Just a little over a decade ago, online learning for many educators fell into the realm of science fiction, or worse, snake oil. Visions of students accessing an array of courses on their computers, interacting with teachers over the internet, and participating in virtual “field trips” seemed more fantasy than reality.
But in 2012, with advances in the availability, quality and usability of electronic devices, nearly 2 million K-12 students are taking online courses, some 200,000 of them in full-time academic programs, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). This Topics section examines the rise of online education through research, reporting, and other resources.
After Florida, Michigan and other early adopter states ventured into the virtual schools arena in the late 1990s and early 2000s, other states joined in the movement. Online learning is now a widely available option for students across the country looking to make up credits toward graduation, take courses not available in their local schools, or get a jump on college through dual-enrollment programs. At least 40 states have some kind of online learning program, and 30 states allow students to attend school full time via the internet. Those programs provide districts with new options for meeting students’ needs.
Online learning is no longer the novelty it once was. Increasingly, advocates are making the case that digital learning can play a leading role in addressing a range of challenges facing K-12 education. For example, Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia who is now president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said at a national leadership summit in February 2012 that online learning is an “imperative for meeting those challenges such as providing sufficient opportunities for students to gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the global economy; dealing with budget deficits that are forcing program cuts; and ensuring students’ access to high-quality teachers, curricula, and learning experiences.
Questions on Quality
A number of alternative school models, including cyber charters, are beginning to gain traction as a result of the interest in and availability of online coursework. While the total number of charter schools utilizing an online or blended model is still tiny, they are multiplying. Michigan lawmakers, for example, approved a measure in March 2012 to expand the number of cyber charters in the state from two to 15 in the near future. The 11 cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania through 2012 have been popular among families seeking alternatives to the traditional public schools, but their quality has been called into question because most of their students have been unable to reach state benchmarks on math and reading tests. Some Pennsylvania school districts have used that data to make the case for cyber students to come back to traditional public schools.
Indeed, more questions are surfacing about the academic quality of the online programs. The National School Boards Association has been particularly vocal on this issue, citing in a report in May 2012 a “troubling” lack of “good information about results and accountability.” Interest and demand for online learning options for K-12 students have surged in recent years due to their potential to provide cost-effective means of expanding instructional options and cater to students who’ve grown up using the internet for both informal and formal learning. Yet experts and advocacy groups agree that more research is needed to gauge the effectiveness of online and blended learning models.
The few solid studies that are available have not been in agreement in their findings. Some comparison studies, for example, have found a slight advantage in student outcomes for online courses, others for face-to-face instruction. A federal meta-analysis of the research on online learning, released in 2009, drew only tentative conclusions due to a lack of solid research on online learning practices. That analysis, though, found a slight advantage for blended learning over traditional classroom instruction.
Blended Learning Takes Hold
The success of School of One, a pilot project in New York City public schools that utilizes a blended model to personalize learning at each student’s own pace has been lauded as the kind of innovation needed for today’s schools. School of One, which started under the umbrella of the New York City Department of Education in a handful of middle schools several years ago, spun off as a nonprofit in January 2012. It also recently won a $5 million federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant to expand the model beyond the district.
Blended learning has taken hold as districts begin to rethink how they deliver instruction amid fiscal instability and criticism of the traditional model of schooling, according to the Innosight Institute, a research and consulting firm working on innovation in education. Online and blended learning programs are growing fastest at the district level, says Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning 2011, an annual report on the subject by the Colorado-based consulting firm Evergreen Education Group. In Indianapolis, for example, officials approved 19 new charter schools using a mix of online and classroom instruction.
The availability of compelling online and multimedia resources has led to growing enthusiasm for another approach: the flipped classroom. The concept allows for students to receive instruction at home via computer that in a traditional classroom would be delivered in person by a teacher. In a flipped classroom, students review readings, videos and other materials at home in advance and then use class time to have in-depth discussions, conduct experiments, work on projects, or complete assignments traditionally given as homework. In the Los Altos school district, for example, middle grades students use instructional videos available through the free, online Khan Academy, to help teachers assess their skill level and better prepare them for class lessons.
With the emergence of so-called open source resources on the internet, some observers predict a revolution in the way children acquire knowledge and learn new skills. Akin to the Khan Academy model, TED and YouTube have launched video sites to capture model lessons and make them freely available. Free curriculum sites, such as Curriki and Open Education Resource Commons, provide a vast archive of content for teachers to use whole cloth or as a supplement to what they are already teaching. The open source movement has also inspired many teachers to share the lessons and strategies they’ve perfected over the course of their careers. The Open High School of Utah, for example, gives teachers time and support to create model curricula for the virtual academy. Some of the big commercial publishers, such as McGraw-Hill and Pearson, also create open source materials for use in schools.
While many nonprofit entities are involved in some aspects of implementation of online initiatives, many states and districts depend on for-profit providers for content and technical support. K12 Inc. and Connections Academy are among the leading providers in this market.