By Melissa Short
Schools nationwide are taking advantage of virtual learning to improve education and expand course offerings. The most successful programs provide students unrestricted access to online programs, allowing them to enroll in high quality courses regardless of geographic location. Yet, online education programs in Hawaii lag behind some of the successful programs found on the Mainland.
The Florida Virtual School (FLVS), for example, provides K-12 online education and has vastly improved test scores and achievement statewide. Florida’s virtual school students have not only demonstrated positive gains in education, but they have even out-performed their peers in traditional school settings and posted above-average test scores in advanced placement courses and mathematics.
These improvements aren’t just relevant to Florida, however. They represent a pioneering example in virtual education for other states to follow. Hawaii should learn from these successes, gather the best practices from effective models, and implement these lessons now.
E-School as Hawaii Knows It
Hawaii has already taken critical steps to implement online learning that can deliver courses throughout the state. However, it can be greatly expanded. Two notable limitations keep Hawaii’s students from experiencing the full benefits of online education: E-School is not yet available to all grades, and E-School compromises flexibility by specifying that students enroll in no more than two courses per semester.
Expand E-School to Elementary and Middle School Students
In contrast to FLVS, which serves all K-12 students in the state, Hawaii’s supplemental online school, E-School, mainly targets high school students. The program is not yet available to elementary students and it fails to support middle school students sufficiently. Specifically, E-School permits middle school students to enroll in its high-school level courses, but the acceptance of E-School credits into their incoming high school is not guaranteed. Instead, each school uses its discretion to discern whether or not E-School credits are applicable.
In Florida and the FLVS, schools, counselors or principles are not the arbiters of credit acceptance, and the law requires that if a student wishes to take on online course, they are permitted to do so – with recognizable credits.
For E-School to expand its offerings to primary and intermediate students, appropriate statewide policies must be in place. Policies mandating credit standardization and acceptance throughout the state are imperative if E-School is to become a viable option for all of Hawaii’s students. Second, schools must shift from regarding online courses as an outside learning entity and be ready to accept online learning as part of their structure.
Increase E-School’s Flexibility
Although availability of resources contributes to its constraints, Hawaii’s secondary students are limited to taking just two E-School courses per semester, and they must concurrently attend their respective high school on a full-time basis. Both the two-course limit and that E-School follows the traditional academic year calendar keep students from progressing at their own pace. In FLVS, most students remain full-time while studying in an online course. However, FLVS offers both traditional and year-round courses. Flexibility is a critical component in successful online education: By focusing on mastery instead of the amount of time a student spends in a course, competency in subject matter is elevated above attendance. The nature of Hawaii’s E-School for regular students is such that it limits customization and doesn’t allow students the flexibility to pursue studies at their pace and preference. (However, the Credit Recovery pilot program underway this year allows rolling admission for certain students.) Discretionary credit acceptance (for middle school students), course caps, and strict academic calendars inhibit the growth of virtual learning in Hawaii, and it consequently curbs the realization of the benefits of online learning.
There’s No Time like the Present
With the addition of $75 million in Race to Top funds, Hawaii has ample flexibility and resources to implement innovative education policies. Although E-School will not receive Race To Top funds directly, the Department of Education has sufficient resources to revise other programs and restructure funding to support online education. To be successful, E-School must be equipped with the technology and resources to increase its offerings and it must have the support of policies that encourage competency over seat time.
With a few key expansions of E-School and with the proper policy backing, online learning initiatives could be implemented quickly in Hawaii and ultimately provide its students with a customizable and flexible education.