California Schools Adopting E-Tools, but Teacher Unions Are Wary: Study

Published December 1, 2006

On September 26, the University of California and California Department of Education released the Golden State’s first statewide study of virtual schools and e-tools for education.

The study, “The State of Online Learning in California: A Look at Current K-12 Policies and Practices,” concluded the expansion of online education in California mirrors advances across the country, as states from Florida to Washington offer myriad online education options for students. But the report also identified several problems with the state’s adoption of new technologies.

“The report started out as an ad hoc committee to find out what was happening with virtual tools in schools throughout the state of California,” explained coauthor Harold Vietti, who runs an online school called the eScholar Academy, based in Red Bluff, California.

Vietti said California schools are using virtual tools in many ways, such as providing more computer access in schools and using vendor- or self-designed educational programs. The tools are most popular among schools serving fewer than 2,000 students, along with charter schools.

Facing Hurdles

Virtual schools take many forms, ranging from educational software used at home or in computer centers or classrooms, to schools whose entire curricula require the use of e-tools such as phones, computers, and software that allow students to interact remotely with teachers in real time.

Although California offers online Advanced Placement (AP) classes, credit recovery courses, and online charter schools, Vietti said bureaucracy has prevented California from making online courses part of educational policy, as other states have.

“California is a technology leader, but I believe that there is a fear that virtual school technology may take jobs away from teachers,” Vietti said. “Because of this fear, California is a watch-and-wait state.”

Fred Glass, a spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers union, said teachers understand technology’s role as a tool in the classroom and are not afraid of virtual programs taking their place.

“Most teachers are very excited about technology tools that are user-friendly and match up with educational goals,” Glass said.

Although most teachers welcome the technology that is being created for the classroom, Glass said, some are frustrated by programs that are too complex and hence require too much training.

Learning Differently

One of the concerns outlined in the study was that teachers, parents, and stakeholders fear the way virtual schools will change the way education is delivered to children, as well as the roles teachers will play in the future of education.

“Teachers are more, if not equally, important in virtual schools than in the classroom,” Vietti said. “My teachers work about eight to 10 hours a day, working with students online, including weekends and holidays.”

Kevin Youngblood, president of OdysseyWare, Inc., a Web-based curriculum company in Arizona, said educational software isn’t designed to replace teachers but to help them enhance children’s learning experiences.

“Learning can be delivered in a variety of ways,” Youngblood said. “We offer a tool in a teacher’s toolbox.”

Increasing Access

Youngblood, whose software is used by students enrolled in approximately 100 virtual schools nationwide, said students have access to OdysseyWare courses online at any time.

That flexibility is what makes online education especially helpful to at-risk and special-education students, Youngblood said.

“Virtual schools work better for [these] students than traditional schools because individualized learning allows students to work at their own pace,” Youngblood said. “They can work around other things in their lives and can access other resources to help them.”

Developing the Future

Another concern outlined in the study was a fear that heavy reliance on online tools will widen the gap between students who have regular access to the Internet and those who do not–a concern Vietti said serves as an excuse for California’s educational system to stay behind the times.

“Everyone can have access to computers,” Vietti said. “The cost of computers is going down, and instead of buying books, schools should be buying computers. We are not preparing students for the 8-to-5 office work week–we are preparing them for what the world might look like years down the road.”

The future workplace, Vietti said, may include conducting business on cell phones in the park or grading papers on the beach in Hawaii–something that isn’t as universal across all industries today as it will be when today’s students reach adulthood.

Daschell M. Phillips ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Chicago.

For more information …

“The State of Online Learning in California: A Look at Current K-12 Policies and Practices,” by Harold Vietti, et al., is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #20153.