As educators are well into the school year, the national debate about the efficacy of online learning continues. Now, though, the stakes are higher. As the economy emerges from the current health crisis, an educated and motivated workforce will be needed to fuel its recovery.
Education is not one-size-fits-all, and for many students, online education may be a perfect fit. Educators who embrace the creative use of the online modality may find that they can now accommodate a surprising number of students who are high achievers, even if they don’t fit the traditional mold.
The 73-year-old University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) — which offered its first online classes more than 20 years ago — proves how successful this approach can be for undergraduate and graduate students. Another program, the two-year-old TranZed Academy for Working Students (TAWS) is now showing that it can work for high school students, too. Part of Maryland’s Montgomery County Public School System, the program is designed for seniors who also hold jobs, and it has the potential to be a national model.
Consider the stories of two recent graduates. One dreamed of a professional career in nursing administration, but her work schedule left her barely hanging on in school. A counselor recommended that she enroll in TAWS so that she could study online and set her own schedule. She finished her high school courses early with a 4.0 GPA and went on to take college courses while still in high school that she will apply to a bachelor’s degree program this fall.
Another student who struggled to balance work and school schedules found that online courses allowed him to self-pace and delve deeper into subjects that interested him. He even developed a side-career in photography, which he expects to continue as he works on a degree in cybersecurity.
These are the kind of budding professionals and entrepreneurs who will form the backbone of our national economic recovery. They will establish small businesses and climb career ladders — but in a traditional school setting, they might well flounder or even drop out.
By choice or by necessity, the students at UMGC and TAWS fit education around their jobs and lives, not vice versa. They choose flexible, accessible, and online-integrated programming because it accommodates their demanding schedules.
Students of color especially may find that they are best served by this arrangement, and racial diversity is the norm at both UMGC and TAWS. UMGC is an institution where a majority of students are people of color, and 56% of the students in TAWS last year were Hispanic, while another 26% were African American, and 13% Asian American.
Even as the current pandemic has made online and hybrid education a necessity, some educators and administrators remain skeptical. Sadly, they are allowing biases and presuppositions to cloud their embrace of new opportunities.
Many still assume that “good students” must be linear, traditional learners. Our experience is the opposite. At TAWS, 17-year-olds take courses online in the mornings or evenings while clocking long hours at work. Often their families' sole or primary providers, they embody grit, resilience and dedication. While UMGC’s students are typically older, the same traits are on display. Traditional education puts these students at a disadvantage. We owe it to them to offer educational programs that meet and accommodate their diverse needs and leverage their strengths.
High schoolers who are empowered to study how and when they learn best are also well prepared for college. For example, TAWS has already established a path to future studies at UMGC — often via a dual enrollment program with a local community college — and to other highly respected colleges and universities around the country.
Our thinking, borne of extensive experience before the current health crisis, is that online education is a tool like any other, with promises and challenges. One of the primary benefits is removing constraints of time and space. For many students, this has made it possible to work, stay in school and excel.
Career coaches are also vital assets. Personal contact is critical, especially for high school students, and TAWS students credit coaches for contributing to their success. Similarly, at UMGC, the Career Services office supports students and alumni who are seeking a first job, a promotion, or a new career path.
In the short-term, UMGC enrollments continue to grow and TAWS is discussing expansion into other local public school systems, including Washington, D.C.
Looking forward, we urge our colleagues, whether in K-12 or higher education, to take a fresh look at online education. It may, in fact, represent the best fit for those students who will form the backbone of an economic recovery that is more robust, more equitable and more resilient.
Javier Miyares (firstname.lastname@example.org) is past president of University of Maryland Global Campus, the nation’s largest online public university and a constituent institution of the University System of Maryland. Maryland State Sen. Jim Rosapepe (email@example.com) is a member of the TAWS advisory board and a former University System of Maryland regent.