Online Schools

This post on the LA Times (replicated almost in its entirety):

The Los Angeles Unified School District is opening its first ever virtual high school this fall.

Los Angeles Virtual High School Academy is a full-time, online school enrolling 650 9th and 10th graders during the 2010-11 school year.

The district hopes to have a K-12 online school in the near future, according to Themy Sparangis, LAUSD’s chief technology director.

District officials say a full-time online campus gives students another alternative to learning, and opens a door for nontraditional students, like those who have been home schooled.

In 2007, some 300 students were enrolled in at least one online course. By 2009, that number had soared to 2,500.

Nearly 1,000 LAUSD students enrolled in online courses this summer, part of a growing number making the shift from traditional to virtual classrooms

Is this an idea who’s time has come?  Given the constraints on physical infrastructure and teachers (both availability and quality – more on that soon), combined with the easy and low cost availability of computers and broadband connections – should we be looking at more online education?

Talking to education-entrepreneurs in India, I get the sense that there is still some skepticism about the growth of online education.  There are some success stories – but all of them are still small.  It may be that the sector needs some serious government support and a willingness to break away from the existing thought process.  If we are to achieve quality education for all, we need to be more serious about the use of technology.

9 Responses to Online Schools

  1. Raj Bhatt says:


    You have to distinguish between full-time online (or online-only) education and online education in conjunction with a face-to-face schooling system. The LAUSD offers courses/tools to both home-schoolers and to schools. It would be interesting to know how many of the 2500 students enrolled in the LAUSD are home-schoolers… My guess would be that a lot of them actually use the online courses in conjunction with face-to-face schooling.

    Online courses in conjunction with face-to-face schooling do not reduce the requirement for physical infrastructure. It does reduce the need for teachers (and that makes a good economic case, in my opinion).

    Online-only education will take a long time to become popular in India because the concept of home-schooling is not understood here. In the US around 3% of kids currently are home-schooled. There are local laws on home-schooling curricula and there are communities of home-schoolers (to promote social interaction among home-schooled children). Home-schooled children in the US have more affluent and professionally qualified parents than the average population (so its not a way to save money or reduce the cost of schooling). In my opinion, that concept will take decades to take off in India. To get HRD ministry to agree on a curriculum for home-schoolers is a long stretch. To find parents who have the time and enthusiasm to try this new concept…I don’t know.

    So coming back to online courses to support face-to-face schooling, there are many Indian companies now that are trying to achieve that (e.g., Educomp). If the business case exists for online courses, then the private schools will obviously take it up. Among public schools, we need to be careful about ‘government support’. If the business case is valid, there is no case for government subsidy. (There is already a long line of Indian ‘industrialists’ begging for government subsidy including a sardarji who made Rs 10k crore of tax-free money selling his pharma company and is now begging for tax-sops for his next venture–hospitals). State/central government contracts for online courses will likely create opportunities for abnormal profits and corruption. Many players will come forward to win school contracts (with the corresponding ‘below the table’ exchange of money) and will end up under-delivering because of lack of contract supervision (a la CWG).

    My suggestion would be to use private-public partnership to deliver online education to public schools. Let private parties BID for the ‘right’ to deliver online education to the school and get compensated by the right to use school premises for educational businesses during off-school hours. Case in point: our friend Mohit’s company operates a junior college out of a municipal school in Mumbai under a PPP where a percentage of his registrations are at market price and controlled by the company.

    As is evident from the mobile world, bidding certainly works for the Indian citizens and for the private companies.

  2. amtgrg says:

    Great pts Raj!

    Online schooling isnt that far away however. Check out – Florida’s virtual schools. Haven’t fully studied any of these models – but I think there is a trend

    The problem I see is the lack of quality teachers. We can build (and have already done so) many schools across villages. Who do we have to teach in them? Unless we find a way to (a) expand capacity of quality teachers and (b) leverage the hell out of what we have, we will struggle to get any decent educational dispersion. Online is not the only solution – but it will have to be one of the many solutions we deploy.

    Fully agree with the concerns over govt support – the right model would need to be established. Again, its hard to create scale in an educational venture in India without tapping into the public school network. So we really will need to get a good public-private model working.

  3. I wrote a piece on online education recently.

    Clayton Christensen’s book on Disrupting Class is a must read if you are interested in this topic. He and his co-authors say that as computerized, online education gets more personalized such that you can tailor it to the needs of each student individually, it will become better than the best teacher in a traditional classroom setting.

    In India this could certainly be a big idea. Boards, teachers, governments will all resist the change – but if companies like Educomp keep at it, they will break down their defences. And that will be a good thing.

  4. amtgrg says:

    Thanks Basab – will pick up the book.

    I think the potential of online education is generally underrated – probably because many entrepreneurs still remember the dot-com bust. I’ve been tracking online ed for a long time – and I think we may be missing a trick here.

  5. I think the challenge in India with respect to online education will be the lack of (1) access, (2) computer savvy, and (3) acceptance for unsupervised learning. Online learning may be sold in India as an “Add on” item, which would support the cram-more-attitude of many Indian parents, but is unlikely to be the primary source of education, unlike the home-schoolers example that Raj mentions.

    Many of these drawbacks can be controlled with the same model that India successfully adopted with the “STD ISD PCO” market. Create corner side school-like-environments, but have the instruction primarily delivered through the webinar/elearning/games medium. This way, the local PCO-wallah can take care of discipline issues, while the quality of instruction and testing can continue to be high.

  6. Richa says:

    I started writing a comment many times and then couldn’t decide. If you speak to education experts (and I know a few self-trained and some professionally trained ones) you will find that they do not agree. Yes, there is value to online schooling as a *supplement* to class-room learning and not replace it. Even if we focus on online learning as a supplementary approach, there are several things to keep in mind.

    The content has to be very well designed to allow exploration and yet learning of ‘specific’ concepts. Have you ever attended a speech that sounded good while you sat in teh audience, but then when trying to explain to a friend what was said, you draw a blank?

    Secondly, there are practical considerations of computer availability, maintenance, etc. Through an NGO, I was involved in several projects where computers + UPS were donated to urban or rural schools. The machines would not be used for many reasons — if anything simple went wrong whether HW or SW, they didn’t know how to fix it. In some cases, since the teachers didn’t know how to use the machines, they didn’t like that the kids were better at it. So they stopped the sessions (how can the students know more than teachers). In some cases, they couldn’t arrange for backup power. In many cases the school building did not have a single room which did not have any leaks or had proper windows/doors that could be locked. So the computers were kept locked in cabinets/room at the headmaster’s home. So all kinds of very practical things came in the way.

    The PCO model may take away some of these issues. There are some ‘social enterprises’ trying to figure out alternatives.

    But I have to say that after 15+ years of affiliation with the education space, I have become a convert to the plain old teacher classrooms especially for basic education.

  7. amtgrg says:

    That is the tension, isn’t it. Good teachers, teaching in person, are hard to substitute. But the problem is that we don’t have enough teachers, leave alone good teachers. So what do we do to achieve universal education? We have to find a scalable technology solution – recognising that it will not be as good (at least not in the short term).

    Whats the choice?

  8. The numbers are huge in India. We have to figure out a better way, otherwise India will have the “MOST” of the uneducated or functionally illiterate folks in the world. Amit and I had done the numbers earlier, and the teacher gap is unsurmountable by traditional means.

    Is there a way to replicate the micro-finance model in education? Maybe create “teaching kits” that anyone can use to teach locally. At least gets the content right.

  9. Pingback: Incentives to learn « Two MBAs, One Blog

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