This year, my 8-year-old niece said sayonara to her schoolhouse in favor of full-time cyber school. Instead of attending third grade at Lakewood Elementary in Ann Arbor, she logs onto the Virtual Learning Academy Consortium and completes her lessons in the living room.
"We basically set up a little student desk and chair right outside the kitchen where I can continue to do my baking," says my sister-in-law, Jen Von Buskirk, who does double duty as Ella's "learning coach" and proprietor of her home-based catering company, Jeni's Ugly Pies. "I go back and forth. There's some stuff she can do independently and other stuff I have to oversee."
Through VLAC, Ella received a laptop computer, printer and subsidized Internet access. She has a homeroom teacher who monitors her progress and attendance, and meets with her one-on-one each week through Skype or over the phone. Although VLAC estimates it takes students four to six hours to complete a day's schoolwork, Von Buskirk says they've streamlined it to two to four hours.
"With one-on-one attention, she just soaks everything up, and I'm not going to allow her to finish a subject unless she gets it," Von Buskirk says.
Ella's lessons are in line with Common Core State Standards and include reading, composition, phonics, science, math and more. One sample third grade social studies lesson covers the concept of the assembly line with a short animation featuring Tim and his robot friend Moby. Students are quizzed on the material and referred to optional further reading and activities. Ella is thriving academically in the online program, Von Buskirk says.
Ella is among an increasing number of Michigan students taking advantage of new options in online education. From high school students earning extra credits to homeschoolers more closely linked to brick-and-mortar buildings than ever before, it's virtually a new frontier.
The latest "Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning" report says Michigan ranked fifth in the United States in the number of online enrollments in 2011-12. More than 25,000 students participated in some form of online learning, with about 4,000 attending cyber school full-time. The majority of students participate in some form of blended learning, using online classes to supplement traditional school.
Online enrollments via GenNET, a consortium of districts operated by the Genesee Intermediate School District, numbered more than 16,000, up 39 percent from the previous year; Michigan Virtual School reported 19,822 online enrollments.
Those numbers will only rise, especially in light of legislation, passed in late 2012, that lifts the cap on the number of cyber schools allowed to operate in Michigan and the scope of students they serve.
Michigan has been at the forefront of online education since 2006, when it became the first state to require all students have an "online learning experience" in order to graduate.
Gov. Rick Snyder says he intends to keep Michigan on the leading edge of cyber choice with his "any time, any place, any way, any pace" philosophy on public education.
New legislation that goes into effect on March 31, 2013, raises the cap on the number of online charter schools allowed to operate in the state from two to 15, as well as the number of students they serve – up to 10,000 each. These new laws, combined with dizzying advances in technology, add up to big change – though some wonder if we're ready.
Greg Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University, has serious questions about the effectiveness of full-time online education.
In a report released July 18, 2012 by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Miron and his team analyzed students at K12 Inc., the nation's largest virtual school company.
The report, "Understanding and Improving Full-Time Virtual Schools," showed K12 students falling further behind in reading and math scores than students in brick-and-mortar schools. It also found virtual students are less likely to remain at their schools for the full year, and the schools have low graduation rates.
"Our research highlights a number of significant issues at K12 Inc. schools, and we recognize that these issues are also of concern at other full-time virtual schools," says Miron, an NEPC fellow. Miron is among critics of for-profit charter schools which, he says, aggressively recruit students who may not be a good fit for the rigors of a home-based online program.
"It's false advertisement. They're bringing in students, getting the money and they don't seem to be too concerned when students leave," Miron says.
K12 Inc., a publicly traded company, operates in Michigan as the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy through Grand Valley State University. Because the school is so new, Michigan was not included in Miron's study. Miron is currently doing an expanded national study on full-time virtual schools, which he expects to release this spring.
"We need a better understanding of how this new teaching and learning model can be most effective, so that full-time virtual schools can better serve students and the public school system as a whole."
K12 Inc. and another for-profit company, chartered by Ferris State University as Michigan Connections Academy, were allowed to enter Michigan three years ago as part of a pilot program.
Before student achievement data was available, the Michigan legislature passed Senate Bill 619 – now Public Act 129 of 2012, the state's new cyber school law – which raised the cap on the number of for-profit charters allowed to operate in the state.
"When you implement new school reforms, you test them," Miron says. "All the indicators were very negative, and yet the legislators lifted the cap contrary to all the evidence."
The Michigan Board of Education, including long-time board member Kathleen Straus, recommended against raising the cap. "It's too much too soon," Straus says.
A big task
Jeff Williams, CEO of Public Sector Consultants in Lansing, analyzes an array of education policies across the state. When it comes to online education, he feels schools can't move quickly enough.
"It's ironic. On one hand, online education is moving incredibly fast – at the speed of technology," Williams says. "On the other hand, right now in Michigan, there are about 1.5 million kids in the K-12 system. Our education system moves very slowly – not because it isn't smart, but because today, it needs to educate 1.5 million students, serve 1.5 million lunches, and get 1.5 million kids safely home from school."
Superintendents eager to usher in online options may find it hard to predict what technology to purchase, how many teachers to hire, how to configure computer labs and which online curriculum is best.
Williams cites concerns over quality, access and funding for online education. While he is optimistic that cyber schools will increase opportunities for every Michigan student, he says it won't happen overnight.
"To get from where we are today to a really individualized approach to education, every day you have to have that discussion 1.5 million times," Williams says.
Clicking with kids
Full-time online homeschoolers like my niece Ella will likely always represent a small minority of Michigan students, experts agree, but virtually every student will experience online education to some extent.
Student Grace Ferguson represents the more common blended learning scenario.
Ferguson, 18, graduated from Pinckney High School one semester early thanks to two online classes she took through Northwestern University: journalism and the mathematics of baseball.
According to Michigan law, all high school students may take up to two online classes each semester. "I know quite a few students who are taking online classes. It's gotten a lot more popular since my freshman year," Ferguson says. "It opens up your education to so many things, and you're not limited to what the school can offer."
But Ferguson, who has a 4.0 GPA and describes herself as a self-starter, says the digital format isn't for everyone. "I think online learning is good for the people who are able to pace themselves without the guidance," she says. "You definitely miss out on the social aspect, and that's important, especially in high school. You get through the class a little bit faster, but you miss out on the discussion."
Brighton Area Schools has offered online classes for years through Michigan Virtual University, but just rolled out its own Brighton Virtual Academy, allowing high school students to take up to 100 percent of their courses online.
"I think the key to it is to offer a variety of options, because not all kids are the same," says Superintendent Greg Gray. "Some kids do very well with a six-period workload, interacting, participating in extracurricular activities, getting up early and getting to school. For others, for a variety of reasons, that doesn't work for them.
"We still have to make sure they get the quality education Brighton is known for. It might just look different than what some people remember as traditional education."
Jamey Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of Michigan Virtual School, which provides online classes and career development tools to some 500 schools across the state, says students turn to online learning to make up classes they might have failed, earn credits over the summer or find access to subjects their schools may not have.
"When we started the virtual school in 2000, surveys showed 45 percent of Michigan high schools didn't offer AP courses. That same year, we launched 17 AP courses. There was a huge equity element that online education could offer," Fitzpatrick says.
Today, Mandarin Chinese is popular. The class is a blend of "real time" and "any time" experiences. Most lessons can be downloaded on demand, but students are required to log in for group study sessions, in which they interact with a teacher and each other online.
Michigan Virtual Schools also serves as a center for learning research and innovation.
Fitzpatrick is currently working on guidelines for evaluating cyber schools and online course providers, as well as how to prepare teachers for the brave new world.
"Most teacher prep programs are not producing teachers for tomorrow who are proficient teaching in an online environment," Fitzpatrick says. "The governor and legislature have asked us to come up with a recommendation as to what an endorsement might look like (for) online and blended learning."
Fitzpatrick expects to present his findings to Gov. Snyder and the state Board of Education later this year. "The state has made a decision they want to embrace online learning, but there's a healthy concern for using tax dollars effectively," he says.
Dr. Vickie Markavitch, superintendent of Oakland Schools, believes traditional public schools – not private companies – are best positioned to provide online options.
Markavitch heads up VLAC, the first multi-county collaborative with the state's permission to provide K-8 online schools. VLAC employs local teachers with a student-to-teacher ratio of 1-to-40. Students are required to take the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test and are carefully monitored for attendance and achievement. Operating the schools locally means more control over quality, curriculum, cost and valuable data about the effectiveness of online learning.
"That's the rub. When a highly adaptive technology meets a massive, ingrained system, both sides will be frustrated," Williams says.
"If we're going to do it, let's do it with the highest quality we can find and with the most transparency. Our budget is open to the world," Markavitch says. A key component of the VLAC program is that tax dollars stay local.
Students enroll through their home district, which pays Oakland ISD up to $6,100 per pupil and keeps the rest. In turn, students stay closely aligned with their neighborhood district and are welcome to participate in activities and electives at their home school.
After evaluating Michigan's options for online elementary education, my sister-in-law was drawn to VLAC because of its real-world ties.
Von Buskirk looked into for-profit providers but liked VLAC's option for face-to-face interaction. She also liked the open-door policy at Lakewood Elementary. Ella stuck with Brownies, and mom serves as leader of the troop. She is comforted by the fact that there's a place for Ella if homeschooling doesn't work out.
"I went with the program knowing that if I failed, there would still be an open option to send her back to school," she says. But for now, she says, they're sticking with online ed.
"It's the best decision I've ever made as a mom," she says.