Online course OK; real classroom is better

Anyone born after Dec. 31, 1979, must take a DNR-approved firearms safety training course to obtain a hunting license in Minnesota. The course includes several hours of classroom training, a written exam and a "field day" where students handle firearms under the watchful eyes of certified instructors. It's a great program, but sometimes classes fill up, or there aren't enough qualified instructors to meet the need. Sometimes parents have conflicts that make it impossible to get their kids to class.

So today, anyone 16 or older can take an online course instead. They still have to show up for the field day, but they no longer have to spend hours in a classroom. It's billed as "independent study" — which is another way of saying that the student learns as much, or as little, as they are motivated to learn. Our guess is that no one in the hunting community believes that this is the best way to study firearms safety, but in our wired world people have come to expect online options.

Should we apply the same philosophy to something that affects far more teenagers — namely, driver education? Sen. John Howe, a Republican from Red Wing, is leading the effort to let would-be drivers take the classroom portion of driver's ed online.

We're not surprised by this proposal, which is the latest step in "streamlining" the process by which kids learn to drive.

In the not-so-distant past, teenagers earned their learner's permit by passing a written exam, then spent a semester taking driver's education through the public schools. They saw films about the perils of speeding and drunk driving. They practiced parallel parking and learned to check their blind spots in school-owned vehicles.


In a perfect world we'd still use that system. But driver education is expensive and created liability issues for schools, so the vast majority of them have opted out of driver training. This has put a significant burden on parents, who must find a training program that fits their family's schedule and budget. 

Online coursework would make driver training more convenient, but like most online courses, parental supervision would be critical. A kid working from home would have many options to let them avoid actually doing the classwork themselves, so if Mom and Dad want their would-be driver to learn something online, they'd need pay close attention.

Parents who choose not to get involved in their kids' driver training could pay the price — literally — when they see their insurance premiums after their 16-year-old's first  fender-bender.

Ultimately, we see online driver's training in much the same way that we see most forms of online education, whether it's in high school, college or for an advanced degree. It's a viable alternative for people who put a premium on convenience, but those who spend the extra time and money on the "real thing" will likely end up learning more.

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