BY MICHAEL D. JAHR – MIDLAND — In the most comprehensive review of online learning in Michigan’s public schools to date, a study released by the Mackinac Center today shows that thousands of Michigan’s students are now enrolled in hundreds of virtual courses as part of their primary and secondary education.
“Virtual Learning in Michigan’s Schools,” authored by Education Policy Director Michael Van Beek, focuses on a new mode of instruction that involves remote teachers or specially designed software guiding student learning via computers and the Internet. Van Beek reviewed national research and evidence from other states that indicate students can perform as well or better in virtual learning environments, and that virtual learning can also reduce educational costs.
“Virtual learning may not be right for everyone,” Van Beek said. “Still, I would estimate there are more than 20,000 course enrollments in online K-12 programs offered through Michigan Virtual School, Michigan’s virtual charter schools and dozens of single- and multi-district programs, including GenNET, a major initiative of the Genesee Intermediate School District. In other words, this isn’t science fiction. Parents and students are taking advantage of these opportunities at an increasing rate.”
These students are not engaged in a radical experiment, Van Beek observes. He points to a U.S. Department of Education study as well as studies of virtual schooling in Ohio and Florida as indications that virtual learning can provide quality instruction.
“The customized pace and individual attention that students receive in a virtual learning environment can help them at every level, though it may be most effective in the higher grades,” Van Beek said. “Online courses are able to challenge high-performing students with more advanced material. They can provide more flexibility and mentoring to students who’ve become disengaged or fallen behind. Students in remote areas or poor districts can now access a broad array of courses and outstanding teachers they might not have been able to reach before.”
The most recent research suggests that virtual learning programs can also save taxpayers money. For instance, virtual learning schools in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania all spend significantly less per pupil than the conventional brick-and-mortar schools in those states. In Michigan, courses offered through Michigan Virtual School and GenNET appear to cost less on average than what taxpayers spend on similar educational services in brick-and-mortar schools.
Van Beek recommends expanding virtual learning by making permanent a “seat-time waiver” program that enables students to enroll in more than two full-time online courses without having to still sit in a classroom. He also suggests that the Legislature reconsider the stringent limits on the number of virtual charter schools in Michigan and on the number of students that they can enroll.
“These recommendations will enhance schools’ ability to innovate, and they’ll provide more learning opportunities and choices — something parents and students in this state have consistently demanded,” Van Beek said. “This is only fitting. Michigan has long been seen as a leader in online education, but it is now falling behind a number of states, including Florida, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania.”
A Mackinac Center video by Communications Specialist Kathy Hoekstra on virtual learning in Michigan’s schools and on Van Beek’s findings can be viewed at www.mackinac.org/14439. The study can be downloaded as a PDF at www.mackinac.org/14440.