Log-on learning

Could online learning transform American education?


 Brynn Wetherbee, an eighth grader from Clinton, is a student at the Massachusetts
Virtual Academy, the state’s first full-time online school.

SCHOOL BOOKS, PAPERS, and two laptop computers are spread out on the dining room table of the Wether­bee family home in Clinton, a small town 15 miles northeast of Worcester. Taryn and Brynn, twin 14-year-olds, are hard at work on grammar exercises for their English class. It looks like the eighth graders are diligently tending to homework they received that day in school. But it’s 1:30 on Tuesday afternoon, and the teens haven’t come home from school—they are at school.

The sisters are students at the Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield, the state’s first foray into the world of online public schools. Each morning, Taryn and Brynn log on to their computers, check their schedule for assignments, plan out their day, and do all their school work from home. They can email questions to teachers and set up times to talk to them on the phone or through an online connection in which a teacher can use a “virtual blackboard” to write out a problem that they see on their laptop screen.

Now in its second year, the school is operated by the Greenfield school district but enrolls students from throughout the state. Full-time “virtual” schools form just a small part of the burgeoning field of on­line education, but they are experiencing enormous growth, with schools now operating in 30 states plus the District of Columbia and about 250,000 students enrolled. Prop­onents say virtual schools represent a valuable new option for the small number of students who, for reasons ranging from health issues to bullying, are not well served by traditional schools.

Full-time virtual schools have become a flashpoint for controversy over the quality of online education. Much of their growth is being driven by huge for-profit companies that critics say are more focused on returns to shareholders than student achievement. Student outcomes at many schools have been poor, and some educators recoil at the idea of children as young as kindergarten missing out on the social development that comes from attending a school with peers.

The much bigger frontier in online learning, however, involves tapping innovation to better serve students in traditional schools. Students are complementing standard in-school course loads with classes taught online. Mean­while, classroom-based courses are integrating online technology into the face-to-face instruction provided by teachers. More than 1.8 million K-12 students nationwide are estimated to be involved in this so-called “blended learning.”

Figuring out ways to take full advantage of online technology, say leaders in the field, can allow students to work at their own pace and give teachers more one-on-one time with individual students. They say it represents more than just a tool to improve schools. Online learning, some boldly proclaim, has the potential to transform education in a way that lets schools actually make good on the goal of figuring out how to help all students succeed.

“If you look at the variation in the human brain and the capacities kids enter school with, it’s really impossible to think of a standard school calendar and curriculum that can possibly meet all those needs,” says Cathy Cavan­augh, editor of the book What Works in K-12 Online Learning. “So it just makes sense to think about using technology that enhances a student’s ability to access education in a way that works for him or her.”


Jenna Perlmutter and Alvina Jiang are classmates in Beth Ferns’s AP psychology course. But the two high school seniors have never met. Neither have they ever met Ferns—at least not in person. Perlmutter, who attends Burling­ton High School, and Jiang, a student at Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, are taking the class through Virtual High School, an online learning consortium based in Maynard.

Alvina Jiang, in the library at Doherty High School in Worcester, checks her
assignments for the AP psychology class she takes online through Maynard-based
Virtual High School.

Founded in 1996, Virtual High School was one of the first providers of online high school classes in the country. It developed from a pilot project funded by an education technology grant from the US Department of Education. Under its membership-based model, high schools join the nonprofit consortium and pay a fee for their students to take online courses. The schools can lower the fee by having a teacher in their school receive training in online instruction and teach one of Virtual High’s classes. High schools in nearly half of Massa­chusetts school districts are members, as are schools in 32 other states and 34 countries.

Elizabeth Pape, the school’s founder and president, says the idea was to make Advanced Placement classes and other electives that aren’t taught at every high school accessible to students anywhere. “It was all about leveling the playing field for all students, so that the quality of your education should not be dependent on the zip code of your school,” she says.

That straightforward rationale for online learning—to fill gaps in the course offerings at schools—fits squarely within a theory developed by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, which he calls “disruptive innovation.” Christensen has pioneered the idea that the right kind of innovation can radically reshape—or “disrupt”—almost any sector, from health care to retail sales.

A classic example of disruptive innovation is the minicomputer industry, led in the 1970s and 1980s by Massa­chusetts powerhouse companies like Digital Equipment Corp. Minicomputers, which often cost more than $200,000—and the firms that made them—were done in by low-cost personal computers, which eventually delivered the same computing power at a fraction of the cost. The earliest personal computers, however, did not have to be better than minicomputers, because the market for PCs was people who previously had no access to computers at all.

Online learning, Christensen and coauthors Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson argue in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, represents the disruptive innovation that will remake education. “It bears the classic hallmarks of a disruptive inno­vation,” says Horn. “It started in areas of what we call ‘non-consumption,’ where the alternative is literally nothing at all.”

The initial rationale for things like the classes offered by Virtual High School was the fact that they were not available at all at schools attended by students enrolling in them. Continued innovation and advances in technology, however, are making these online classes more than just passable substitutes for face-to-face courses.

In the AP psychology class Alvina Jiang and Jenna Perl­mutter are taking, students follow a weekly schedule of assignments, which can involve everything from readings and online exercises to watching a video. There is an online discussion board where they must post a response to class readings and also comment on at least two of their classmates’ postings.

“The discussions are of substance,” says Ferns, a veteran Virtual High School instructor who teaches at Hudson High School. “They’re not, ‘Oh, I agree.’”

Students can pose questions for Ferns, either on an open page that everyone in the class has access to or through a private message. Ferns says she gets to know some students as well as those in her classes at Hudson High. “I can tell you whose parents are getting divorced, and who’s been in and out of the hospital for various things.”  And, though it seems counterintuitive at first, she and others say it’s harder for online students to remain anonymous because everyone has to contribute to the discussion sessions, including, says Ferns, “that kid who would never think of raising their hand in a classroom.”

“It was strange at first,” Jiang says of the online class experience. “I like a lot of student-teacher interaction, but you get used to it. You can still ask questions to a teacher, and she’s really good at getting back to you.”

Virtual High School boasts impressive results, with a pass rate on the AP exam of 62 percent for its students versus 58 percent for all students nationally who take AP exams. What’s more, says Pape, a higher proportion of those taking the school’s online AP courses opt to take the AP exam (about 80 percent) than the roughly 70 percent of AP students nationally who do so. “So we have a larger percentage of kids taking the exam, and we have a larger percentage of them scoring higher,” she says. “It’s a great answer to, ‘Can kids learn online?’”


While online courses can fill the gap in “non-consumption” Christensen and Horn write about, they and others say the even bolder promise of online education is not simply to fill in gaps in what’s available in standard school settings, but to transform traditional schooling in fundamental ways.

Taryn (left) and Brynn Wetherbee at work in their Clinton home as their mother,
Debbie, looks on.

Sal Khan, a 35-year-old former hedge fund analyst, has become the unlikely face of that new frontier. In 2004, Khan, who holds three degrees from MIT and a Harvard MBA, was working in financial services in Boston when a young cousin of his in New Orleans asked him for help with her seventh grade algebra. He eventually started videotaping tutorials and posting them on YouTube for her to watch. Before long the videos started getting comments from strangers who said they were a huge help to them or to a child who had been struggling with math. Khan started making more video lessons and, in 2009, quit his job to devote himself full-time to the nonprofit Khan Academy he started. Its website now hosts more than 3,000 video lessons on everything from history to physics, and it receives more than 4 million visits each month.

With $15 million in funding, including money from the Gates Foundation and Google, the California-based Khan Academy now employs a team of engineers who have developed platforms that allow teachers to integrate the lessons into their classes. Students using Khan Academy’s free videos and software can view the lessons at home and then work on problems in class, while the teacher is there to help them work through areas they get stuck on. Using a “dashboard” system the Khan website has developed, students log-in and a teacher can see what everyone in a class is working on, how long they are taking on problems, and how well they are doing with online assessments.

Having students watch lectures at home and do the sort of assignments usually given as homework while in school has been dubbed “the flipped classroom.” The idea is to use technology to minimize the time at school that students spend passively taking in instruction and maximize the time available for interaction with a teacher, including one-on-one time to focus on an individual student’s question or difficulty grasping a concept.

Though Khan has become the flipped classroom’s most well-known exponent, others have hit on the same idea. Two Colorado high school science teachers came up with the idea after they started videotaping their classes for students who were absent. Before long, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams were “flipping” their classes by having all their students watch the videotaped lessons at home and come in to class ready to work on problems or engage in discussions.

“What’s the best use of your face-to-face class time? I would argue that it’s not standing up yakking in front of your kids,” says Bergmann, who has just completed a book with Sams on the flipped classroom strategy. “This doesn’t replace the teacher; it actually makes the teacher more valuable,” says Berg­mann. “It’s not about the videos. It’s about what the videos allow you to do in that face-to-face class time.”

In their book, Christensen, Horn, and Johnson say online courses will experience explosive growth in coming years. They project that, driven by steady improvements in online education, a looming teacher shortage, and falling costs as the market scales up, half of all US high school classes will be taught online by 2019.

School districts often vow to try to meet each student’s individual learning needs—“differentiated instruction” it’s called in the argot of the education world. But it’s a lot easier said than done. “We all talk about differentiated instruction,” says Andre Ravenelle, superintendent of the Fitchburg public schools. “A teacher with 30 kids in front of them has a hard time doing that.”

Fitchburg’s Longsjo Middle School, which has an extended school day under a state-funded initiative, is taking some small steps toward being able to do that. The school is using some of that extra time to pilot the use of Khan Academy and other online tools that allow students to work at their own pace. “It’s being able to accelerate learning for those who are ready to move on and it’s being able to remediate the lessons for students who are still trying to grasp something,” says Craig Chali­foux, the school’s principal. As for the Khan Academy lessons that students watch outside of school time, Tammy Chandler, the school’s math coach, says, “You can pause the video; you can’t really pause a teacher.”


Blended learning strategies, which harness online technology to improve classroom learning or to fill in a course that a student can’t take at his or her school, will account for the overwhelming share of online learning, say education policy experts. But a lot of the attention these days is being paid to full-time virtual schools, where the promise of online learning is colliding with questions about the big-business focus of online education technology and curriculum companies.

Supporters say the schools are an innovative way to accommodate students who, for a range for reasons, are not well served by traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Students with serious health issues, those who have faced traumatic bullying, and competitive athletes on a rigorous training schedule are some of the typical student profiles. Virtual schools also draw a lot of students who had been home-schooled.

Virtual school students don’t spend most of their time staring into a computer screen.The Massachusetts Virtual Academy opened in 2010 under a provision of the sweeping new education reform law passed in January of that year, which authorized school districts to open “innovation schools.” These are district schools, which can be operated in partnership with a local college, museum, or a community nonprofit, and which enjoy many of the budgeting and staffing autonomies accorded to charter schools.

The virtual school is technically a part of the Green­field public schools, but the district contracts the operation of it to K12 Inc., a Virginia-based company that is the largest operator of full-time virtual schools in the country.

K12, whose schools enroll some 95,000 students nationwide, had been looking for a toehold in Massa­chu­setts and had discussions with Green­field school leaders in 2009 about opening a virtual school, but state education officials said there was no provision in Massachusetts law to permit an all-online public school. State Rep. Marty Walz, who was the House chair of the Legislature’s education committee during the crafting of the 2010 reform law, inserted language into the bill that specifically included online schools as one form of innovation school that districts could implement.

Walz says full-time virtual schools can serve an important role for the small number of students for whom a traditional school doesn’t work, and she was determined to get the ball rolling in the face of a state education establishment that showed little interest in joining the virtual school movement.

“I was enormously frustrated that we, as a state, were not moving forward with changes in the law to open the door to this for parents and students who wanted it,” says Walz, a Boston Democrat. “There was nothing happening at the state level.”

The Massachusetts Virtual Academy has approximately 475 students, from kindergarten to ninth grade, who live in 138 different school districts throughout the state. School districts where virtual school students live are billed $5,000 per year by Greenfield, the reimbursement rate that districts pay through the state’s school choice program.

Debbie and Patrick Wetherbee say the school has been a godsend. The decision to enroll their daughters was driven by severe behavioral tics Taryn developed in seventh grade that seemed to be related to stress she experienced in a traditional setting at the Clinton middle school. Brynn opted to join her sister in the home-based virtual school.

The Wetherbees were hardly a family inclined toward home-schooling. Debbie Wetherbee has been heavily in­volved in the Clinton school system, going from president of the school PTA to an elected member of the local school committee in 2009. “I shocked the town when they found out I was pulling the kids out, but a lot of them didn’t know what we’d been going through for a year,” she says of the debilitating symptoms Taryn was having.

Students enrolled in the virtual school need to have an adult—almost always a parent—who serves as their “learning coach,” someone who makes sure they are logged in to their lessons, tries to help them with questions on homework, and is even charged with reviewing essays using a K12 teaching guide. To do that, Debbie Wetherbee left a job in regional sales and now works part-time from home doing sales work for Yankee Candle and helps her husband with the painting contracting business they operate.

Taryn and Brynn start their school day promptly at 9 o’clock and work until 3:30 or 4, taking a half-hour break for lunch and a half hour to do some form of exercise, whether it’s using the family’s Wii game or taking a brisk walk when the weather is nice.

“She just had a problem in math and the math teacher scheduled time for her today,” Debbie Wetherbee says of the online session Taryn will have with a teacher.

Along with textbooks and a desktop computer provided by K12 when Taryn and Brynn enrolled, a box showed up at their house filled with test tubes, goggles, and other equipment they use, under their mother’s supervision, for science lab projects. “It’s pretty neat,” says Debbie Wether­bee. “The boys up the street like to come and watch.”

Contrary to the image of virtual school students sitting glued to a screen all day, the girls say most of the time they are not working at the computer. “The only thing that’s online is the assessments and the schedule,” says Taryn. “Everything else is book work.”

Taryn’s symptoms have improved dramatically, and her parents say she and Brynn are making steady academic progress. “It’s done nothing but change my daughters’ lives around for the better,” Debbie Wetherbee says of the virtual school.

It did not do the same for Jo-Ann Konieczny’s son, Joseph, a Hadley teen who left after the school’s initial 2010-11 school year. “I forget the last count of how many math teachers he had,” says his mother. She says constant turnover in the math teacher he was assigned for seventh grade forced her family to spend thousands of dollars for private tutoring. “We had little to no contact with any of them,” she says of the school teaching staff.

How the Massachusetts Virtual Academy is working for other families is hard to know. Despite repeated requests, Greenfield school officials did not connect Common­Wealth with any families at the school besides the Wetherbees. The school department also wouldn’t make any teachers available to speak about the school.

Susan Hollins, the Greenfield superintendent behind the idea of bringing in K12 to operate a virtual school, initially spoke on two occasions for this story, explaining the rationale for the school. But she expressed unease from the start about a story examining the school, and then turned down a request to schedule a subsequent interview, insisting that any questions be put to her in writing. She provided vague or incomplete answers to several questions sent to her by email, including those on student attrition, teacher staffing levels, test scores, and how much of the $5,000 in per pupil funding flows to K12. Hollins did not respond to a follow-up email asking her to clarify her answers.

The chairman of the Greenfield School Committee, John Lunt, did not return several messages asking to speak with him about the district’s decision to open an online school.

Lengthy articles have appeared in recent months in the Washington Post and the New York Times questioning the track record of virtual schools. In Dec­ember, a front-page New York Times story raised serious questions about K12, the company operating the Greenfield-based virtual school.

The story said K12, an $833 million publicly-traded company, engages in aggressive recruitment practices that don’t filter out students who lack the parental support necessary for full-time online schooling, with K12 employees receiving bonuses based on enrollment numbers. The story re­ported on teachers complaining of high student loads. It also reported that the company’s CEO, Ronald Packard, who was paid $5 million last year, boasted at a conference early last year that K12 students “are doing as well or better than the average child in a brick-and-mortar school,” a claim the story said could not be supported. K12 stock dropped more than 30 percent following publication of the Times story, and the company is now facing a shareholder lawsuit alleging that it artificially boosted its stock price by misrepresenting achievement levels for K12 students.

A 2009 report from the US Department of Education concluded that there was not yet enough evidence from studies to draw firm conclusions on how students perform in online classes versus traditional school settings. A recent Stanford University study on charter schools in Pennsylvania and a state education department report in Colorado found that full-time virtual schools in those states underperform their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

It’s too early to know how students in the first Massa­chusetts virtual school are performing, though there is good reason to worry. In the virtual academy’s first year of operation, the school’s student growth score, which measures the progress students make based on the level at which they started the year, was among the lowest of any school in the state. It was based on the small number of students for whom there were test scores from the previous year at a public school. Horn, the coauthor of Disrupting Class, says virtual schools shouldn’t be judged on student scores from their first year of operation. Once students have a year under their belt, however, virtual schools “absolutely should have individual growth data and be held accountable for that,” he says.


As online education continues to grow, says Bill Tucker, the managing director of Education Sector, a Washing­ton, DC, think tank, we need to strike a balance that encourages innovation while also holding schools and companies accountable for results. “I want the sector to have the space to grow,” says Tucker, who specializes in education technology and virtual school issues. “At the same time, it would be foolish or naïve just to think, ‘OK, let everybody do what they want and it will just naturally get better.’”

When it comes to full-time virtual schools, the state is now trying to figure out how to strike that balance. Mitchell Chester, the state’s education commissioner, says he thinks there is “a small percentage of the population for whom this mode of learning would be beneficial.” But he says he is “very uncomfortable” with the provision of the 2010 reform law that allows districts to decide on their own to open virtual schools that enroll students statewide. The Green­field-based school is “a statewide school with no role for the state,” he says.

At Chester’s urging, the state board of education forced a state role by adopting regulations that gave it leverage over virtual schools. The board used those powers to block the Hadley school district from pursuing plans to follow Greenfield’s lead and open a second Massachusetts virtual school.

Meanwhile, Chester urged the Legislature to revise the education law to require virtual schools to be authorized at the state level, much as Massachusetts does with charter schools. The Legislature’s education committee has ad­vanced a bill that would do that. The measure would allow up to 10 virtual schools to open, with a total enrollment cap of no more than 2 percent of the state’s K-12 public school population, or about 19,000 students. The bill “is designed to encourage the provision of that kind of education in the Commonwealth, but within a structure that allows for some accountability and quality control,” says state Rep. Alice Peisch, cochair of the Legisla­ture’s education committee.

Maryelen Calderwood is one of two Greenfield School Committee members who voted against the virtual school plan two years ago. She thinks districts should be working to accommodate students who have had difficulty in traditional schools rather than setting up virtual schools that isolate them from the socialization and give-and-take that are also valuable parts of the school experience.

“This is a business plan, it’s not an education plan,” she says of the drive to open full-time virtual schools. “This is all about lining the pockets of very wealthy corporations.”

Tucker, who thinks online education could play a big role in improving American education, does not put it in those terms. But he says it is always important to be mindful of motives that may be at play. “Money is a big incentive anywhere,” he says. “We have to find a way to make this as transparent as possible,” he says of the involvement of for-profit companies in online learning, and make sure decisions are “based on educational outcomes for kids, not the biggest lobbying budget.”

State Sen. Will Brownsberger was one of the leading voices urging the inclusion of full-time virtual schools under the “innovation school” banner in the 2010 education reform law. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who was a state representative at that time, thinks the state’s high overall achievement levels in K-12 education have made Massa­chusetts slower than other states to pursue online learning innovations. “We’re very proud of our education system and we take credit for the high test scores we have,” he says. “In fact, we’re resting on our laurels and a bit resistant to new approaches to education.”

That resistance seems to extend to blended learning models as well. The Maynard-based Virtual High School operates its program of online AP high school classes with no state funding. Despite the school’s goal of equalizing the opportunities students have regardless of where they live, the fees it must charge to districts mean there remains a digital divide shutting out students in communities without the resources to join the consortium. In 1997, a year after Virtual High School was founded, Florida launched a state-run virtual school. More than 120,000 students took online courses through the Florida school last year, compared with about 5,000 Massachusetts students who took classes through Virtual High School.

Patrick Larkin, the principal at Burlington High School, which is in its third year as a member of the Virtual High School consortium, points even closer to home, to New Hampshire, where students in any high school can take a class through a state-funded online charter school. “I wish we could do that here,” he says of the universal access New Hampshire students have.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The question isn’t whether online technology will impact education, but how it will affect schooling and whether school districts and the state seize on opportunities to make the most of promising innovations that seem to make a difference.

“People in every other endeavor of human society use technology to help improve their work,” says Tucker, and education will prove to be no different. “There is tremendous potential, there is a lot excitement around thinking about how technology can be a tool to improve student achievement and help teachers do their work better or more efficiently,” he says. At the same time, he says, we have to be clear-eyed about what’s working and what isn’t, and not get caught up in the novelty of the technology. “It’s not magic, and unfortunately we’re really good at fads in education.”