by Kerry McDonald
Students in 40 percent of school districts across the country haven’t been inside a classroom since last spring, and others are now returning to virtual “Zoom school” as coronavirus cases rise. Remote public schooling as a response to school shutdowns has been a disaster for many children, with a record number of F grades issued this academic year. Both parents and kids are fed up with Zoom school, and teachers are frustrated with it as well. The Washington Post ran a headline this month saying we must finally admit that “remote education is a failure.”
It’s important to make a distinction here: Remote pandemic public schooling may be a failure, but remote education more generally is flourishing. Many private, online learning providers are seeing their enrollment numbers climb, as parents search for high-quality, virtual education options for their children and teens. Here are three remote education programs that are excelling during the pandemic:
My Tech High was launched 12 years ago by entrepreneur and educator, Matt Bowman, and it has experienced rapid growth. With the 2020 school shutdowns, My Tech High’s popularity surged, growing 150 percent over last year to serve nearly 20,000 students in eight states. Most of the students attend tuition-free, accessing My Tech High through innovative partnerships with charter school networks and some school districts that allow for a more personalized, home-based education for young people ages 5 to 18. It’s been a particularly big hit with military families who move around a lot and value the program’s consistency and customization.
“We have seen that when it’s done right (i.e. NOT Zoom-schooling all day), students can truly thrive in a personalized education program like My Tech High,” says Bowman. Entrepreneurship is a cornerstone principle at My Tech High, and children of all ages are encouraged to be creative and inventive. “With our focus on tech and entrepreneurship,” says Bowman, “we have students as young as 5 years old learning the basics of coding and we’ve had 8 year old students start their own profitable businesses.”
ASU Prep Digital is a K-12 virtual charter school network affiliated with Arizona State University that offers a particularly innovative program for high school students across the country. Fully online and self-paced, the ASU Prep Digital high school program is high-touch with regular, live, online check-ins with teachers and mentors. It is fully accredited and students can receive a high school diploma if they choose. They can also enroll as a part-time student, taking a la carte classes to supplement other learning.
A key benefit of ASU Prep Digital is that it allows enrolled students to attend concurrent online classes through Arizona State University, accumulating college credits while still in high school and dramatically reducing the cost of college when those credits are ultimately transferred to a four-year university. Moreover, students who do well academically at ASU Prep Digital automatically meet the admission requirements to attend Arizona State University.
The best news? ASU Prep Digital is tuition-free for Arizona residents and, at just under $7,000 a year, an affordable option for many out-of-state high school students as well. When parents consider that the tuition includes college credits during high school that ultimately defray university costs, it becomes even more appealing.
Sure enough, enrollment at ASU Prep Digital skyrocketed 700 percent this year over last year, to 4,500 students. The school’s CEO, Julie Young, led the Florida Virtual School from its inception in 1997 as the nation’s first public, fully online school. She told Inside Higher Ed that school shutdowns and related remote learning plans are responsible for ASU Prep Digital’s recent enrollment surge. “We are definitely hearing from families that the pandemic is a catalyst for our growth,” she said, acknowledging that many parents were uncertain about the quality of their school district’s remote learning approach and valued more well-established, reputable online learning options.
Galileo is an online, self-directed learning program for homeschoolers, unschoolers, worldschoolers and other students who are seeking a bit of structure, access to more classes, and a lot of community. Daily, virtual check-ins with a teacher and small groups of students around the globe offer opportunities for consistent social connection, goal-setting, group presentations, and accountability. Classes are offered throughout the week on a wide range of topics, from history, math, and foreign languages to debate clubs, music clubs, book groups, and entrepreneurship incubators. Tuition plans start at $2,000 per year, or parents can choose a monthly option that allows them to cancel at any time.
Launched in the summer of 2019 by a group of parents, educators, and software developers, Galileo has grown from 20 students in its inaugural group to 159 students this fall in 28 countries. Lizz Quain, a director at Galileo, says that while some of these students likely would have joined Galileo regardless of the pandemic, school shutdowns and remote learning have boosted enrollment. “Some former public and private school families who were disillusioned with the traditional school system and wanted a change anyway did enroll, are enjoying this new (to them) way of learning, and plan to stick around,” Quain told me in a recent interview. “Some of those parents were so aghast at how their previous schools were handling distance learning, realized that their kids weren’t getting a good education, decided to look for a better online learning environment, and found Galileo.”
Quain believes that the trend toward remote learning was already emerging before 2020 and that parents will continue to seek enriching and effective virtual education models for their children. “The future of online learning was happening pre-pandemic. The pandemic just brought it to the forefront and to the masses,” says Quain. “Unfortunately traditional schools don’t know how to do online learning well. Future-focused and innovative edtech companies such as Galileo are being created to disrupt the traditional education model by truly engaging students, making learning fun again, and allowing for individualized learning, for students to pursue their passions and to create life-long, independent learners.”
Pandemic Zoom school may be a short-lived failure, but online learning is set to soar. Families have grown more comfortable with virtual interactions this year, more parents will telework post-pandemic, and many students appreciate flexible, customizable education approaches—particularly when they offer an accelerated pathway to college or career goals.
Innovative, private online learning providers will continue to emerge and expand, offering more high-quality, low-cost, individualized education options for students and families. As Quain says: “Once students get a taste of the freedom to choose what they want to learn, it’s not the easiest transition to return to a top down, authoritarian, and institutional learning environment.”
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Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019). She is also an adjunct scholar at The Cato Institute and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children.