BY MELISSA SHORT – Schools nationwide are taking advantage of virtual learning and the internet to improve education. The most successful ones allow students unrestricted access to online programs, so they can take high quality courses regardless of geographic location. Yet online education programs Hawaii lag far behind some of the better programs found on the Mainland.
The Florida Virtual School (FLVS), for example, provides K-12 online education and has vastly improved test scores and achievement statewide. Florida’s virtual school students have not only demonstrated positive gains in education, but they have even out-performed their peers in traditional school settings and posted above-average test scores in advanced placement courses and mathematics.
These improvements aren’t just relevant to Florida: They represent a pioneering example in virtual education for other states to follow.
Hawaii should learn from these successes, to gather the best practices from effective models, and to implement these lessons now.
E-School as Hawaii Knows It
Hawaii has already taken critical steps to implement online learning that can deliver courses throughout the state. However, it can be greatly expanded. Two notable limitations keep Hawaii’s students from experiencing the full benefits of online education: E-School is not available to all grades, and E-School compromises flexibility by capping the number of courses students can take at a time and by adhering to a strict academic calendar.
Expand E-School to Elementary and Middle School Students
In contrast to FLVS, which serves all K-12 students in the state, Hawaii’s supplemental online school, E-School, mainly targets high school students. The program excludes elementary students completely and fails to support middle school students sufficiently. Specifically, E-School permits middle school students to enroll in its online courses, but the acceptance of E-School credits into their respective school is not guaranteed. Instead, each school uses its discretion to discern whether or not E-School credits are applicable.
With Florida and the FLVS, schools, counselors or principles are not the arbiters of credit acceptance, and the law requires that if a student wishes to take on online course, they are permitted to do so –- with recognizable credits.
For E-School to expand its offerings to primary and intermediate students, appropriate statewide policies must be in place. Policies mandating credit standardization and acceptance throughout the state are imperative if E-School is to become a viable option for all of Hawaii’s students. Second, schools must shift from regarding online courses as an outside learning entity and be ready to accept online learning as part of their structure.
Increase E-School’s Flexibility
Although availability of resources likely contributes to its constraints, Hawaii’s secondary students are limited to taking just two online courses per semester, and they must concurrently attend their respective high school on a full-time basis.
While the two-course limit constitutes a barrier to educational opportunities, the fact that E-School follows the traditional academic year calendar also keeps students from progressing at their own pace. In FLVS, most students remain full-time while studying in an online course. However, FLVS offers both traditional and year-round courses. Flexibility is a critical component in successful online education: By focusing on mastery instead of the amount of time a student spends in a course, competency in subject matter is elevated above attendance.
The nature of Hawaii’s E-School is such that it limits customization and doesn’t allow students the flexibility to pursue studies at their pace and preference. Discretionary credit acceptance (for middle school students), course caps, and strict academic calendars inhibit the growth of virtual learning in Hawaii, and it consequently curbs the realization of the benefits of online learning.
There’s No Time like the Present
With the recent award of $75 million in Race to Top funds, Hawaii is posed to make substantial gains in education, and online learning is a promising way to do so. However, E-School must be equipped with the technology and resources to increase its offerings and it must have the support of policies that encourage competency over seat time.
With a few key expansions of E-School and with the proper policy backing, online learning initiatives could be implemented quickly in Hawaii and ultimately provide its students with a customized and flexible education.