I recently heard an interesting report on Jefferson Public Radio (JPR), the radio station I listen to, about the Oregon Virtual Academy (OVA), an online public school in Oregon. Oregon legislators are apparently concerned about the regulation of online schools and there’s a proposal to place a two year freeze on making new online schools and expanding enrollment in Senate Bill 767. A lot of the reporting on this issue I’ve encountered has focused on parents being angry about not being allowed to choose which schools to send their children to.
But the JPR report brought up a really interesting point, and one which I would like to see Oregon media discussing more closely. The reporter visited the home of an Oregon student with disabilities to talk to her about her experiences with OVA. She has a learning disability, and in particular has trouble with short term memory. Her mother talked about the various public and private schools that her daughter was placed in, about struggling with “basic” homework which her daughter didn’t remember the next day, and the student talked about her frustrations with conventional education. She became physically ill due to stress from school.
When she started going to OVA and did schoolwork at her own pace, however, the student experienced rapid improvement. She went from lagging behind her peers on assessment tests1 to testing comparably to them, her anxiety was greatly reduced, and her physical symptoms of stress and anxiety resolved.
Clearly, going to school online was a better solution for this student with disabilities. Being able to set her schedule and to take time to go in-depth on some things while moving more quickly on material she was confident about allowed her to improve academically. And there are lots of students who may be in this position. Some students with disabilities don’t learn as well in conventional education environments; why not provide them with an opportunity to learn online? Some students live in really remote areas, and spend a lot of time traveling to get to school 2. Some schools aren’t accessible (even though they should be). There are all kinds of reasons why online education should be an option for students who want it.
And, of course, there’s an argument to be made for enrichment. Oregon is a financially struggling state, and many of its schools cannot afford to offer things like a wide range of language classes, advanced placement classes, and interesting electives for students. For students who want these things, including disabled students, the education system is limiting. Online education, however, can incorporate coursework and teachers from all over the world. Students have more opportunities than they do in physical classrooms, especially if they live in low-income areas where schools are just not getting the funding they need to provide an adequate education, let alone one which offers advanced options or one which serves students with disabilities.
I understand the concerns of Oregon’s legislature. Regulation is important, and it’s important to make sure that students are getting access to educations which meet basic standards. But there’s a kneejerk response against online schooling, homeschooling, and unschooling which I really don’t like, not least because it does a disservice to people with disabilities who cannot learn in conventional school environments. It all gets back to the overall social attitude which privileges able bodies and methods of communication over all, which argues that there’s a “healthy” and “right” way to be and that everyone else just needs to be “fixed” (or hidden), not accommodated.
We need to be addressing the fact that people have different learning and education styles, that school is not one size fits all, and that an important aspect of regulation should include making sure that all students are provided with an opportunity to learn in a way which works for them. To deprive Oregon students of online education seems a great shame to me; surely there has to be a better way to study this and to improve the approach to regulation than freezing online schooling for two years.
- I think that assessment tests are extremely flawed, for all kinds of reasons which I’m sure that many of you are familiar with. However, they are used as a common metric, and they were referenced in this report, which is why I’m including the fact that her test scores improved. ↩
- When I was in high school, students traveled from places like Cloverdale and Point Arena, two hours away from Mendocino, to get to school. While schools were locally available, they couldn’t attend because the curricula didn’t meet their needs and due to concerns like violence; you don’t want to be gay at Point Arena High, for example. ↩