The Case for City Cyber Schools

March 2010 / Abell Reports / Education

Can online learning make a difference in Baltimore City’s “bricks and mortar” schoolhouses and beyond?

A PowerPoint slide is center stage as teacher Rachel Murray leads her second-grade class through a language arts lesson. If you give a plant water, then it will grow, the illustration says.

“What is the cause?” Murray asks her students, stressing the day’s theme. “What is the effect?”

Julie responds by typing into a chat box, while Timmy opts to answer aloud via his computer’s microphone. Miles away from their teacher’s desk in a West Philadelphia office building, they and their classmates are taking the course online.

Hard figures don’t seem to exist, but it’s clear that the past few years have seen an explosion in the number of students in the United States taking classes over the Internet. The U.S. Department of Education cites an estimate that more than a million K-12 public school students took online courses in the school year 2007-2008, up more than 40 percent from the year before.

The nation’s cyber scholars include failing high school students who opt to finish their education online, as well as high achievers looking for an Advanced Placement or foreign language course not available in their own secondary school. Their classes may feature live instruction over the Internet or be a more self-guided curriculum with teacher communication via phone or e-mail, among other configurations.

Many K-8 participants, such as those in Rachel Murray’s Commonwealth Connections Academy class, are enrolled in an online school through which they take all of their courses at a computer in their home. A “learning coach,” usually a parent or other relative, works with the child on site while state-certified teachers instruct via live Webcast or video. Some inner-city parents in Philadelphia and Chicago have decided to go this route rather than send their children through dangerous neighborhoods to schools with bad reputations.

But a burgeoning movement argues that online education offers profound possibilities far beyond these niche uses. These advocates say online courses should replace at least some traditional instruction in many public schools — including for younger students in elementary and middle schools, and especially in poor urban areas such as inner-city Baltimore.