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For NJ Legislators, A Crash Course on e-Learning

With online schools approved for New Jersey, a special session is held for lawmakers to learn more about the virtual learning models.

Legislators got a crash course on online education yesterday, from virtual schools to “blended” ones, and how far other states and countries have gone with the technology.

But this could take a while, and few on the Joint Committee for the Public Schools appeared to have their minds changed much -- for or against -- after at least this first class.

The committee held the special session to discuss the various models, as the Christie administration has moved ahead in approving charter schools employing the technology in levels not seen before in the state.

While countless traditional schools offer some online classes, two charter schools have been approved that would be entirely online, with students taking class from home or other remote locations. They have been postponed a year.

Two other “blended” schools, which opened this fall in Newark, have students come to a school location every day and work with both teachers face-to-face and online.

What the Legislature seeks to do at this point is unclear, although it is likely new legislation around charter schools in general will be introduced and would include provisions for online education. A similar session of the Joint Committee was held last year.

But the arrival of the new schools has sparked considerable debate among education and community advocates, with the state’s dominant teachers union legally challenging the administration on the schools already approved.

That is enough to have caught the legislators’ attention once again and prompt the joint committee’s plans for four hearings to explore the subject further.

The next hearing is scheduled on Nov. 28, again in Trenton, to hear from the state’s major education organizations. Two more will be held next year, including a hearing in one of the opened charter schools.

Yesterday, legislators invited three national advocates who brought national and international perspective, pointing out that New Jersey is in the clear minority in not providing programs dedicated to the online technologies.

Thirty states have some form of virtual or blended programs. Florida is far and away the leader, with more than 150,000 students in that state alone. Next highest was Alabama with 28,000, and then Michigan with 16,000.

Presenters said online education has also taken off in countries such as China, South Korea, Turkey, and Canada.

But much of the testimony wasn’t about the numbers as much as what the advocates contended were the benefits for at least some students, saying it provides access and opportunity for those who struggle to find it in traditional schools.

They said it allows for instant results on whether students are learning, and instant feedback for teachers as well. They repeatedly stressed this was not an approach for all students, but one that should nonetheless be available.

“One size does not fit for all students, and certainly the same can be said for the school experience and teachers as well,” said Michael Horn, director of education of Innosight Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank that promotes online learning.

But even on a limited scale, the concept was greeted with skepticism by several of the legislators, some saying it can be a supplement to existing programs but shouldn’t replace them wholesale.

They cited issues of socialization, funding, teacher training and even cheating as all worrisome issues.

After the advocates listed studies that found performance in some of the schools outpacing that of traditional schools, state Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen) brought out another study that found schools by one prominent provider, K12 Inc., fared worse.

“Should New Jersey really be adopting a policy of no growth [for online schools] until we can see some real evidence of success?” asked Wagner, who co-chairs the committee and led much of the discussion.

“I don’t believe that Florida is a state that has achieved great education success,” she said at another point. “You’ll have to convince me.”

The advocates didn’t dispute entirely that further research is required on specifically the progress students make in the programs. Susan Patrick, president of International Association for K-12 Online Learning (INACOL), said a study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is coming out next month that will look at some of the methodology for measuring outcomes.

“”We really need to focus on outcomes,” she said.

But having witnessed the battles in other states, they stressed that witnessing the programs in action and visiting the schools could appease concerns about online schooling.

“I think a lot of it is not knowing what it looks like,” Patrick said.

Not all need convincing. Assemblyman David Wolfe (R-Ocean) said there would always be critics and the task was on educating the public.

“It is pitiful that we don’t take advantage of the opportunities we have,” he said.

Still, he was more in the minority on this panel. Assemblyman Ruben Ramos (D-Hudson) said he sees the value in special cases and especially those struggling to succeed in other settings.

“But students are not widgets,” he said. “There are a lot of emotions, a lot of distractions. I do see the positives, but I see a lot of concerns.”

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