Saving Schools and Empowering Parents through Virtual Education

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Last Thursday, Paul Peterson, Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and editor-in-chief of Education Next, treated a Heritage audience to a discussion about his new book Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning. He was joined by an all-star panel of discussants, which included Susan Patrick, President and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), Michael Horn, Executive Director of the Innosight Institute and co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, and Adam Schaeffer, Education Policy Analyst at the Cato Institute.

The National Journal today reported on the event:

Leaders of online education gathered Thursday to discuss the role that virtual learning must play in our nation’s future, saying brick-and-mortar classrooms won’t become obsolete but will be complemented by blended and virtual learning models.

‘We [the United States] were great at creating human capital but the rest of the world is catching up,’ said Paul Peterson, executive editor at Education Next during a forum at the Heritage Foundation. According to Peterson, virtual learning will allow for the personalization of education and save costs.

Each discussant gave a unique perspective as to the benefits of online learning. Notably, Susan Patrick explained that the demand for virtual learning is far outpacing supply. 47 percent of parents want access to online learning but just 4 percent currently have access. Schools, she explained, are set up like egg cartons. There is a text book with excerpts made available to all children regardless of their individual learning needs. Yet, these same children can look around and see a world of information that should be available to them.


And while online learning can make a world of information available to all students, it can also make the “classroom” experience much more enjoyable. Susan Patrick recalled an interaction with a child who has cerebral palsy who was taking a course online. The child later reported that he could fully participate in class because none of the other children were aware that he had a disability.

Online learning also democratizes access to content. Today, 40 percent of U.S. high schools offer no Advanced Placement classes. With virtual education, the best teachers could be trained to teach online and their talents could be leveraged to teach students across the country.

As panelist Michael Horn asked, if we know people need customization, why do we insist on standardization?

Online learning has the potential to fundamentally transform the age-old approach to education. But, there are still significant barriers that stand in the way of the revolution. Adam Schaeffer argued that government is very good at stopping threats to the status quo, of which online learning is one. Virtual education isn’t going to expand without money getting into the hands of parents in order to facilitate widespread school choice.

Online learning has the potential to vastly improve the educational experience of American children. And at the same time, it can empower families to be their child’s educational manager. There will come a day when families can design a portfolio for their child that includes a little of everything on the educational options menu: home schooling coupled with online courses, public or private school coupled with a virtual tutor, available 24 hours per day. The possibilities are endless.

Lindsey Burke Author: Lindsey Burke with