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Should High School Students Be Required to Take Online Classes?

A new law in Virginia requires students to take an online course, but low quality and effectiveness might turn high school into a diploma mill.

More than a million K-12 students take online classes, studying everything from Chinese to AP English. Now, Virginia students will be required to complete at least one virtual course.

A new law signed last week by Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell will require all students starting high school after fall 2013 to take at least one online class in order to earn a diploma. McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell told The Washington Post that the requirement will help ensure that Virginia's students are prepared for the "job market of the 21st century."

But nobody has specified how virtual classes will contribute toward that goal. The law also doesn't give any guidance on which online course providers are eligible, and the state doesn't intend to provide school districts a dime to help them implement the requirement. That could cause already cash-strapped districts to strike deals with lower-cost, less-reputable online course operators.

Of course, there are plenty of existing concerns about the effectiveness and quality of K-12 virtual learning. No peer-reviewed long-term academic research indicates that virtual K-12 courses can lead to similar student achievement results as traditional in-person education, and some evidence shows that online learning actually hurts students. Colorado, for example, spent $100 million on virtual high schools last year even though half of students end up quitting and going back traditional schools because the quality of education was so low.

And it's far easier for students to cheat in online courses—sometimes with the assistance of their teachers. Last year, faculty at Denver North High School admitted that students who had failed regular math and English classes were allowed to cheat when they retook online versions of the courses. Passing the class only required passing a single test, so the students began taking the exam over and over again to figure out the answers. Students were also allowed to to use the internet to look up answers to questions. The staff overseeing the lab let the cheating happen because the school's reputation was tied to the number of students who passed the class.

While that may seem like an extreme example of online classes gone wrong, high schools everywhere are under extreme pressure to boost graduation rates, so it's not hard to picture similar scenarios happening elsewhere. Online learning has plenty of potential, but rushing into programs without thinking critically about the pros and cons risks turning the high school experience into a virtual diploma mill.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user zappowbang

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