Many students even continue friendships with students outside the online education community. Says Conant, “I do have friends from church who go to brick-and-mortar schools.”
But is the moderate amount of social interaction enough to assuage the concerns? “Already, we have too many kids who lack appropriate social skills when they reach school age, and the problem generally only worsens as they get older,” says Corinne Gregory, president and founder of SocialSmarts, a nationally recognized program for teaching social skills. “We know that too much “screen time” isn’t good for kids; now we expect them to do the majority of their educational activities online?”
Gregory believes that even the small interaction provided by cyber schools does not address the needs of developing teenagers. “Even the best technology is no good substitute for in-person interaction,” she said. “Giving someone your attention, looking them in the eyes, speaking to them instead of away, learning how to take turns, communication, and sharing ideas and cooperating — all these things are difficult to “simulate” online, and it is still, at best, just a ‘simulation.’”
Dr. Wendy H. Weiner agrees. As a principal of a small high school in South Florida, she said that her school had to discontinue an online program they had for students, which occupied half of the school day, after seeing the day-to-day struggles of the students during the two year duration of the program. “I had found that students need to see the face-to-face reactions of working with peers and the teacher,” she said. ” The other issue is that the intonation of what is written over the internet is not necessarily what was meant by the author.”
The ultimate question on this debate remains: what is best for students and for public education as a whole?
It seems that these alternative institutions can claim some amount of success. Pennsylvania Cyber Charter’s average ACT and SAT scores (22.4 and 1515, respectively) are higher than both the state and national averages (21.9 & 1473 for Pennsylvania; 21 & 1509 for the country). Seventy percent of PA Cyber Charter students matriculate to a 2 or 4-year college.
If more online educational institutions follow the cyber model, it will continue to fuel the never-ending debate on the state of education. Certainly, more attention must be paid to this new movement to ensure it fulfills its promise to public school students, particularly the ones on the fringe. And though opinions of online schools between elation, skepticism, and downright anger, there is no doubt that virtual education which will not easily or quietly go away anytime soon.