Online Learning in the Wake of School Violence: False Solutions & Room for Growth

Newpapers showing headlines of school shootings
There are many good reasons to promote the value of online learning, but gun violence should not be one of them.

This article was originally published by the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance.

Our nation is engaged in a rather heated conversation about how to eliminate injuries and deaths from gun violence in U.S. schools. Formal and informal debates are occurring in the halls of Congress, within state Capitol buildings, at our workplaces and around kitchen tables in our homes. Social media has exploded with conversation, and everyone seems to have a strong opinion on this critical subject. In many cases, intelligent and reasonable people have taken opposite positions when proposing solutions to school gun violence.

Recently, however, I encountered a “solution” to this problem that surprised me.

Due to these tragedies, at least one set of parents in my area has begun to seriously consider full-time cyberschool as an option for their children. They no longer feel comfortable placing their loved ones in brick-and-mortar schools. I am afraid other parents in Michigan will also begin to consider this as a viable alternative to face-to-face instruction.

To some degree, this mentality has existed for a while. Since the beginning of the public education system, a small percentage of parents have elected to homeschool their children for one reason or another, sometimes out of fear of the violence or ideologies they could be exposed to in school.

But what we see now is something different. We have parents who have put their faith in the public school system for years who are now are genuinely afraid for their children’s lives upon dropping them off at school.

As a parent, I fully understand the emotion behind this response; however, implemented as a large-scale solution to the problem of gun violence, it concerns me on multiple levels.

There are many good reasons to promote the value of online learning, but gun violence should not be one of them.

There are many good reasons to promote the value of online learning, but gun violence should not be one of them.

The Place of Online Learning within the Education System

For the past 20 years, I have dedicated my professional career to promoting the value of online learning in the K-12 community. During this time, I have engaged in hundreds of policy discussions with school principals, curriculum directors, district superintendents, legislators, parents and other stakeholders. I’ve listened to a plethora of perceptions about online learning, including that it:

  • differentiates instruction
  • generates cost savings
  • diminishes the role of the teacher
  • eliminates teacher jobs
  • provides equity regardless of zip code
  • privatizes public education
  • represents a major reform strategy
  • personalizes learning
  • is inferior to face-to-face instruction
  • represents innovation

Not once in the past 20 years has someone told me that online education is a good substitute for face-to-face instruction because of gun violence in traditional schools.

My professional opinion is that few children benefit from full-time online learning. Those who do benefit from full-time cyberschool typically have serious medical conditions, athletic obligations, or other extenuating life circumstances. In these cases, online learning can provide students who do not have the option to attend a face-to-face school with a pathway to education.

As a leader in the K-12 online education space, I fully believe that all students should have opportunities to experience online learning in some capacity, as this has increasingly become a critical part of the 21st-century learning skills required of them by colleges and workplaces. It is for this reason that Michigan became the first state in the nation to adopt an online learning requirement as a condition of high school graduation.

By and large, however, I do not believe a mass exodus of students from brick-and-mortar establishments to virtual schools would be beneficial for our children or for our society. There are still countless social benefits that children receive from working with teachers and peers in a face-to-face setting that should not be overlooked.

Migrating students into online courses is not a real solution, but merely an avoidance of the problem of gun violence.

Room for Growth in Online Learning

There is room for growth in the realm of online learning. We ought to investigate ways to leverage the technology at our fingertips to deal with some of the underlying issues behind gun violence. Specifically, more can be done to harness online platforms and communication tools to help address the social and emotional health of teens as they struggle with adolescence.

Clearly, too many young people are bullied, teased and ostracized. For students who feel uncomfortable asking for help in face-to-face settings, digital spaces can provide students with safe places to explore critical topics that are not consistently discussed in traditional classrooms.

Clearly, too many young people are bullied, teased and ostracized. For students who feel uncomfortable asking for help in face-to-face settings, digital spaces can provide students with safe places to explore critical topics that are not consistently discussed in traditional classrooms

Why is this? In part, it stems from what I like to call “intimate anonymity.”

Certain topics are more easily shared behind the buffer of a screen. It’s why the Internet frightens us parents so profoundly — we aren’t always entirely sure who our children are speaking to and what they are sharing with them.

But this intimate anonymity can also be leveraged to the benefit of our children, so long as we create the appropriate contexts for them to explore in private what they might not be comfortable expressing in face-to-face settings.

Our online instructors regularly report surprise at how willing their online students are to share information about themselves. This might seem counterintuitive, but imagine how the following scenario might happen differently in a face-to-face classroom compared to a private message between teacher and student.

A teacher asks a student, “What’s going on, Sarah? You haven’t turned in your homework for almost a week.”

In a busy classroom, Sarah may blush and provide some off-handed excuse. But, through the privacy of an email, she may be willing to reveal more. Her instructor may discover, through this more personal form of communication, that she’s been struggling profoundly since her parents’ recent divorce and she needs help.

We already see some progress in this particular growth area.

Some schools are using apps like “Say Something” or “Safe 2 Tell” to provide students with an anonymous forum to report events both at school and outside of school that cause them distress or discomfort. Some believe that the widespread use of apps like this could save lives by allowing school officials to intervene before tragedy occurs.

Other online services such as Evolution Labs’ digital character development and behavior intervention programs have emerged to help teach students to think critically about cyberbullying, mental health, anger management, substance abuse, social awareness, goal-setting and stress-management. For many students, it is easier to explore these critical topics at their own pace in a safe digital space, rather than being asked to speak about them in-person with 23 of their peers.

It is my hope that tools like these will build awareness and create new ways for children to learn and communicate with each other and promote civility.

We are all discouraged that a growing number of children and parents view traditional schools as unsafe places. Regardless of your personal stance on possible solutions, I know all educators stand united in wanting to see an end to school violence. I hope local, state and federal leaders can put their differences aside and act with a sense of urgency to address this growing and complex societal challenge.

Currently, we are also partnering with MDE to develop free Social/Emotional Learning training modules for educators statewide.

Picture of Jamey Fitzpatrick

Jamey Fitzpatrick

Jamey Fitzpatrick, President and CEO of Michigan Virtual™, serves as a catalyst for change and a champion of innovation in education. He provides strategic leadership for Michigan Virtual, a Michigan-based nonprofit organization focused on advancing K-12 digital learning and teaching. In addition to his previous leadership roles at the Michigan Department of Education and Saginaw ISD, Jamey also worked in the private sector for Pitney Bowes Corporation. He serves on the Board of Trustees for Olivet College.

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