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As online learning grows, debate flares about the learning

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. » Jack London was the subject in Daterrius Hamilton’s online English 3 course. In a high school classroom packed with computers, he read a brief biography of London with single-paragraph excerpts from the author’s works. But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of “Call of the Wild” or “To Build a Fire.”

Hamilton, who had failed English 3 in a conventional classroom and was hoping to earn credit online to graduate, was asked a question about the meaning of social Darwinism. He pasted the question into Google and read a summary of a Wikipedia entry. He copied the language, spell-checked it and emailed it to his teacher.

Hamilton, 18, is among the expanding ranks of students in kindergarten through grade 12 — more than 1 million in the United States, by one estimate — taking online courses.

Advocates of such courses say they allow schools to offer not only makeup courses, the fastest growing area, but also a richer menu of electives and Advanced Placement classes when there are not enough students to fill a classroom.

But critics say online education is really driven by a desire to spend less on teachers and buildings, especially as state and local budget crises force deep cuts to education. They note that there is no sound research showing that online courses at the K-12 level are comparable to face-to-face learning.

Here in Memphis, in one of the most ambitious online programs of its kind, every student must take an online course to graduate, beginning with current sophomores. Some study online versions of courses taught in classrooms in the same building. Officials for Memphis City Schools say they want to give students skills they will need in college, where online courses are increasingly common, and in the 21st-century workplace.

But it is also true that Memphis is spending only $164 for each student in an online course. Administrators say they have never calculated an apples-to-apples comparison for the cost of online vs. in-person education, but around the country skeptics say online courses are a stealthy way to cut corners.

“It’s a cheap education, not because it benefits the students,” said Karen Aronowitz, president of the teachers’ union in Miami, where 7,000 high school students were assigned to study online in computer labs this year because there were not enough teachers to comply with state class-size caps.

“This is being proposed for even your youngest students,” Aronowitz said. “Because it’s good for the kids? No. This is all about cheap.”

In Idaho, the state superintendent of education plans to push a requirement that high school students take four or more online courses, following a bill that passed the Legislature last week to provide every student with a laptop, paid for from a state fund for educators’ salaries.

Chicago and New York City have introduced pilot online learning programs. In New York, Innovation Zone, or iZone, includes online makeup and Advanced Placement courses at 30 high schools, as well as personalized after-school computer drills in math and English for elementary students.

Reza Namin, superintendent of schools in Westbrook, Maine, which faces a $6.5 million budget deficit, said he could not justify continuing to pay a Chinese language teacher for only 10 interested students. But he was able to offer Chinese online through the Virtual High School Global Consortium, a nonprofit school based in Massachusetts.

The virtual high school says its list of client schools has grown to 770, up 34 percent in two years, because of local budget cuts.

Nationwide, an estimated 1.03 million students at the K-12 level took an online course in 2007-8, up 47 percent from two years earlier, according to the Sloan Consortium, an advocacy group for online education. About 200,000 students attend online schools full time, often charter schools that appeal to home-schooling families, according to another report.

The growth has come despite a cautionary review of research by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009. It found benefits in online courses for college students but concluded that few rigorous studies had been done at the K-12 level, and policymakers “lack scientific evidence of the effectiveness” of online classes.

The fastest growth has been in make-up courses for students who failed a regular class. Advocates say the courses let students who were bored or left behind learn at their own pace.

But even some proponents of online classes are dubious about makeup courses, also known as credit recovery — or, derisively, click-click credits — which high schools, especially those in high-poverty districts, use to increase graduation rates and avoid federal sanctions.

“I think many people see online courses as being a way of being able to remove a pain point, and that is, how are they going to increase their graduation rate?” said Liz Pape, president of the Virtual High School Global Consortium.

If credit recovery were working, she said, the need for remedial classes in college would be declining — but the opposite is true.

In Memphis, Hamilton’s school, Sheffield High, once qualified as a “dropout factory” with a graduation rate below 60 percent.

Now the class of 2011 is on target to graduate 86 percent of its students, said Elvin Bell, the school’s “graduation coach,” an increase attributable in part to a longer school day and online makeup courses for students who failed a regular class.

Sixty-one students are in the courses this semester, including Hamilton, whose average in English 3 is below passing. Melony Smith, his online teacher, said she had not immediately recognized that his answer on the Jack London assignment was copied from the Web, but she said plagiarism was a problem for many students.

Memphis supplies its own teachers, mostly classroom teachers who supplement their incomes by contracting to work 10 hours a week with 150 students online. That is one-fourth of the time they would devote to teaching the same students face-to-face.

But administrators insisted that their chief motive was to enhance student learning, not save money in a year when the 108,000-student district is braced for cuts of $100 million and hundreds of jobs.

“What the online environment does is continue to provide rich offerings and delivery systems to our students with these resource challenges,” said Irving Hamer, the deputy superintendent.

Like other education debates, this one divides along ideological lines. K-12 online learning is championed by conservative-leaning policy groups that favor broadening school choice, including Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which has called on states to provide all students with “Internet access devices” and remove bans on for-profit virtual schools.

Teachers’ unions and others say much of the push for online courses, like vouchers and charter schools, is designed to channel taxpayers’ money into the private sector.

“What they want is to substitute technology for teachers,” said Alex Molnar, professor of education policy at Arizona State University.

In Idaho, Gov. C.L. Otter and the elected superintendent of public instruction, Tom Luna, both Republicans, promoted giving students laptops and requiring online courses.

The State Legislature, pressed by critics who said the online mandate would cost teachers jobs, rejected it, but Luna said in an interview that he would propose it this summer through the state board of education, which supports him.

“I have no doubt we’ll get a robust rule through them,” he said. Four online courses is “going to be the starting number.”

Online courses are part of a package of sweeping changes, including merit pay and ending tenure, which Idaho lawmakers approved, that Luna said would improve education.

“We can educate more students at a higher level with limited resources, and online technology and courses play a big part in that,” he said.

Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, the teachers’ union, strongly disagreed. She said Luna’s 2010 re-election campaign had received more than $50,000 in contributions from online education companies like K-12 Inc., a Virginia-based operator of online charter schools that received $12.8 million from Idaho last year.

“It’s about getting a piece of the money that goes to public schools,” Wood said. “The big corporations want to make money off the backs of our children.”

Luna replied that political contributors have never had an inside track in winning education contracts.

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