Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

March 7, 2014

MARK HEINIG: Will 'virtual schools' enrich or replace traditional education?

Best way to learn technical subjects is in laboratory.

Kokomo Tribune

---- — When Hoo­siers my age recall the school consolida­tion struggle of the mid-20th century, we could say, “Been there, done that!” Until recently, I considered that battle finished. Maybe the interest in school consolidation is reviving.

Does school consolidation make sense now? Perhaps, but Hoosier legislators may have more interest in saving cents than making sense! Larger schools and larger school corporations do have advantages. They are more cost-effective. They can also offer students more courses and extracurricular opportunities. These advantages merit thoughtful consideration. Yet, smaller schools have advantages, too.

When Eastern Superintendent Tracy Caddell speaks of the positive influence of small rural schools, I know he’s right. I taught in a rural school for 14 years, and I was also the principal of five small schools, most of them in rural locations. Despite the advantages of large urban and suburban schools, I preferred being a country schoolmaster.

Although small schools can’t do everything for students that large ones can, they do some things better. The positive influence of small schools includes accessibility and community spirit. When students and parents know their teachers and administrators personally, acquaintances become friends. Friends work together, benefiting both the school and the community.

Superior behavior management is one of a small school’s best features. Successful teaching and learning only happen when students are cooperative, attentive and motivated. The question is how to get them that way. There will never be a perfect answer, but kids tend to behave better in smaller schools, because the teachers know them and their parents. When I worked in a school of 200, I knew almost everybody. When I worked in a school of 2,000, I knew almost nobody.

Any teacher can influence 200 better than 2,000. Certain time-tested methods encourage desirable behaviors and discourage undesirable ones. These methods work in all schools, but they work better in small ones. Educator visibility is one such method. Students seldom misbehave when a teacher is present. That’s why principals encourage teachers to step into the hallway when students change classrooms. Principals and other administrators should also do that.

Visibility works better in small schools because faculty members can identify more students, making it harder to break rules without consequences. Some psychologists recommend catching kids being good! This requires placing them where they can’t misbehave without penalties and then praising them for behaving well.

Future K-12 students may take many of their classes online. If you look behind you, you’ll see the future is almost here. It’s pursuing us with amazing speed. We call it virtual education, and it’s an indispensable part of our future. Some virtual schools claim to offer the same curriculum and instructional practices as their brick-and-mortar neighbors. Maybe so and maybe not!

It’s too soon to generalize about K-12 virtual schools. Some only offer online courses, and others, called blended schools, feature a combination of online and traditional classroom instruction. I think blended schools will prove more successful than totally online ones because they offer a satisfactory answer to one critical question: Can students taught entirely at home master subjects requiring a hands-on component?

I don’t think they can. How do we get the necessary equipment and supplies to each child? How do we evaluate their work? Can we teach laboratory courses without laboratories? Someday we may solve those problems, but not yet! Doing laboratory work at a central location with adequate equipment and qualified instructors remains the best way to learn many technical subjects.

Why are virtual schools so appealing? There are many reasons, but three command our attention.

• Virtual schools allow students to enroll in courses that don’t attract many participants.

• They also offer a discreet way to help students improve poor grades.

• As I have already explained, they often cost less.

Saving money is never unpopular among our elected leaders. The prospect of saving enough money to lower taxes without reducing services is something politicians of both parties fanaticize about. It wouldn’t antagonize the taxpayers, either.

I don’t want to discourage virtual schools, but I do urge caution. Even as more of them become available here in Indiana and elsewhere, K-12 educators and students face a long period of learning by trial and error. We need to discover what works and what doesn’t work in this digital brave new world. Of course, the trial and error part isn’t new. That’s how our primitive ancestors learned things eons ago and, fundamentally, how we still learn.

The trial and error method remains a crucial means of teaching and learning. The expression “trial and error” is outdated. Now we use more sophisticated phrases like “the scientific method” and “statistical analysis”. Nevertheless, these phrases describe tools for effective teaching and learning, don’t they?

Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a retired Indiana teacher and principal. Contact him at markjr1708@gmail.com.