We have seen this coming, and yet we are ill prepared. Students in Iowa this fall are beginning to be educated without schools - potentially receiving their entire K12 education online. What do we think about this as a state?
I say we saw this coming, because it would be hard to miss. Attend any school board meeting and count the times the term "technology" is bandied about. A great many of our children's parents already perform their jobs mostly or completely online, a "virtual office" if you will. Could virtual school be far behind?
Your illness can now be mostly diagnosed online, your religion can be serviced, your news can be gathered, your meal ordered, most or all of your shopping done, and your future spouse obtained online, if you so choose.
My daughter has taken some college classes online. She probably will never meet the teacher who will grade her, at least not face to face,
I'm not saying all this is a good thing, in fact, I have serious reservations about the prospects of doing little but sitting hunched in front of computer screens for the rest of our lives. What I am saying is that it is coming, whether we are ready for it or not.
Let me tell you, Iowa is sooooo NOT ready.
A case in point is the controversy over a couple of small-town school districts in Iowa setting up "online schools" in partnership with profit-taking companies from Virginia and Maryland -- Connections Academy partnered with the CAM (Cumberland, Anita, Massena) district; and K12 Inc. paired with Clayton Ridge Community School District (Guttenberg.)
"K12 Inc." Just the sound of that raises the hairs on our neck. In Iowa we have forever seen education as a public mission, not a corporate business.
The question isn't whether we are going to educate children by computer, but rather, as we do, are we doing it for the right reasons?
In this case, we have to doubt it.
There could be a purpose for virtual K12 education - making life easier for disabled or ill students or those who move during a school year and don't want to start a new school in the middle of a grade, for example. Or cases where a student interested in a very specialized field may not have a class locally to attend, and could be hooked in with an expert teacher in Ames, or Bali.
There may be a use where a school or class is overcrowded, and computers can be integrated with live instruction - each student spending three days in a classroom and the other two with online independent study, for example.
But that's not what's going on here.
What is happening is out-of-state companies and financially troubled districts taking advantage of Iowa's naive policies and open-enrollment law, looking to drain funds from other districts for their own benefit. I don't see much about this plan that is really about better educating our children.
When your child attends a public school, the district gets close to $6,000 in state funding for that school year to help cover the cost of educating that child. Under open enrollment, if that kid leaves, so does the cash.
If some district can lure families from all over the state to quit their schools and enroll in their online school, they collect money. And eventually, some of Iowa's public tax money that is supposed to fund our public schools lines the pockets of big out-of-state companies instead of going into the classrooms.
Gov. Terry Branstad has preached a theme of education reform for Iowa, often using the war cry "excellence."
Is having kids sitting all day in front of a computer, with no socialization and no real personal communication with their teachers, our idea of "excellence" now?
The Iowa Department of Education was clearly caught with its pants down, not at all ready for this. About all it has managed to do on the issue is fumble a bit and conclude that it is not illegal under existing Iowa policy, although that policy seems to shout that an education delivered entirely by electronic means does not meet the Iowa definition of educational requirements.
State lawmakers weren't ready either, and are in the process of trying to figure out what to do.
The Des Moines Register reported on one legislative hearing, in which an attorney for the Department of Education explained that it's not an exclusively electronic education if a school sends a kid hands-on materials - like a book or a jump rope.
Pretty flimsy excuse.
First off, a lawyer, defining education for us? Let lawyers stick to the courtrooms and have educators talk to us about school issues.
Second, the fact that a kid has a book or a jump rope in hand doesn't mean he or she is being properly educated. We should be ashamed of ourselves if we look the other way and let slicks convince us that because a kid does jumping jacks in front of a DVD or fills out a form with a pencil once in a while, it isn't an entirely electronic education.
In our area, Pocahontas tried this about a decade ago, but since the state ruled that without access to an educator in person, a computer-based program could only be considered home schooling. They didn't get their hands on that whole $6,000, and soon closed the program.
The world is changing. We can't and should not try to stop it. The rest of the country is going to change, we can't ignore it. However, we still are responsible for making sure that the changes we make are motivated to refine education as the best it can be for our children. Change should not be to save us as parents from getting up early to drive a kid to school, or to pad the bank account of a school district or use computers to cut professional educators out of jobs.
Innovative use of online resources can continue to bring new opportunities for our students. But it is not the have-all and end-all to our education needs.
And if we are going to pursue K12 virtual schools, it should be the state building a program to meet our kids' needs - not "Inc.'s" from out of state bleeding money from our public school systems.
Are school buildings and classrooms endangered species now?
I'm just not so sure we want to turn out education system into one big University of Phoenix.
Of course, if all we want is to raise a generation of geeks who will be satisfied with a lifetime spent in a cubicle pecking away at a keyboard, we're on the way.
Show me a computer that does what a teacher does.
Does a computer inspire?
Look into a child's eyes and know if they "get it" or not?
Computers are tools, not schools. Before this gets out of hand, Iowa had better come up with a plan to use technology, or we'll get used by it.
Dana Larsen is editor of the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune and a former Messenger staff member.