In a perfect world, no student would be forced to take a class online, and this new dimension for learning must be introduced voluntarily to ensure optimal success.

Given what we know about students’ performance in university-level online courses — that dropout rates are 20% higher for online courses than face-to-face – focusing on best practices at the K-12 level is critical to the e-Learning model’s continued growth and success, and that of the students’. — Julie Young, Executive Director, Florida Virtual Schools, Making e-Learning Work: Insider Tips From a Virtual School

What is Virtual/Digital Learning?

Virtual learning and Digital learning are two different things.

  • Virtual learning refers to on-line computer-based education which is either full-time or used to supplement a student’s course load.
  • Digital Learning refers to the technology like smart boards or computer tablet textbooks used to assist a teacher or student in the frame-work of a traditional classroom.

Who stands to profit from Virtual/Digital Learning?

Virtual education has emerged as one of the cheapest, fastest way to access millions of public tax dollars to finance a for-profit business. Florida requires that every student take one on-line course in order to receive a high school diploma.

There are 2.7 million students in Florida public schools. Each virtual class costs roughly $1,100 This is a ready market for Pearson and their partner, Florida Virtual Schools

2.7 million students x $1,100 = Billions diverted away from our public schools.

Who is profiting? Why is this money being taken directly from the classroom when $4 Billion dollars have been cut from Florida traditional K-12 public education in 3 years?

What is the controversy surrounding Virtual/Digital Learning?

There is a deliberate effort to confuse Digital Learning with Virtual Learning by those who stand to make an enormous profit from selling on-line content.

Common Assumption

Most people agree that students benefit from technology like computers, smart boards and internet access in the classroom. Most would agree that a computer tablet containing text books would be very modern, convenient, flexible and green. Most people agree that the choice for high school students to take Latin IV or other unavailable courses in a blended learning (Teacher and online) environment to be better prepared for college is wonderful.

The widely recognized study titled, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning, released by the U.S. Department of Education in September 2010 clearly states that the blended learning approach is the best. It also states that on-line learning is not effective for young children K-8. Further, the best results lie in supplemental usage NOT full time usage by high school students.

The Big Difference: Virtual on-line Supplementing High School vs. Full-time Virtual On-line Learning

The controversy lies in the enormous difference between using Virtual learning as a supplemental resource in a blended teaching format and a full-time learning vehicle. While most people envision the virtual learning as a supplement, the reality is that if for-profit providers are left unchecked, it will become a full-time replacement.

Full-time virtual learning using 100% on-line content may become the only choice for some students. Virtual proponents sell this teaching method as cheaper, not defined or restricted by standards imposed on traditional public schools and minimizes the role of the teacher down to an information disseminator.

Full Time Virtual Learning

There is some concession that many students, who will have to motivate themselves to log on and stay focused, may not be able to do this. The solution is to provide a computer room with a faciliatator. This room could be in any location, not necessarily a school, since there are no regulations. More than half the students in Florida are being raised by single-mothers, the vision for full-time virtual means children sit at home on a computer. How is that going to be effective for kindergartners or 1st graders?

Selling virtual learning as cheaper than traditional public schools means eliminating “bricks and mortar,” meaning that schools and classrooms should be taken out of the public education experience. Students must be self-motivated and mature to achieve in this system. Full time elementary students require “learning coach” level supervision from a parent or adult. So, Florida plans to spend the child’s per pupil dollars on a for-profit vendor, eliminate the expense of classrooms and ask parents to work as “learning coaches” for free. This is wonderful for profits, bad for kids.

The loss of the face-to-face experience of learning with a teacher in a classroom of peers is at the crux of the controversy.

Michael G. Moore, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, said “there is no doubt that blended learning can be as effective and often more effective than a classroom,” said Mr. Moore, who is also editor of The American Journal of Distance Education. He said, however, that research and his experiences had shown that proper design and teacher instruction within the classroom were necessary. A facilitator who only monitors student progress and technical issues within virtual labs would not be categorized as part of a blended-learning model, he said. Other variables include “the maturity and sophistication of the student,” — source

There is tremendous profit in on-line learning.  Florida politicians have exempted virtual content providers from nearly all of the standards imposed on traditional public schools and given away almost the full per-pupil spending amount allowed by the state. With no standards on content and politicians pushing to stop requiring that teachers be Florida-certified, it is easy to see that more expensive blended approach that uses teachers classrooms could easily be replaced by cheaper off the shelf programs that do not require class-room teachers allowing for great profit.

A “blizzard of hype” surrounds virtual education, said Alex Molnar, a professor at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. But, he added, “there’s simply no support in the research for the kind of frenetic policymaking” taking place. “The research legs underneath it are spindly and weak and inconclusive,” Molnar said. The hype comes from both those who can make money off virtual education, Molnar added, and those, like former Gov. Jeb Bush, who view it as another piece in the school-choice movement. — source

Is Virtual On-line Learning Cheaper than Traditional Public Schools?

No. When delivered in a blended model to supplement rigorous high school curricula, on-line learning is not cheaper.

The costs of operating a virtual school is about the same as those found in a regular brick-and-mortar schools. The true benefit of high-quality virtual on-line learning requires two teachers, access to quality courses not available in the district and increase access to rigorous courses with an eye toward improving creative problem solving and global competition.

According to Ed Week, E-Education Inc. Seeks the Mainstream, July 2010:
K12 estimates it costs $6,000 to $7,000 per student to run a full-time virtual school, and about $9,000 per student to operate a hybrid program.

Cost of Virtual: Politicians and Providers talk out of both sides of their mouths.

According to Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning, a 2010 study completed by the U.S. Department of Education, there is very little proof that virtual learning is cheaper or more effective.

For profit providers like K-12 Learning, Connections, FLVS and Pearson tell two stories. In an effort to justify transforming taxpayer dollars into lucrative contracts, for profit providers testify to politicians that Virtual On-line Learning is cheaper than traditional bricks and mortar schools.

On the other hand, they push aggressively to be awarded the exact same per pupil funding amount provided by the state for each student in traditional public schools. Which is it?

Florida Politicians routinely overstate the cost-savings and the effectiveness of virtual schooling as if it were common fact. For example:

Dean Cannon, of Winter Park, praised the virtual school for improving “the quality of instruction, while increasing productivity and lowering costs, ultimately reducing the burden on taxpayers as well as employing thousands of Floridians.” The Orlando Sentinel, November 2010.

Since Florida politicians cut public education funding by $4 billion in three years, districts have taken a close look at virtual classes to meet class size restrictions. Virtual Learning covers a range of products from the high-end blended approach that includes classroom teachers to pure on-line content accessed through a home computer. On-line learning providers operate for profit.

Some critics have said that such content-development costs have prevented for-profit online-course providers from adding the kinds of multimedia features that are the hallmarks of high-quality online courses. They say that in many cases, traditional content is merely placed online.

Packard and others believe that for-profit schools offer a decided advantage: access to capital. That translates, they say, into the ability to scale up at a much faster—and more cost-effective—rate than public schools can. The biggest challenge, though, is developing course content from scratch, which cost K12 Inc. $30 million last year. Besides the cost of developing content, money is also needed for K12’s technology needs.

Some critics have said that such content-development costs have prevented for-profit online-course providers from adding the kinds of multimedia features that are the hallmarks of high-quality online courses. They say that in many cases, traditional content is merely placed online.

Digital Learning Now! – Misleading Use of Terminology

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has an organization called Digital Learning Now! which he uses as a vehicle to promote virtual learning and support the growth of for-profit on-line content providers. He makes no distinction between virtual and digital, which is confusing.

According to the website, Digital Learning Now!:

This includes technology-enhanced learning in traditional schools, online and virtual learning, and blended learning that combines online and onsite learning. The Elements are grouped into three areas of focus; Students, Providers and Government. — source

The website goes on to recommend actions for states. Points like “providing access” to all means that thinly-stretched state education funding budgets will be taken from classrooms and paid to providers. In addition, Digital Learning Now! makes no distinction between public schools, charters, and private for-profit stating all should be considered equal when vying for funding. Finally, there should be no administrative requirements placed on providers, no limits on participation.

Actions for lawmakers and policymakers: State has an open, transparent, expeditious approval process for digital learning providers. States treat all approved education providers- public, chartered and private – equally. State provides all students with access to all approved providers. State has no administrative requirements that would unnecessarily limit participation of high quality providers (e.g. office location).

Digital Learning Now! asserts that providers can be located anywhere, so all restrictions on providers should be eliminated. Currently, the state of Florida requires that teachers be certified to teach in the state. Further, virtual, on-line learning does not require classrooms and calls brick and mortar district offices “unnecessary.”

In the digital age, innovative learning programs are rapidly evolving and providers can be located anywhere. Regulations should reflect this new paradigm.

Unnecessary administrative requirements, such as having a brick and mortar office in the district or state, create obstacles that prevent high quality providers from participating. — source

Digital Learning Now! readily acknowledges that” traditional public schools have pioneered the use of digital learning” in an unmistakable reference to smart boards and other various in-class interactive applications that allow teachers to reach out directly to students.

The site goes on to make a clear distinction between “public” schools and “not-for-profit” schools and “private providers.” Thanks to these kinds of “reforms,” taxpayers are currently funding multiple school categories including charters and virtual learning.

When Digital Learning Now! says: Private providers have the capital to invest in development of high quality content they are leaving out an important fact.  The “capital” they have to invest comes from us, the taxpayers and is diverted from our neighborhood schools, creating voids in funding that narrows the curriculum, and kills electives like foreign languages.

Public providers were pioneers in digital learning and provide a record of proven success in providing supplemental education in partnership with school districts. Not-for-profits extend access and often make contributions to open education resources. Private providers have the capital to invest in development of high quality content, can administer comprehensive school management services and offer collaboration opportunities with their national network of students. — source

The Florida Legislature Adopts Digital Learning Now Act

The Florida legislature adopted the Digital Learning Now Act in 2011 requiring that the infrastructure of all Florida School districts be converted to digital learning by 2014. The price tag for this “mandated conversion” exceeds $7 Billion Dollars statewide as written in the current bills and is completely unfunded by the state of Florida.

As a result, local districts will be expected to come up with this money. Given the enormity of the cost, it is likely that districts simply will not be able to comply. This inability will no doubt create an opportunity for private technology providers to step in and capture a new revenue stream.

IPads for 2,646,000 students x $300* = $ 7.9 billion statewide

Additional unknown and recurring costs include: hundreds of millions in significant statewide increases in bandwidth, cyber-security, network infrastructure (wires, modems, etc), teacher training, insurance and repairs.

Florida’s traditional public schools are experiencing deep budget cuts at the hands of the legislature. The group says these figures tell the public two things about this bill. First, schools should not be asked to raise billions of unfunded dollars to pay digital vendors while legislators cut billions from classrooms, using teachers’ salaries to justify the education budget. Second, the dollar figure tells the public a great deal about the nature of the untaxed profits corporate providers hope to pull out of Florida.

Supplemental virtual learning allows high school students to take courses that are unavailable in their traditional schools or are more advanced than material offered in existing curricula. Students can also use supplemental virtual learning for credit recovery or remediation to improve learning gains.

What is Blended Learning?

Blended learning or Hybrid Learning are terms used to describe the combining of face-to-face instruction with on-line learning. The effectiveness of this approach gained attention when it was discussed in detail in the Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning released by the U.S. Department of Education in September 2010.

The authors found that this style of learning is most effective with high school students. They state that “instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage” than either on-line or entirely face-to-face instruction.

The study also found that because there are no standards for “blended learning” the quality of this method is subject to random interpretations from providers. In the absence of these standards, it’s easy to imagine the cost cutting measures that might be used by for-profit providers, essentially turning on-line learning into a pot of gold funded by tax dollars.

Virtual Learning Models:

Pure on-line:
Students are placed in a computer lab to take their on-line course. Students are taking various different courses and are not necessarily in the same grade or class. The only adult in the room is a facilitator who can assist on technical issues, make sure the students stay in the program and refrain from surfing the net. Phones will be provided if students have questions. Florida plans to use this approach for K-12 students.

Minimal teacher interaction:
Students are placed in a computer lab to take their on-line course and are all enrolled in the same course. A facilitator, not necessarily a certified teacher, with some knowledge of the course material is available to help with collaborative in-person activities. Florida plans to use this approach for K-12 students.

Blended Teaching Model:
This is the most expensive and most effective use of virtual learning and is best suited to high school students. Online instructors team up with classroom teachers to co-teach a course. Properly mentored, this approach can be a powerful collaboration between students and teachers. Daily communication between the teachers is required, the on-line teacher provides the initial lesson and the classroom teacher follows up on the material. A lot has been written about the value of this technique for new classroom teachers.

Although this approach is collaborative, this approach is directed toward the classroom teacher being the more junior of the two teachers. For example, all of the classroom material has to be sent to the on-line instructor for review, suggesting a clear chain of command. There is a tendency to refer to the classroom teacher as “mom” or “coach.” It is unclear whether that person will be required to have a teaching certificate. Even in this model, there is the spector of a for- profit motive impacting Florida’s school children. Florida plans to use this approach for K-12 students.

Virtual/Digital Learning in Florida

The Florida Virtual School 2010 Financial Highlights from 2010 Annual Report

  • The School’s overall financial status has improved since the previous year. Total net assets increased by $1,780,634 from the prior fiscal year for a total of $35,411,264.
  • During the current year, general fund revenues increased by $8,130,318. This increase is primarily due to increased FTE of $5,415 weighted FTE.
  • The unreserved fund balance in the general fund representing the net current financial resources available for general appropriation by the board totals $20,437,116 at June 30, 2010, or 21% of total general revenues.
  • Collected $94,730,451 FTE from state of Florida education fund in 2010.

Florida Virtual School Background

The Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is owned by the state of Florida, began as a pilot in 1995 and was launched in 1997 by the Florida Legislature to serve high school students. FLVS is classified as a public school and is a separate school district funded by public dollars. Funding is based on course completion instead of “seat time.”

In addition, Legislators passed legislation regarding public school choice, making FLVS an option. In 2010, the state of Florida provided nearly $95 million dollars from the state education budget, which accounts for 90% of the school’s overall budget. FLVS partners with for-profit companies and is a for-profit hybrid that uses public funds and assets to market products that were created using taxpayer funds.

Students and teachers never meet, but unlike many other on-line classes, FLVS does have a “live” on-line instructor who monitors student progress and is available via telephone to help with questions.

FLVS avoided much public controversy by marketing itself as a “supplemental” option. Most students come from Florida school districts that access the courses to enhance traditional classes, take courses that are otherwise unavailable, or make up credits for missed or failed classes. Student may choose to accelerate or extend the pace of courses, depending on their needs. All teachers are Florida-certified and classes were exempted from class-size restrictions by the Florida Legislature in 2010.

Julie Young, CEO of FLVS is widely credited with creating a non-adversarial relationship with traditional district schools. By choosing to supplement the brick-and-mortar high schools, the school focused on filling curricular gaps and expanding access to remediation. In addition, the original funding grant that established the FLVS was separate and did not take away from the Florida education budget.

By 2002, FLVS had achieved impressive growth and earned political favor, but a waiting list of 8,000 students hoping to attend summer school was a turning point. Because of budget cuts to traditional public schools, many districts were forced to reduce or eliminate summer school offerings creating a new market for FLVS. In 2003, Legislators voted to establish a performance-based funding model for the school, creating a permanent funding stream that would now take money from Florida’s overall education budget.

Florida high school students are allotted six credits per year and when a student successfully completes a one-credit course, FLVS receives one-sixth of the per-pupil funding amount. According to state rules imposed on traditional public schools, students may not be denied access to any courses offered by FLVS.

State of Florida Gives FLVS Market Advantage

FLVS grows revenue by enrolling students who complete courses. By giving parents and students direct access to enrollment, making the courses free, the legislature created an environment for FLVS to achieve enrollment on a massive scale. This gave FLVS a distinct advantage and exclusive access to a ready-made market segment.

Nothing lasts forever. In 2008, the Florida Legislature voted to revise the state’s virtual school provisions that regulated full-time programs. Since FLVS provided supplemental courses, the state contracted with two for-profit providers to provide full-time K-12 programs. The new providers were: Florida Virtual Academy and K12 Florida Connections Academy. This new arrangement allowed cheaper “cost effective” courses that were purely virtual, eliminating the high-quality teacher component that had become a hallmark of FLVS.

FLVS Takes For-Profit Partners

Unable to launch its own K-8 programs, FLVS decided to partner with for-profit Connections Academy. The symbiotic relationship allowed Connections Academy access to FLVS’s considerable reputation and gave FLVS entrée in to the K-8 market.

In 2010, FLVS partnered with Pearson to market 100 courses aligned with the “common core” standards to schools outside the state. The idea of virtual schooling is appealing to some. No one can argue with the use of virtual as a supplement for high-school students who need to meet college requirements

The deal could earn the new partnership an estimated $40 million after three years according the Orlando Sentinel who quoted Star Kraschinsky, a senior manager with the virtual school. The paper also said that this agreement helps fulfill a “2003 legislative mandate to aggressively seek new sources of revenue.” — source

Know the difference: Full-time On-line Learning vs. On-line Supplemental Learning:

  • Must make a clear distinction between K-12 full-time on-line learning and high school students using supplemental courses to enhance their traditional public school experience
  • Full-time learning will cost more than supplemental course-work
  • Must identify the true cost of quality online education
  • Many politicians grossly underestimate the cost of delivering high-quality online learning
  • Wide range of quality and spending levels creates opportunity to deliver online learning K-12 “on the cheap.”
  • The lack of standards, wide-range of quality and range of cost-levels leaves the door open to aim for the lowest cost option
  • For-profit providers, in an effort to exact a profit, might have an negative impact on high quality

Is Virtual Learning Healthy for Young Children?

No. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting total screen time in front of a TV or computer to no more than 1 to 2 hours a day for children older than 2 years.

Florida legislators have made full-time virtual schooling available to very young students beginning in Kindergarten. Not only will virtual learning be available in the home-school environment, kindergartners will also be able to attend virtual academies.

The issue at hand is whether or not 20+ hours of screen time is healthy for young children. Very little exists in the way of studies that prove this type of learning is good for children. What does exist is a lot of information describing damage and cognitive development issues found in children exposed to daily doses of screen time.

In addition, much of the curricula for small children are delivered through a virtual game environment like “Jump Start.” This on-line content requires that parents play an active role in making sure little students stay focused. The expectation of parental participation is very high.

What is clear is that parents or caregivers will play a critical role in delivering virtual schooling to young students. There is a distinct irony in the fact that state legislators, who impose the highest standards of measurement on teachers, call non-professionals such as parents “teaching coaches” and expect them to have the skill to teach their children on-line curricula.

Poorly done, virtual shows every sign of becoming a sort of low-quality, self-applied, privatized education of last resort. All tax dollars will go to pay for the course, very little being spent on the individual student.

According to research, parental supervision is critical to students’ success in online learning:

Erik W. Black, an assistant professor of pediatrics and educational technology at the University of Florida College of Medicine, in Gainesville, studied parental impact on students’ virtual education in 2008 for his doctoral dissertation.

To achieve such success, particularly in the earlier grades, a parent or another adult must be present to mentor and guide a student during the school day, Black says. The reality is that full-time online learning will not be an option for many students whose parents work outside the home, he says, making it hard for the vast majority of families in the United States to even consider full-time virtual schooling. In 2009, there were 5.1 million stay-at-home mothers, representing 23 percent of married couples with children under 15, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. An additional 158,000 fathers stayed at home with their children.

Black’s research also found that a majority of students using online schools full time are white and come from well-educated, affluent families. “My greatest fear is that we’re re-creating the wheel” in terms of student access, Black says. “At certain levels, virtual schools do expand choice, but there are caveats to that.”

Even the most avid virtual school proponent concedes that the young children learning exclusively on virtual might not be an optimal fit.

According to the Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning, a Meta study released in September 2010 by the U.S Department of Education:

The great majority of “estimated effect” sizes in the meta-analysis are for undergraduate and older students, not elementary or secondary learners.Although this meta-analysis did not find a significant effect by learner type, when learners’ age groups are considered separately, the mean effect size is significantly positive for undergraduate and other older learners but not for K-12 students.

Others such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and noted author and occupational therapist Cris Rowan warn about the dangers of forcing young students K-5 to learn on-line.

Time limits: Surfing the Web should not take the place of other important activities, including homework, playing outside, or spending time with friends. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting total screen time in front of a TV or computer to no more than 1 to 2 hours a day for children older than 2 years. An alarm clock or timer can help you keep track of time. The Internet and Your Family, American Academy of Pediatrics — source

In a recent Ed Week article Cris Rowan expressed her concerns about virtual learning for young students:

In a perfect world, technology wouldn’t be chosen at all, according to pediatric occupational therapist Cris Rowan. Author of Virtual Child: The Terrifying Truth About What Technology is Doing to Children, and founder of Zone’in Programs Inc. Rowan’s outlook on child technology use is bleak — and irreversible.

“I used to say to parents, ‘Look, it’s reversible. Just cut your kid [off] and they’ll be OK,'” says Rowan. “But that’s not true. They’re permanently altering the formation of their brain, and it’s not in a good way.” When asked how she foresaw children adapting or evolving if they were to continue at the level of usage seen today, Rowan responded, “Well, I see them dying.”

According to a 2009 Kaiser study, kids aged 8-18 are engaging with digital media an average of 7.5 hours per day. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1-2 hours per day of screen-time. Rowan adds, “There is absolutely nothing in technology that is developmentally healthy. Any time spent in front of a device or with a device is detrimental to child development.”

She cites the research of Dr. Gary Small, Director of the UCLA Memory and Aging Research Center. Small studies how children’s brains today, specifically the frontal lobe, are developing differently than their parents’ due to technology exposure. “As young malleable brains develop shortcuts to access information, these shortcuts represent new neural pathways being laid down,” he writes in his book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.

Rowan references a study that indicates technology overuse is not only changing brain chemistry, but also increasing the likelihood of children developing mental illnesses. Human connection, eye contact and dialogue are paramount. Devices are hugely limiting this important exposure, Rowan says. As a result, therapists and clinicians are seeing an increase in attachment disorders, depression, anxiety, bipolar, obsessive compulsive disorders, and ADHD — all of which have been linked to technology overuse. “I’ve been working with kids for 25 years. I’ve never seen this,” she concludes. “This is something that’s epic. And we’re really just witnessing the tip of an iceberg.” — source

For Profit Virtual Charters

One thing is very clear about the Virtual Charters created in 2010 by the Florida Legislature: They are a lucrative fast track to grab public funds. There are no standards, very little up-front investment, no bricks and mortar and little or no accountability.

According to an article in Ed Week, E-Learning on the Rise: In 2010 K12 Inc., owned by junk bond profiteer Michael Milken, reported generating $385 million in revenue by providing virtual courses to 70,000 students across the country at approximately $5,500 per student before profit.

Ed Week also reported in the same article that Connections Academy, another for-profit provider, generated about $120 million in revenue serving up online courses to some 20,000 students at approximately $6,000 per student before profit.

Florida per pupil funding for traditional public education is $6,200.

The big question is whether taking this money out of the traditional classroom is a worthy investment of taxpayer dollars?

Even Henry M. Levin, the director or the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University, questions the rush to embrace full-time virtual learning and stresses the need for careful research to evaluate effectiveness:

“It’s a big question mark out there right now,” Mr. Levin said. “More claims are being made than are justified. Both the effectiveness and the cost side of [online course-taking] have really not been studied carefully.” Henry M. Levin, Source: Ed Week, E-Learning On the Rise

For-profit virtual providers have a huge advantage over traditional public schools. By extracting a profit from taxpayer funded per pupil funding amounts, they gain large sums of money to re-invest and grow their business. Many sources mention that content will be cheap. Once an educator who is deemed an expert in their field is recorded delivering a course, they’ll never have to be paid again. The course can be re-packaged and sent to schools all over the world.

The potential for profit is so great that venture-capital firms and hedge fund managers accustomed to investing in companies like Google and Paypal are investing all over the world in the rapidly expanding e-learning industry

For Profit Virtual Learning Providers

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