Three Things the NY Times Article on Florida Virtual School Missed

The recent New York Times article, In Florida, Virtual Classrooms with No Teachers, takes us to Miami, where schools are using a blended learning approach:

  • Students use school computer labs to take online classes, led by certified teachers from state-run Florida Virtual School; and
  • On-site “facilitators,” who are not certified teachers, monitor the classrooms to provide support, ensure time on task, and troubleshoot problems.

There’s a lot to discuss here, including the fact that the implementation has been rocky — most notably because several of the schools made no effort to tell either students or parents that they wouldn’t be in traditional classrooms. But as we’ve seen in the past with the Times, the article is framed by an assumption that the traditional classroom is best. It implies a false dichotomy between technology and good teaching. And, it confuses several different issues around virtual learning, leading to uninformed commentaries that further polarize and inflame what could be good conversations about how best to implement digital learning.

Three things that the NY Times editors should have helped readers understand:

  • Online Learning is Not Anti-Teacher — There are a variety of different models for technology-enabled learning, some are entirely computer-based, others have very strong human teaching components. And, increasingly, “trans-classroom” teachers do both online and in-classroom instruction. Helping policymakers, educators, and parents differentiate among the pros/cons of these various models would be extremely valuable. In this case, the story fails to mention that Florida Virtual has over 1,000 full time teachers on staff. More importantly, the school’s teaching positions are in high demand, enabling the school to select from a strong pool of applicants (almost all have traditional classroom experience).
  • How to Think About Class Size for Online Learning — The story hinges around class size, but traditional notions of class size, such as 22 students for fourth period history, make no more sense for online learning than theater fire marshal codes do for streaming Net Flix movies. There just aren’t the same fixed time periods for class interactions. A better notion, used by many virtual schools, is total student load, which in a traditional high school could easily exceed 150 (# of students per class X number of classes). Perhaps more critical is the emerging intelligence from online learning about the appropriate load. The best schools are learning that the optimal load differs by subject and importantly, they’re also learning to differentiate the load based on the experience and effectiveness of the teacher. Novice online teachers, for example, can be given a much lower student load to help them be successful.
  • How Will We Learn from the Miami Blended Learning Experience? — The Times article is shockingly bereft of any reference to actual research about online learning. We know, for instance, that a 2010 meta-analysis of virtual education conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, drawn mostly from studies focused on higher education, concluded that “students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” But, while there is great promise and a solid underpinning of research for this effort, we still know far too little about what works for whom, what implementation practices matter, and why. We should use the Miami effort as a learning lab, rather than as an ideological punching bag.

PS — The Orlando Sentinel and EdReformer offer more on why the Times article missed the mark.

-Bill Tucker

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