Most states in the US have charter schools. In fact, there are over 5000 charter schools in 39 states. Of those 5000 charter schools, nearly 250 of them are cyber schools, or online academies. With the number of cyber school Students growing rapidly, many people have begun scrutinizing online academies, their practices and the quality of the education that they can offer students. What is being found is that cyber schools, while offering some small benefits, might not be preparing students a collaborative and productive 21st century learning model.
What Is a Cyber School or Online Academy?
Like other charter schools, a cyber school is a “school of choice” that offers students an option to their traditional, brick and mortar public school. Also, like other charter schools, funding is drawn away from public schools and directed towards the charter school. This funding is part of the “per pupil” funding model that attaches a dollar amount to every student attending a school. While some online charger schools are cost money, many cyber charter schools are funded via private donations and the public’s “per pupil” funding, there is often little or no tuition for attendees.
What sets cyber charter schools apart from other charter schools is that students never step inside of a traditional classroom. While some students might make use of regional tutoring or testing centers, the majority of school work is done from home from a learner’s home computer. There are fewer teachers, fewer administrators, and very little human interaction. Classes are facilitated, developed, and moderated by a licensed educator, but the actual content is delivered via a pre-packaged curriculum. For the most part, charter schools are subject to the rules and regulations outlined by the “No Child Left Behind” education reform act.
Many online, cyber charter schools, such as The Pearson Virtual Learning School offer a complete middle or high school program, as well as a series of credit recovery options. Cyber charter schools bill themselves as the perfect education option for students that for a variety of reasons, feel unreached, under-stimulated, over disciplined, or not healthy enough to attend brick and mortar public or charter schools.
Benefits of Cyber Charter Schools
Charter schools are, by definition, an alternative to traditional education. In a world of choices, the cyber charter school is as “alternative” as it gets. Students in an online academy are afforded the luxury of learning on their own schedule, and without many of the stresses that crowds, bullies, and classrooms can create. Also, if a student has failed in a traditional school, or if discipline has kept a student out of a traditional school then an online charter allows him/her to still meet educational goals. Cyber charter schools are also a fantastic alternative for home schooled children once the secondary curriculum becomes too complicated or expansive for a family.
The greatest benefit of a cyber charter school is that it can help support a learner that is in an under performing or failing public school. In many urban or inner-city areas, students are left to struggle and do their best in a public school. An online, cyber charter school supplies students with all of the necessary materials for success including texts (or even electronic texts), a computer, and Internet access.
Drawbacks of Cyber Charter Schools
In our 21st century, collaborative learning environment, the ability to work with others, cooperate, communicate and problem solve are as important, or even more important, then the traditional content in the classroom. The partnership for 21st Century Skills cites the need for deep knowledge in content rather than shallow overview, engagement in real-world problem solving and data, inter and intra-personal communication, and the opportunity to demonstrate content mastery in a variety of ways. Online cyber charter schools cannot easily accomplish any of those goals.
Online curriculum is often very shallow and requires a low depth of knowledge. This is necessary to allow online content to be effectively and quickly created. Customization is simply not a viable option. Arizona State University recently studied cyber charter schools and found that they “promote[s] a one-size-fits-all approach. The instruction is mechanical and the system does not encourage creativity.”
Also, their are limited opportunities for authentic communication and effective collaboration in an online charter school. Students either have to create superficial encounters with other students, or they must attend a centralized learning center to interact with others. All other collaboration takes the form of online cooperation, which is a skill that student have the opportunity to practice with texting, Facebook, or email. What students are lacking is the ability to authentically and personally communicate with their colleagues, coworkers, and supervisors. Those are the skills that students get to readily practice in an effective public school or traditional charter school.
Are Online Charter Schools Worth It?
Depending on what a learner wants out of education, the online charter school might be the best fit. If a student simply does not feel comfortable, safe or welcome in a public school or traditional charter school, then the cyber charter is his/her best bet. If a student is trapped in an urban or inner city environment with no avenues out of their situation, the cyber school is a must. But, if a student wants to truly excel in the 21st century,or be competitive in a collaborative world economy, then a traditional charter or effective public school is a must.