Even with most back-to-school policy in Michigan still up in the air, one thing is already clear about the fall: Schools will continue the extraordinary online learning experiment that began when classrooms closed this spring.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer hasn’t announced whether classrooms will be allowed to reopen, but districts across the state are already planning to keep classrooms closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The widespread shift to virtual instruction could accelerate the state’s long-running push to offer more education online, a move with enormous but uncertain implications for students.
Five months ago, only a small fraction of Michigan’s students did much of their learning online. Now school building closures have familiarized most of those 1.6 million students with virtual instruction, and officials are investing tens of millions of dollars in technologies to make it even more widely accessible; Detroit’s school district alone has spent $23 million. Educators and online learning companies are welcoming the expansion, and some policymakers are pushing for back-to-school legislation that would open the door to even more online learning.
Yet experts estimate that at least 25% of Michigan students still don’t have the technology they need to learn online, raising questions about the equity of online learning policies. And there is scant evidence that existing online programs aid student learning.
“There are plenty of virtual learning organizations that are more than willing to provide their services, but we don’t have a lot of evidence that they have a positive effect on student learning,” said Mark Berends, a professor at University of Notre Dame who co-authored a recent study of virtual schools in Indiana.
Here are five issues to watch as this experiment with virtual learning enters a new phase.