By Bruce Friend, Educator in Holly Springs, North Carolina

A new online public charter school that was scheduled to open this Fall has set off a debate about online learning options in North Carolina. The school, North Carolina Virtual Academy, which is overseen by an independent nonprofit school board, NC Learns, was given preliminary approval earlier this year by Cabarrus County Schools. When the State Board of Education (SBE) failed to review and act on the charter application, a court ruled that the school could open as planned. The SBE appealed the decision and in late June another judge blocked the school’s opening.

Many of the arguments against the online school are familiar and echo concerns raised over a decade ago as online learning first began to challenge traditional ideas of how instruction should be delivered and how learning can happen. Skeptics said education must be done in classrooms, teachers can’t effectively teach “virtually,” and students (and money) should not leave the resident district. We hear the same arguments today.

Online learning has created innovative opportunities for teachers to deliver instruction to students, and opened new ways for students to acquire knowledge and 21st Century skills. Simultaneously, the emergence of online schools has challenged the public education system design, which essentially divides students based on geographical boundaries, thus limiting students to what the district offers. Technology has shifted this paradigm. Now we are asking the question: if we can begin to offer students more options, and better personalize learning through differentiated instruction delivered anytime and anyplace, then why not move in that direction rather than maintain a system developed in the industrial age?

This is not to say that North Carolina hasn’t shown a willingness to embrace online learning. The Cumberland County Web Academy was one of the earliest online school programs in the Tar Heel state. Current State Board of Education Chairman William Harrison was the Superintendent of Cumberland County Schools at that time. The Web Academy served students inside and outside their district borders, something the proposed Cabarrus County charter school would also do. Today, the NC Virtual Public School (NCVPS) operates out of the NC Department of Public Instruction and provides supplemental online course options for students around the state. It too shares many of the same characteristics of the proposed online charter school, including remote teacher instruction and the use of for-profit private providers for content, learning management systems, and technology.

Yet, according to the Digital Learning Now! state report card, North Carolina still lags behind many other states in key areas of digital learning such as student access and quality choices. And by dictating digital learning policies from the top down, the state has in effect created a state-led online learning monopoly, which hampers the ability for local schools to be innovative and blocks options for students. In other words, what we effectively have in NC related to online learning options is a model in which choice is provided, as long as that choice is the state run online school program.

Even the most ardent supporters of online learning recognize that online schools may not be the best fit for all students, and quality assurance and accountability should be a high priority. At the same time, we must recognize that the traditional school model is also not the best learning environment for all students. If it were, then surely we would not be facing the problem of 27 out of every 100 North Carolina public school students failing to graduate, and nearly 300 students every day dropping out of school. If the proposed online charter school saved a fraction of those students from dropping out, it would make sense. Not to mention other serious issues facing children in schools today including bullying and medical challenges that make learning in a traditional school difficult or impossible.

Sixteen years ago I had the honor of being a pioneer in the field of online learning by helping to launch an online school program that would reshape what it means to “go to school.” The goal was to leverage technology to provide highly individualized learning programs that connected students and teachers outside the constraints of classrooms and inflexible school schedules. It enabled parents and students more ownership and choice in public education – in some cases, the only choice — despite their zip code or income level.

As a parent, educator, and citizen of North Carolina, I am concerned that the opposition to online charter schools has more to do with protecting money and control, rather than expanding education opportunities for children. The legal battle that ensued also speaks volumes about a charter school approval process that puts agendas over innovation.

As a state, we should welcome more digital learning options, including online schools, that can meet the individual needs of children, rather than clinging to a one-size-fits-all model.

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