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Virtual Education: A Step In the Wrong Direction

When is a school not a school, a classroom not a classroom? When the Montana Legislature (with the support of the MEA-MFT) proposes spending millions of dollars for a “Virtual Academy,’ breathing life into a failed program to bring virtual classes to Montana students.

House Bill 459 is a short-sighted proposal that will, at best, just waste education funds, and at worst, undermine authentic educational achievement in Montana. I don’t understand why Montana advocates for education support it.

It’s not as if this is a program developed out of a vacuum. The program being funded by this legislation is the third or fourth incarnation of the Montana Schools e-Learning Consortium (MSLEC), which has changed hands more often than a Vegas poker dealer. In its short but ineffective history, the program has educated few children, despite large infusions of money from Montana districts. A brief look at the MSLEC web site provides a good sense of where the program is now, in its 4th year of life: dead.

There were no class offerings in the Spring 2009 semester, and in Fall 2008, exactly two classes had students enroll, including one that apparently never found a teacher. The last news update was from December 2006, and the registration page indicates that registration for Fall 2008 courses will ‘open soon.’ It’s a moribund, failed experiment, one that has drained resources from Montana schools without any tangible results.

Like many education initiatives, it won’t lack for administrative bureaucracy. When schools across the state are struggling to meet staffing budgets, how it is defensible for the state to fund hiring a program director and curriculum director for a program that has never taught more than few dozen students a year?

In the current economic climate, couldn’t $4,000,000 be better spent on hiring real, rather than virtual, teachers, or on providing support for struggling students?

The worst aspect of the virtual academy proposal isn’t its wastefulness, though. It’s the program’s impact on education.

In practical terms, the virtual schools will create incentives for school districts to not fund new programs and hire teachers. Why would a school district build an AP program and invest in qualified staffing when they can send students to a virtual class? Why hire a Spanish teacher when you can sit students in front of a computer screen for an hour a day and hope they pick up the language? It’s a cost-effective answer in every way other than actual educational growth and achievement.

Everyone loves virtual education, because it’s cheap, cheap, cheap, but so is the experience. Authentic learning takes place when students and teachers interact, when teachers respond to individual needs and challenges of students, and when students have the opportunity to become active owners of the process. No matter how cleverly conceived, a message board and some multiple choice quizzes conducted over the Internet can replace that critical interaction between student and teacher.

I’m not some Luddite. I use the Internet very aggressively in my classroom, as an extension of what we are learning. Currently, I have students accessing notes for class, blogging about literature, collaborating on wiki research about important philosophers, and reading/sharing news about education. The Internet is an incredibly powerful tool for collaboration, expression and publication of student work, but should not be seen as an inexpensive way to replace authentic learning.

This passage of this bill in the House (and the support of the MEA) are profoundly disappointing. A teacher I admire once asked if we were in the business of teaching students or just granting them credentials. With proposals like this, expansion of dual credit, and every other step to create ‘virtual’ educational experiences, it seems we are choosing the latter—at the expense of the former.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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