplace - thanks to the Internet.

Students who once were on the verge of dropping out in the Octorara Area School District in Chester County are now making up lost ground - taking so-called credit recovery courses using school computers.

And kindergarteners in the Rose Tree Media district in Delaware County get a half-day of instruction at the local elementary school - and then log on at home in a program called Virtual Kindergarten that focuses on computer skills and learning time with the child's parent.

At the very time that students in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania are enrolling in cyber charter schools at record rates - an estimated 23,000 statewide last year -- the state's so-called brick-and-mortar K-12 schools have embraced e-learning, taking advantage of the Internet and also interactive software that can identify the learning needs of each student and customize remedial help.

And another trend is emerging - cyber schools establishing regional educational centers where students can receive face-to-face help from teachers and even take courses. At least one cyber school has put a classroom on wheels - a bus that students can visit to do the kind of hands-on science that is now popular in classrooms across the region.

This is the new state of education  - established schools finding more ways to take advantage of the Internet to promote student learning, and cyber schools opening doors, literally, for the same purpose.  The trend is described as hybrid, or blended, or "brick and click," as one headline writer called it - a combination of face-to-face as well as computer-based learning.

"Online learning is a disruption that cannot be stopped," says Joseph J. O'Brien, director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit,  which provides a variety of education services in that county, including a relatively new service - Brandywine Virtual Academy, which offers a variety of courses over the Internet to both schools and families.

O'Brien cites the 2008 book, Disrupting Class, which predicts that 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online by 2019. That is not to say that school buildings will disappear but that students will mix it up - some courses in class, some online.

The book's authors, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, executive director, education, at Innosight Institute, a nonprofit group, and Curtis W. Johnson, president of the Citistates Group, say the focus will shift to "student-centric" learning that can offer both remediation and enrichment and advancement, as the student needs.

O'Brien doubts the neighborhood high school will disappear. He says most students appreciate and want the whole high school experience -- favorite classes and teachers, sports and traditions, like the senior prom.

But the potential of online courses is just beginning to be mined.

Chester, Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery Counties operate the 21st Century Cyber Charter School, a nonprofit enterprise that is the only one among 11 statewide publicly funded cyber charter schools to meet AYP mandates every year of operation. That led to the fee-based online course catalog now offered by Brandywine Virtual Academy.

And educational values aside, serious money is being spent - or banked - to educate students online.

In 2009-10, the city's subsidy per student enrolled in a charter school was about $8,200 regular-ed student; $17,800 special-ed.  (The top-paying district in the state was Lower Merion in Montgomery County, paying $16,000 and $40,200 respectively per student; Northwestern District in Erie County was billed the least, $6,500 and $13,400 respectively.)

According to a recent report in Education Week, K12 Inc., a for-profit e-learning companies educating 70,000 students across the country, including Pennsylvania, had $385 million in revenues last year. Connections Academy, also doing business in Pennsylvania, generated about $120 million delivering an online curriculum to about 20,000 students nationwide..

As the number of families opting for virtual schools mushroomed over the last decade, school districts have set up online courses - or virtual academies - both to accommodate students and to limit the payout to cyber charters, thus preserving scarce budget dollars.

In Philadelphia, the trend to take advantage of online courses and software-based instruction is also taking hold,  but mostly on a school-by-school basis, depending on how the school has allocated its resources.  Multimedia instruction is common, as is sophisticated computer technology.

One common computer-based tool, used in city and suburban schools alike, is called Study Island, software that provides online remediation and practice. Another is Fast ForWord, which aims to improve children's word recognition and reading skills. Both programs are also in use by some cyber schools.

To envision the possibilities on online learning in the context of a typical established school, review the course offerings of the BlendedSchool consortium comprising more than 100 districts and Intermediate Units in Pennsylvania.

Last year the consortium marketed 120 courses and signed up 76,000 users, many of them teachers, reaching an estimated 250,000 course takers, according to CEO Duff Rearick. Especially notable are its PSSA offerings - courses aimed at improving student skills on the state assessments affecting Adequate Yearly Progress mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind education law. 

In other words, as local schools acquire both technical expertise and enthusiasm about the potential of virtual learning, cyber schools may soon be getting a run for their money.


Connie Langland is a reporter who writes frequently about education.


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