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Mutually Assured Learning

If we start with the premise that online education is not only inevitable but desirable, the involvement of for-profit and charter entities in the e-learning marketplace could be a symbiotic relationship that benefits all involved.

The other day I found myself looking up the definition of "symbiosis" because I wasn't sure I was using the word correctly. According to my American Heritage Dictionary (the one I was given when I graduated from high school, no less), symbiosis is "the relationship of two or more different organisms in a close association that may be but is not necessarily beneficial to each."

That definition came to mind as I read this month's cover story on how some school districts find themselves competing with virtual for-profit and charter schools for student enrollment (story begins on page 28).

On the surface, this set of affairs may seem detrimental to public schools, which, by their very nature, are not set up to be competitive enterprises. (Oh, I can hear the free-market advocates howling now: Schools should be competitive; if IBM had the same failure rate of schools, the argument goes, it would be out of business. As somebody--not me--once said in response: if IBM were compelled by law to hire those who lived in their catchment area, they'd never be in business.)   

But if we start with the premise that online education is not only inevitable but desirable, the involvement of for-profit and charter entities in the e-learning marketplace could be a symbiotic relationship that benefits all involved.

First, there's no question in my mind that for-profit entities have made important investments in the development of their virtual offerings and in doing so have upped the ante of the quality of online teaching and curricula. There is a higher bar to aim for now.

In addition, as Connections Academy co-founder Mickey Revenaugh points out in our story, districts that contract with for-profit companies like hers can offer a wider range of online options than if they had to build it all themselves. It's not just the rural school in Arkansas that can now offer Mandarin. It's that amazing online math curriculum that you want your students to benefit from, or the turnkey solution that will allow districts to serve families that opt out of public schooling for religious or political reasons.

But there is no chance that public schools are actually going to be put out of business by their virtual competitors. For one thing, all the virtual (and non-virtual, for that matter) for-profits and charters in the world could never reach every child in this country. And as I have written before in this column, as long parents must go to work, children will go to school. Even more important than the custodial role they play, schools always have been and will continue to be the heart of their communities--indeed, in some cases, where all other institutions have fled, schools provide the only heartbeat left in a neighborhood. A symbiotic relationship with other virtual schooling providers could actually strengthen the bloodlines between a district and the people it serves.

Continue the conversation. E-mail me at tmageau@1105media.com.

About the Author

Therese Mageau is the former editorial director of THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at therese@educationworksconsulting.com.

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