Support Grows for K-12 Online Learning

Virtual schools and online learning initiatives have exploded across the country, offering students expanded courses and alternatives to traditional education. The Alliance for Excellent Education recently released a brief endorsing e-learning and digital classroom technology as a possible solution to several major crises in elementary and secondary education.

High school students

E-Learning Advances Across the Country

Online education has experienced incredibly rapid growth in postsecondary and continuing education. For adults, online courses offer flexible scheduling and affordable tuition, as well as extraordinary new opportunities for distance learning. While kids have long been at the forefront of online entertainment, online education has been much slower to take hold in K-12. But that's changing.

In 2004, the Evergreen Education Group released the first Keeping Pace report. This series of annual reports explores policy and practice in K-12 online education across the country. They recently released Keeping Pace 2009, which shows continuous growth in online learning opportunities for elementary and secondary students.

There are many forms of 'e-learning.' Keeping Pace primarily defines online learning as education that takes place on the Internet with the teacher and student geographically separated. A blend of online coursework and face-to-face instruction is another popular option, as is the use of Internet-based resources in lieu of full courses, both of which are included in Keeping Pace where significant policies related to those practices are in place. Finally, the report distinguishes between full-time programs where students are enrolled only in virtual schools, and supplemental programs where students in traditional schools take additional courses online. This distinction allows policymakers to measure the effectiveness of online-only education.

Online Learning Initiatives Across the Country

Figure 3 from Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: A Review of State-Level Policy and Practice, 2009, page 8.

As of fall 2009, 27 states had state virtual schools. These are schools that are created and primarily funded at the state level, rather than the district level. They offer centralized online programs for students across the state. Six more states have 'state-led online learning initiatives' that offer online educational resources without the full suite of services provided by a virtual school. Together, these programs had about 320,000 for-credit course enrollments in the 2008-2009 school year. However, many of these virtual schools are supplementary. There are currently 24 states plus Washington D.C. offering full-time 'cyberschools,' and several states have full-time online programs available to some, but not all, students in their state. All told, Keeping Pace reports that 45 out of 50 states have either a state virtual school, an online initiative, a full-time cyberschool, or some combination of the three.

Online programs run at the district level are still relatively rare, but growing rapidly. They tend to rely more on a blending of online and face-to-face instruction, but some district-run full-time programs exist as well. The report's authors note that the emergence of online programs at the district level may signal a sea change in public education. They point out that school districts are where education trends truly take hold because districts have the closest relationships with students and their families. The authors predict that while state-led programs will continue to grow, district-level programs will start to outpace them as online education becomes more widely accepted.

Traditional Classroom

Online Education Offers a 21st Century Solution

The Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) agrees that American public education is at a major turning point. However, they see e-learning as more than just a new resource - according to a brief published this month by Alliance members Bob Wise and Robert Rothman, online education offers a solution to the three main crises facing K-12 education in the U.S. They identify these problems as:

  1. Growth in the demand for global skills is outpacing educational attainment. Few people deny that the 21st century workplace demands higher education. There is a large - and growing - salary gap between workers with a high school diploma and those with a college degree, and recent studies have even shown that life satisfaction is higher among people with a postsecondary education. While the U.S. has managed to increase the number of American students attending college in recent years, our college-completion rate is still dismal. Only half of all 4-year college students earn their degrees within six years, and the graduation rate at community colleges is 38 percent. In order to improve college completion rates, high schools need to focus not just on graduating students, but on preparing them for the college experience.
  2. Local, state and federal revenues for education are declining. The federal government has put a lot of money toward K-12 education in both the FY2011 budget and through stimulus programs like Race to the Top. However, the federal funds can only go so far, and schools are facing a 'funding cliff.' Even as the economy recovers, states will be under pressure to fund so many essential programs - education, unemployment, Medicaid - that a recent report by the National Governor's Association (NGA) suggests that states won't fully recover from the current recession until the end of the decade. This means that in order to meet the increasing demands for quality education, schools will be forced to do more with less.
  3. A teacher shortage is looming. Teacher effectiveness may be the single most important factor in student success, but the quality of teachers across geographic and socioeconomic lines is wildly uneven. Furthermore, almost one-third of current teachers in the U.S. are eligible to retire in the next five to seven years. This will lead to a dramatic loss in both the total number of teachers and the amount of collective experience in the field at a time when the demands on teachers are only increasing.

Computers in the Classroom

The AEE proposes that online education is a crucial part of solving these problems. Although it often requires a significant investment up-front, online learning has proven to be much more cost-effective in the long term. When implemented effectively, e-learning can allow schools to actually improve their offerings while operating under a lower budget. However, in Keeping Pace 2009, the Evergreen Education Group cautions that states and school districts must make very careful choices when choosing online providers. As the programs proliferate so do the vendors that offer them, and while most will meet minimum state guidelines, not all will actually offer students a better alternative to traditional education. It's not enough that online education cost less - it must be equally or more effective.

However, good online programs may also offer elegant solutions to the other crises listed above. Because online education is not tied to geographical location, it allows for more collaboration. This means that it will be easier to implement common standards across the country, offering students everywhere a chance at greater college readiness. It also means that fewer teachers can reach more students. Theoretically, an online student could access a teacher somewhere in the world at any time, 24/7. Furthermore, the quality of a student's teachers would no longer be dictated by the student's location, and great teachers could more easily share their knowledge and best practices with others.

The AEE's brief encourages policymakers to seize this opportunity to use online education to implement real reform in K-12 education: 'As technology has revolutionized the way Americans get news, communicate, listen to music, shop, and do business, now is the time for American students in thousands of underperforming classrooms to realize the same gains.'

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