The Daily Cougar, student newspaper for the University of Houston, released this article recently discussing online learning. It absolutely got two things right: that there is great potential cost savings in online learning, and that our high schools probably are not doing the best job they could be of educating our students.

The rest of the article deserves closer examination.

There is a great deal of concern in the piece that online learning is a bastion for student slackers and schools looking for a cheap, misleading way to boost their academic performance. This argument ignores one of the central potentials of online education, that being that it is a way for schools to reach students who have had problems with more traditional learning environments. Might this mean that students who are perceived as “lazy” are drawn to those courses? Certainly. But those courses might also be what it takes to get students who have had problems engaging, or are even at dropout risk, to have an educational avenue that works for them.

Additionally, the article makes the claim that online curriculums tend to be less rigorous and/or inflexible relative to standard curriculums. Neither of these things are true, at least not in Texas. Online courses are held to the same standard as traditional courses regarding TEKS (and soon to be STAAR) readiness; you could make the case that they are held to an even higher one, as online courses have to go through a front-end approval process before they can be offered that traditional courses are not subject to.

Another concern brought forward is that online learning equates to an impersonal learning experience. While a student in an online setting might not have face to face contact with a teacher on a daily basis, the courses and learning experience can still be very personalized. There is currently legislation being considered here in Texas that would allow K-12 online students to complete courses at their own pace, during hours of their choosing, something traditional schools do not currently offer. Further, online courses do allow for a great deal of interaction with the instructor, even if it is not in the traditional face to face sense of the term. Skype, other webcam services, and email all allow for a great deal of communication between student and teacher in an online environment.

Let us be clear- online learning is not a magic bullet that will fix every education problem this country has. It is, however, a powerful tool for improving the existing system, and reaching students who traditional education might not work so well for.

-James Golsan