Reason‘s Katherine Mangu-Ward has a well-reported piece in The Washington Post succinctly summed up in its headline: “Traditional schools aren’t working. Let’s move learning online.”

She’s not completely convincing when she writes that “it’s time to take online education seriously — because we’ve tried everything else.” Actually, I think that at one time, our schools didn’t do too shabby a job of educating the little ones. Our current crisis in education hasn’t been around for as long as education has (though I’m sure complaints have). Students used to have a better grasp of history, it seems, to give just one example.

Still, an excellent argument can be made for more online—and hence, self-directed—learning. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to say that every person should undergo the same education. Some students need extra attention; some students need extra challenges. Online education might be able to provide both, as Katherine points out. She offers some striking data, too:

How do we know online education will work? Well, for one thing, it already does. Full-time virtual charter schools are operating in dozens of states. The Florida Virtual School, which offers for-credit online classes to any child enrolled in the state system, has 100,000 students. Teachers are available by phone or e-mail from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. The state cuts a funding check to the school only when students demonstrate that they have mastered the material, whether it takes them two months or two years. The program is one of the largest in the country. Kids who enroll in Advanced Placement courses — 39 percent of whom are minority students — score an average of 3.05 out of 5, compared with a state average of 2.49 for public school students.

The idea behind some of these programs isn’t new. I remember taking a correspondence course or two when I was in high school, being mailed spiral-bound books of materials, sending in essays to be read and graded, and receiving the same course credit as my friends taking the class in our bricks-and-mortar building. It was a lot less frustrating learning this way than sitting through the same material in class, given at a glacial pace. Of course, now students aren’t getting cheaply made collections of text. As Katherine points out, instead of just hearing a lecture about Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, students can see a reconstruction of it online: history brought to life. These sorts of new media displays could and should be incorporated into the classroom, too.

There is a danger, though. It’s possible that encouraging students to spend more time online could exacerbate a problem that Peter Wood identifies in his review (in the latest issue of TAC) of Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System:

In America today, no one feels particularly abashed by not knowing stuff. “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” asks the popular Fox TV show. “So what if I’m not?” is the implied answer. It is OK for adults not to know the difference between the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Battle of the Bulge. We know that’s just “book knowledge” and could Google it if we really needed to find out.

Katherine’s right. Our schools aren’t working. The solution likely won’t come from unionized teachers eager to protect their turf. But perhaps a mix of the old and the new is the best way to impart knowledge, both to students who need personalized attention and to students who might be better off personalizing their own education.