Online schools ‘worse than traditional teachers’? Really … all of them?

Online schools ‘worse than traditional teachers’ – so ran a headline on the BBC web site on the 4th November. The article, written by the BBC’s education correspondent Sean Coughlan, was reporting and commenting upon the National Study of Online Charter Schools’ published by CREDO and educational research centre based at Stanford University in California published last week.

CREDO along with two other US research centres undertook research into the operations of online charter schools in the USA, Charter schools are big business and recent years have seen a major drive to develop online schools catering for large student populations – 200 schools serving 200,000 students were included in the study.

The report makes pretty damning reading for many of those responsible for policy and procedures within these institutions. The dominant mode of learning that researchers found was student-driven, independent study with a third of schools simply providing students with self-paced instruction material. Effectively researchers found that students were often largely left to their own devises to learn at their own speed with little teacher interaction. In this context, it is not surprising that student progress specifically in math(s) and reading was found to be far weaker than in traditional public schools. The report powerfully described this as being the equivalent of a student losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in maths based upon a 180-day school year, i.e. in maths, as the Washington Post so pithily describes it “It is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year.”

Those of us who have been working in online learning for any length of time know that web-based schools are not the cheap option; neither can they be established on a wing and a prayer! For online schools to work, certain factors must be in place – stimulating curriculum, skilled online teachers, high student-teacher ratio and adequate pastoral support mechanisms. For students who have spent much of their formal education in a school context these factors are all the more important – the ability to take responsibility for one’s own learning is not a skill that is easily acquired in a face-to-face school context.

NorthStarWorldwide has been providing high quality education to students around the world via an online platform for over 16 years. We do not hand-pick our students many of whom come to us having had mixed educational experiences in face-to-face schools previously. Our experience is that large numbers of our students do exceptionally well – they enjoy learning, they gain excellent exam results in rigorous CiE IGCSE examinations (NSW students consistently achieve exam results above the UK national average), they acquire study skills that prepare them for further and higher education and they make great friends around the world.

Our experience is a far cry from that of American charter schools. Which is why Sean Coughlan’s headline is so disappointing. Online schools (neither in the UK nor in other parts of the world) are not worse than traditional teachers. The CREDO research speaks exclusively into the context of US charter schools. Perhaps the headline could more accurately have read “American online charter schools ‘worse than traditional teachers’ working in certain American public schools”, but there again this would have been too nuanced – why spoil a good headline with a little veracity!

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