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Online, and On the Same Side

With the world of online education exploding, a pair of Pennsylvania online education leaders called for the need for structure, guidance, and collaboration Wednesday morning here in Philadelphia at the final day of the annual ISTE conference.

With more data pointing to the normalization of K-12 online education, including some released here yesterday, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School's Nick Trombetta and Pennsylvania Digital Learning Network's James Barker insisted in a roundtable discussion that almost all school districts are beginning to take online learning as a serious option.

But with so many new content providers, vendors, and virtual schools jumping into the field, the duo said district leaders who are looking to give their students the best online options can be paralyzed by what's out there.

"When I walk into the [ISTE conference] exhibit hall, that's how I see Pennsylvania and what we're doing," said Trombetta, who founded the first of what are now 12 cyber charter schools in the state, as well as the National Network of Digital Schools. "It was overwhelming. Wow, there's all these options. But who's the best, and how do I use it?"

Barker, executive director of the state's digital learning network, insisted school systems should be flexible when searching for the best virtual solutions for students as part of a "new normal," a term he used to describe a student-centric version of learning he said he hopes becomes the standard. (The "new normal" has often been used to describe the post-recessionary budget picture in education, as well as other fields.)

"The reality is it's about finding that passion that exists within each and every child and letting that child pursue that passion," Barker said.

Barker noted any such pursuit required a student master the necessary academic skills in language and mathematics, but argued that allowing the student to be a director of his or her learning would facilitate learning those skills. That argument is a common war cry of many online learning advocates, while critics counter that successful participants in the 21st-century workforce must also master collaboration even when the common goal may differ from the individual's.

On a more practical note, Trombetta expressed pessimism that the increasing popularity of online learning—coupled with the emergence of common standards—would lead to a common teacher certification anytime soon. But if it ever happened, he said it would not only help current online teachers who serve students from several states, but also brick-and-mortar teachers who may face layoffs in their local districts while virtual schools in other locations are in need of instructors.

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