Report on virtual learning reminds us that well-respected outlets sometimes publish uninformed articles

The Atlantic is a respected magazine that often publishes well-researched, thoughtful, influential articles on a wide variety of topics. Those positive characteristics make the publication of a poorly researched article on virtual learning—as occurred late last week—much worse than if the same article had been in a less-respected journal. The publication of such an article also serves as a reminder to digital learning practitioners, researchers, and advocates about the importance of communicating the basic facts and information clearly and often. We may think that some of these issues have been clear for years, but other people appear to be just discovering them—and sometimes getting the facts wrong. The recent Atlantic article, Virtual Education: Genuine Benefits or Real-Time Demerits, by Jen Karetnick, contains numerous factual errors that, because of the readership, are likely to misinform a wide audience. Perhaps more disappointing is that the article is also poorly written such that in several cases logical conclusions that a reasonable reader might draw would be incorrect.

The story begins with an anecdote about a student who took multiple online courses from Florida Virtual School (FLVS) and then moved to New York, where she found that the school she entered initially would not accept the credits for the online courses. The writer suggests that the lack of transfer credits is an issue of online course quality. However, in reality, different states and districts have varying graduation requirements and discretion as to the credits that they accept even from brick-and-mortar schools. That's the status quo everywhere for all students who move between states and has nothing to do with online schools or courses. In most cases the school enrolling the new student decides on what courses are accepted. For example, I recently heard a similar story from a colleague who this year moved with her high school-aged son from Ohio to Oregon. In Ohio he had been on track to graduate. In Oregon he was not, because of the different state requirements. In a twist relative to The Atlantic article, my colleague's son has made up the difference in credit requirements by taking online courses and has now gotten himself back on track to graduate.

In the anecdote from The Atlantic, the student was told that the New York City Department of Education wouldn’t accept online course credits from FLVS. This appeared to be a blanket policy about all online courses, not just the ones in Florida, because FLVS is among the largest, oldest, and most-studied course providers in the country. Florida students have completed more than 2 million course credits at FLVS, and several studies have shown that those students have done well on Advanced Placement exams, state assessments, and other measures.

Karetnick further misleads readers when she notes much later – in the 19th paragraph – that in the case of the student who moved to New York, her situation was partially resolved because the student “discovered that it is up to the principal’s discretion whether to accept the online credits,” and the principal did indeed grant her credit for most courses. It was not an ideal resolution for the student, because those courses were counted as credits but not as grades (which might help with her GPA), but it was far less of an issue than the author originally suggested. Although it’s hard to believe coming from a respected magazine, it appears as if Karetnick heard the story about the credits not being accepted and thought that sounded like such a good indictment of online learning that she had to lead with it. Undoubtedly there are readers who didn’t make it down that far in the article and left believing that the student lost her online course credits.

Karetnick writes extensively on several other subjects with few citations, and she conflates known problems in education generally with problems in online education specifically. For example, in a long discussion about cheating, she seems unaware that the techniques students use to cheat in online courses include many of the same ones used by students in physical schools and classes. Karetnick notes that students say "it’s far too easy to find the answers to their tests and homework assignments by accessing Google on other devices. They’ve seen peers in other schools copy projects from the Internet, or reproduce those produced by friends who’ve taken the class already.” As all experienced educators know, these are not issues that are specific to online courses. In fact, many teachers and college professors in traditional physical schools run student essays through plagiarism software and other checks for this exact reason. If Karetnick had taken the time to talk with a single experienced online teacher, she would have found the many ways in which experienced online teachers address issues of academic integrity.

Regarding state online learning graduation requirements, Karetnick suggests that several states are backtracking and lessening such requirements—but she is wrong about the details. She writes: “New Mexico’s latest requirements, for example, state that an online- or distance-learning class can be substituted with advanced or community-college coursework.” But New Mexico has never had an online learning graduation requirement. For several years it has had a graduation requirement that could be fulfilled in one of several ways, including an advanced course or an online course. Karetnick’s suggestion that New Mexico is backtracking on an online learning requirement is factually incorrect and suggests that either her research and reporting is slipshod, or that she began the article with her ideas well formed and then sought examples to make her argument—and bent those examples to her conclusions when necessary.

Here are some other examples of this article's poor reporting:

  • During her discussion of FLVS, Karetnick says that many virtual schools “are not accredited in the same manner that traditional public and private institutions are.” A reasonable reader might conclude that this is true of FLVS, but it is not. FLVS is accredited by AdvancED, which accredits thousands of schools, most of which are traditional physical schools.
  • Detailing the history of online learning, she writes “in 2007, Florida established a state-run online school.” Karetnick is off by about a decade as FLVS was established in the late 1990s.
  • Of online courses, she writes that “The best [online classrooms] use blended-learning techniques, where groups of students actually Skype with a live teacher and participate in group chats.” There is no doubt that student-teacher interaction and student-student interaction are positive attributes of some online courses. However, she appears to believe that these are considered “blended-learning techniques,” which exposes her lack of familiarity with basic digital learning terminology.

The above list is only partial; additional errors and misleading statements abound.

Karetnick is correct about some issues. Of online schools, she writes, “enrollment numbers are ever-changing because many of their customers are part-timers.” That is correct; we know that high rates of student mobility present challenges to schools and policymakers. Comparing online schools that have high levels of student-teacher interaction with those that don’t, she writes “The worst [online] courses, on the other hand, appear to be those that simply provide reading materials online, test the students on that content, and ask them to complete projects.” This criticism is undoubtedly true as well.

The article is accurate in several other areas, too, but about 75% of it is misleading or factually wrong. That it was published in The Atlantic means that it is likely to be read by some influential people. This unfortunate occurrence is an excellent reminder to researchers, practitioners, and all who value the spread of new ideas that we must be ever-vigilant about communicating accurate information clearly and consistently.

Valuable and accurate critiques of some digital learning efforts and policy certainly exist. The Atlantic article is not among them.

Disclosure: Florida Virtual School has been a Keeping Pace sponsor and client of Evergreen Education Group.