Online Learning as a Supplement, not a Substitute

In the past two days the New York Times has provided readers with six fascinating articles and discussions about online learning. One set is called Room for Debate: Can Young Students Learn from Online Classes and the other is a front-page article in yesterday’s paper: More Pupils are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality.

The quality of these articles and many reader comments is excellent, and the best of them are nuanced. Only a small fraction of students have ever taken fully online classes, so it is very difficult to generalize from these volunteers to conclusions about all or typical students. Some pieces, like Karen Swan’s entry in Room for Debate, cite studies investigating which students are likely to succeed online, and which are not.

Online learning offers genuine benefits to some students (such as access to courses not available in a local school) and will continue to spread. Very likely the scenario that will help the most students in grades K-12 is that more and more teachers in brick-and-mortar schools add online features to the courses they teach face-to-face. Students can then continue a lively discussion after school hours, interact with experts who never visit the school, or use computers and the Internet in other ways that supplement, rather than substitute for, what happens in school. In contrast, the vision of most American students taking a large percentage of their courses online, without a face-to-face component, may appeal to politicians as a way to reduce costs but seems very ill-suited to adolescents’ needs. Let’s not go there!

Andy Zucker
Senior Research Scientist
The Concord Consortium
Lead author of The Virtual High School: Teaching Generation V (Teachers College Press, 2003)