Cyber schools, a looming reality

by Beverley Paine

Where the USA and UK go Australia follows, especially where education is concerned. I am following with interest the evolution of cyber schools in the USA. 'A la carte' education is being trialled in some public schools in a few American states and if adopted may end up looking a lot like supervised homeschooling according to experienced UK home educator Mike Fortune-Wood.

Over the years I've spoken to many home educating families who would jump at the chance to participate in online schools that provide "week-long, in-person orientation for students; a first-year focus on 'synchronous' online education in which students have real-time access to their teachers and other students; and the opportunity for regular face-to-face time at 'learning centers' across the state" while enjoying all the benefits that learning at home with mum/dad entail.

California has had something similar in place for decades. 'Homestudy' enables students and parents to negotiate classes with the local public school, accessing community college and online classes that the public school currently uses. The students are required to check in regularly. Charter schools (private) usually include a broader range of educational opportunities. This system of education results in considerable savings in costs: less teachers to pay, less overhead costs (utility bills, new buildings, grounds maintenance, etc).

Quality of education programs and their delivery is an issue often raised by the media in the USA. With standards of education in public schools under constant question, who do we trust to deliver quality education? And what defines quality education?

Home educators are well placed to contribute to the discussion about online education for children. Many of us access online learning programs for our children already. Some of us use it through distance education schools (state or private). We have a fair idea of how effective it is for our children as a method of education. We know what works and what doesn't work. Our feedback is important in the evolution of cyber schools that meet the needs of home educating families.

Even if we get the chance to have a say in their development, cyber schools worry me. While I love and embrace the concept of choice and encourage diversity within education, quality is of paramount importance. Our children are not merely consumers of educational products: they are the next generation and our future depends on the quality of their experiences and opportunities now. Skimp on quality for the sake of pleasing a few shareholder and CEOs with bonuses and plentiful dividends and the whole of society pays the price.

I also think that cyber schools offer a special challenge to home education as we now experience it in Australia. Will it become harder to 'go it alone' and write and implement our own curricula?Especially if governments see financial benefit in outsourcing distance education to private cyber schools, and then realise it is easier to process home education applicants through the cyber school system.

Lastly, there is the question of government funding and accountability. Private and public schooling rely on government funding and school fees collected from parents. Accountability isn't the best, but at least parents can have a say through parent councils at school level. At present home educators receive no funding and cop the full cost of educating their children. In the USA cyber schools receive government funding. Non-profit organisations contract out the running of cyber schools to for-profit companies (which outsource  teaching offshore to cut wage costs). With such complicated structures, how is accountability managed? By market forces? Will we all have to become shareholders to be heard?

Perhaps it is time to get a few conversations going in our homeschooling communities about the evolution of cyber schools and its implications for home education. The future looks bright, let's keep it that way!

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