A step into the future

Our view : Baltimore County should invest in online education

June 25, 2008

In an increasingly wired (and wireless) world, an online presence is becoming indispensable for institutions ranging from businesses to nonprofits to government agencies. Grasping this new reality, Baltimore County education officials last year wisely launched a pilot online education program that served 106 students - almost all of them previously home-schooled.

This initiative deserves to be made permanent. The county executive's office disagrees and denied a $2 million request for online education in the 2008-2009 school budget, blaming poor economic conditions. That reasoning is understandable but shortsighted.

Unless the school board can find the funding in its current budget to keep the program, it stands to lose state dollars when some - perhaps most - of those 106 students return to home-schooling in the fall. Worse, it would also lose the opportunity to become a pioneer in an area that will doubtless play a major role in the future of education.

The American public education system, designed in an agricultural era for a population that was not college-bound, desperately needs new thinking. Online learning helps Maryland public school students who are confined to a home or hospital. A carefully designed program could benefit many more, including those who miss school because of travel, bad weather, family obligations, work or behavioral suspension.

The power of the Internet can take an outstanding teacher and multiply her usefulness hundreds or thousands of times beyond the number of students she would face in a classroom. And online education can be a boon to areas of the state and the country that have trouble attracting qualified teachers.

The state Department of Education's Maryland Virtual Learning Opportunities program, launched in 2002, enrolled nearly 1,000 students this past year. It makes many Advanced Placement courses available online for students and provides resources for teachers. Other states, notably Florida, are doing much more.

Unfortunately, Maryland is one of a few states that effectively prohibit the formation of online charter schools. The state's charter school law should be updated to eliminate that restriction.

Online public education is coming; the choice here is whether to lead or to follow. We would prefer to see Baltimore County and Maryland be leaders.

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