Interview Thursday: Concerns about online education policy with Dr. Kevin Welner
Two years ago, Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado education professor and director of the CU-Boulder National Education Policy Center, recognized a sudden rise in the policy attention being paid to the growth of K-12 online education. Welner asked Gene V Glass, his colleague and senior researcher at the National Educational Policy Center, to write a brief that would explain what was currently known about K-12 virtual education. That brief, called The Realities of K-12 Virtual Education, was released in April of 2009.
Seeing the rapid development of practice in this area, Welner asked Glass to revisit the issue this year, and the result was “Online K-12 Schooling In the U.S.: Uncertain Private Ventures In Need of Regulation.” Released almost two months ago, Welner was the co-author and an editor of the brief, but he made it a point in our conversation to say that “Gene was the real brains behind the operation.” Regardless of who played what role in the creation of the brief, it is a well-researched, intelligent study that has already sparked debate and raised awareness about the successes and problems the full-time online education world is already dealing with.
Last week Dr. Welner made a trip with his daughter to the dentist and returned to spend the next hour talking to me about the study, his thoughts about online education, and the reformation that needs to take place within the industry.
Where did the motivation for this study come from? Why did you think that this was the right time to conduct and publish such a brief?
Two or three years ago we asked Gene to write the predecessor to this brief. Since that time, the policy focus on online schools has risen steadily, and we saw a great deal of policy attention being paid to the growth of online education. Gene agreed to write the brief, and I came on board as a second author. We didn’t know how much had been done on the subject already, and that is what made the brief important. The National Education Policy Center is devoted to bringing the research base into policy discussions. We want to do whatever we can to make the research in those areas accessible to the public. We ask our authors to not only bring together the best research possible, but also then make sure to offer recommendations that follow from that research. In this case, we also asked Justin Bathon, a professor at the University of Kentucky who is very engaged with online learning and who is also an attorney, to take the recommendations and write them up in statutory code language. It makes sense to explain the recommendations, but it makes more sense to show what those recommendations would look like in practice.
Many who read your study might think you don’t believe full-time online education will work. Do you believe that full-time virtual education is a viable learning model for students?
The simple answer is yes, but we also believe the policy should not outpace research. The potential for learning online is obviously there. What we are saying is that it’s very important to learn more about what’s going on in the industry and learn what the effects of different online learning approaches are, rather than to jump whole hog into the expansion of a sector we know very little about. We examine what the strengths and weaknesses are and what we should be concerned and worried about. It makes a lot of sense to have some accountability and regulation built into state laws, because if there isn’t, then we aren’t helping the creation of high-quality online schools that could really help students learn. We’ve already seen clear abuses here in Colorado, where I live, as well as in other states.
Your brief talks a lot about the issues surrounding the accreditation of these schools and the accrediting bodies responsible for vouching for their quality. Why did you think that was such an important issue?
We just felt that there are already a number of suspect accrediting bodies, and higher education has been dealing with this problem for a long time. The problem is that accreditation remains unregulated. If these accrediting bodies remain unregulated or unconstrained by state law, then there is every reason to believe that the better online schools will go through a legitimate accreditation process and the fly-by-night schools will pay for the less rigorous accreditation. Most parents won’t know the difference, simply relying on a statement that the school is ‘accredited.’ But if all of these accrediting bodies were regulated, there would be some accountability. And we believe K-12 schools, whether they are online or not, would benefit greatly from more rigorous standards.
One of the polls you cited in the brief showed that in 2007, 73 percent of parents said they would not be willing to have their child earn most of their high school credits online. Why do you think that is?
I think there will always be an audience out there, who has an interest in alternative learning environments, and that interest arises out of their need to find something different because of poor service or limited access to courses or distance issues, and that was the natural market for these online schools. But I think there is a ceiling on how many people are really willing to embrace online education for their own children. I think that 73 percent is indicative of a sentiment that reflects American desires of the common sense of education. I just think there is a natural limit to how much parents are willing to forgo a brick-and-mortar education.
So you see this push to expand online education as a dangerous push?
I think there is a lot of money to be made in this field and that’s why, in part, we are seeing this push to expand online education outside of its natural market. One of the concerns we voice is that policymakers are now faced with the idea that the power of money is creating a disproportionate voice on one side of the argument. These voices backed by power and money are overwhelming and effectively excluding the opinion of other voices that would raise concerns about the changes taking place. In any industry when there is a financially driven attempt to expand the market outside of the natural need, then the question is how much of this expansion is actually benefitting families.
It seems like that the news media only focuses on the online education horror stories and doesn’t necessarily point out how many students have benefitted from online education. Do you think that is a fair statement, and do you think the media is driving public opinion and policy?
We don’t want to see policy being driven by anecdote in any situation. We use the negative stories in our brief to give examples of what we are seeing and what our research is showing. To be honest, I have seen both types of stories in the media. Some stories focus on the negative aspects, and others focus on the positive, but they should never be used to influence policy, only to illustrate concerns about accountability. It is important to note that is our main call of the study: to point to the existing research about online education and to point as well to the need for further evidence before substantially expanding the sector.
There are lots of suggestions in the brief about how to ensure online schools are regulated and effective, but how would you personally determine a good online school from a bad one?
Our brief focused on policy, not the details of curriculum and instruction. But if a friend came to me and said they were considering sending their child to an online school and asked me for help, I would be asking some basic questions. What is the teacher-to-pupil ratio? Will there be a teacher who really knows my child at an individual level? Will he/she be available to assist my child on a daily basis, or will it be some interesting software and a teacher who checks in every so often? The reputable schools are going to have an answer to all of these questions, but they too—like brick-and-mortar schools—are constrained by how much money is available and how to prepare students for certain tests. One thing to make clear is that a lot of the issues that exist and issues that we raise around virtual education also exist for brick-and-mortar schools. For example, something like cheating has been around in brick-and-mortar schools forever and now we are wondering how it plays out in a virtual environment.
One of the major concerns with online learning seems to be certifying teachers to teach online. Do you see this as a problem? Should more schools offer a program to train online teachers?
I have taught teachers who teach online courses for private companies, but I think the broad truth is that we don’t have many certification programs for those who would be teaching online, and that is clearly an important need. I think what we are seeing right now is that these cyber schools are growing so quickly that their maturity hasn’t caught up yet. I believe that maturation process involves learning from experience and when you grow that quickly, there isn’t a lot of experience to draw on. But I think as that maturity comes, there will be a larger focus placed on training teachers for online learning environments.