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Fear, lack of vision hold back LA online education

Louisiana, typically dragging its feet in innovation, needs not to let vested interests and limited vision retard utilization of new institutional arrangements and technology not just to educate better its children, but also to offer better service to adult learners at the tertiary level.

This week sees the opening of the state’s first online, virtual charter school, the Louisiana Connections Academy. Interest in it has gone through the ceiling, inviting the usual pushback from the education establishment threatened by any success it may achieve.

As an educator who for over a decade has taught courses online, and who for the past several years has taught the majority of his classes online comprising an entire university major, I can assure you that if done correctly and with students having the right attitude about online learning this method can be very effective.
If a class has very regular assessments (by way of example, mine typically are weekly, and in some more than one a week), exams that emphasize critical thinking skills (mine are essay questions drawing upon news and research both primary and secondary, asking for identification of concepts and their explication relative to the material at hand), and students with the self-discipline to do the work and keep up (my units are geared to a minimum of five hours a week of self-directed learning), you can get good learning outcomes.

It’s not going to work for everybody in every situation. Parents with lack of commitment, students who have to be prodded visibly and often to learn, and teachers not willing to put in the effort to make creative exercises and to do a lot of grading (much less master the technology involved, which is not difficult but does require some aptitude) will hamper this school’s mission. Creating structures to avoid these shortcomings hopefully has happened, but then it has to resist another, external enemy.

That would be the likes exemplified by one of the former mouthpieces of the reform-resistant, get-along go-along crowd, who amplifies the prevailing attitude of the state’s educational establishment that only it has the ability to educate – badly, as statistics have shown consistently. Rapides Superintendent Gary Jones, former head of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, while claiming he is a fan of online learning (translation: when it is controlled by his bureaucracy), argues this new school gets too much money per student, 90 percent – therefore, less obviously than schools with students in traditional bricks-and-mortar environments get – of the going state basic rate. After all, more for these students means less for them, an issue over which they have fought before, and, worse from their perspective, the more students it enrolls, the fewer will be available for them to bring state money their way.

But the 90 percent rate chosen by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education seems about right. Teachers who engage in the classes likely deserve higher salaries because of the additional technological information they have, plus accounting for the job involving student interaction is not confined to eight hours a day, five days a week. Students and families are being provided the technological infrastructure at state cost. Instructional staff must be available to ensure the system remains online and to answer help questions about it.

Hopefully, this enterprise will succeed and inspire the state to the next, logical step by extending the concept to the tertiary level. Currently, the state has a rudimentary system that links various programs together at an online site, Louisiana CALL, that provides a convenient portal for college students interested in completing entire programs of study online, which seems off to a good start.

However, what the state really needs in this regard would emulate something like the Illinois Virtual Campus, which not only features a vast number of entire programs offerings, but also gives students enrolled at any state university the ability to take online courses at any other state university and have them seamlessly transfer to their home institution. This would allow students constrained by lack of offerings at their home institution because of institutional or their own constraints greater choice, which should lead to faster degree completion and more efficient use of classes, saving universities and colleges time and money as well.

No leadership to create such a system has emerged from Louisiana’s Board of Regents or other higher education officials. Perhaps it’s time, if not past it, that these policy-makers finally get around to it.

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