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 section of Story Starters 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. — Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, June 2012
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
Legislation will be introduced in the California Senate that could reshape higher education by requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to give credit for faculty-approved online courses taken by students unable to register for oversubscribed classes on campus. (The New York Times)Read More »
Students with broadband Internet access at home may have an advantage over those who don't, officials say. (USA Today)Read More »
One of the big draws of online education is that it can be easily untethered from the traditional semester schedule, with online universities often offering new classes 52 weeks a year. But while they are convenient for students, and profitable for institutions, rolling starts for classes can mean flimsy job security for the adjunct professors who teach them. (Inside Higher Ed)Read More »
Education has long played a part in the annual deliberations at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But this time, many participants may have detected what Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s president, described as “a lot of attention.” (The New York Times)Read More »
The market for online higher education aimed at adults may be reaching maturity, according to a new report from Eduventures. And without a better-defined product, the report's author said online learning faces a risk of petering out and being little more than a back-up alternative to on-campus education for students. (Inside Higher Ed)
Colleges and professors have rushed to try a new form of online teaching known as MOOC’s—short for "massive open online courses." The courses raise questions about the future of teaching, the value of a degree, and the effect technology will have on how colleges operate. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)Read More »
As online learning has entered the mainstream—with roughly a third of the nation's high school students enrolled in at least one online course, according to a report released in June 2011—more states have created policies, procedures, and even organizations for evaluating the quality of such courses and other online content available to students.
But instituting those quality-control measures is not without challenges. (Education Week)
A Colorado university will give full transfer credit to students who complete a free introductory computer-science course offered by the online-education start-up company Udacity. (Chronicle of Higher Education)Read More »
In the 105,000-student Memphis city school system in Tennessee, officials were also concerned about making sure every student had the access needed when the district decided two years ago to require students to take an online course before graduation.Read More »
The district got creative, said Cleon L. Franklin, the director of instructional technology. It provided computer-lab time before and after school and coordinated with community organizations, such as libraries, to make sure students could use computers there. (Education Week)
This blog from writer Michael Horn, a co-founder of the nonprofit think tank Innosight Institute, follows the various ways that technology is shaping education reform. (Forbes)Read More »
This column from a coordinator of New York’s iLearn NYC program — a blended learning initiative throughout the public schools — notes “that blended learning that is not managed ethically can be damaging, but that strong teachers can use blended learning to help all students in new ways.” (Gotham Schools)Read More »
“Full-time online schools have gained 50,000 more students in the past year alone, bringing the total number of students taking part in such virtual learning environments up to 250,000,” according to this article, which looks at a report from the National School Boards Association. (Education Week)Read More »
This column by Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, argues that “A few common-sense ground rules must be in place if online learning and virtual schools are to work well.” (Huffington Post)Read More »
From the article: “Virtual schools, particularly those that provide full-time services for students, are coming under increasing scrutiny over student achievement and accountability. Several reports in recent months have questioned everything from the transient nature of virtual student populations to the integrity of student work and the lack of comparisons between online and face-to-face learning.” (Education Week)Read More »
Education Week’s Technology Counts 2012: E-learning Turns Toward District-Level Approaches and a Focus on AccountabilityMarch 2012
The annual series from Education Week examines developments in the online education front. The 2012 report determines that “as e-learning moves further into the K-12 mainstream, it is also attracting closer scrutiny from educators, policymakers, researchers, and the news media. Questions about its effectiveness are being asked more often by a growing cadre of critics, and even advocates concede that the e-learning movement needs to take a harder look at putting better accountability measures in place.” (Education Week)Read More »
“The growth of for-profit online schools, one of the more overtly commercial segments of the school choice movement, is rooted in the theory that corporate efficiencies combined with the Internet can revolutionize public education, offering high quality at reduced cost,” the article notes. But an analysis of one company’s operations “raises serious questions about whether [it] — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed.” (New York Times)Read More »
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Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
This report from an education reform advocacy group notes that “For digital learning to fulfill its enormous potential, a wholesale reshaping of the reform agenda itself is required, particularly in the realms of school finance and governance.”(Thomas B. Fordham Institute)Read More »
Just as it promises, this report from a leading nonprofit organization in the field of online education offers a variety of key statistics that are useful when writing stories on the subject. (iNACOL)Read More »
This report from an advocacy group discusses how school districts can use online education to confront the challenges posed by budget restrictions, teacher quality and demands for improved student learning. It asserts that “digital learning” can be most effective when “teaching, technology, and use of time” are well balanced. (Alliance for Excellent Education)Read More »
This short statement from a national teachers’ union outlines why it supports blended learning as long as the instruction is guided by a licensed teacher. (National Education Association)Read More »
This report “provides an overview of the latest policies, practices, and trends affecting online learning programs across all 50 states.” This series of reports from an education consulting group commissioned by various organizations have been published annually since 2004, making them a helpful resource for tracing the growth of online learning in recent years. (Evergreen Education Group)Read More »
Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-analysis and Review of Online Learning StudiesSeptember 2010
This report was one of the first major analyses of the effectiveness of online learning and remains one of the most influential. It “found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes… was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face.” (U.S. Dept. of Education)Read More »
This brief quickly summarizes the findings of the key research at that time regarding online education, including the U.S. Department of Education’s 2009 meta-analysis with references to 15 other studies. (iNACOL)Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- What online learning options does the district you cover offer students? How long has this program been in place, and how has it developed over time? What do students say about the course offered online? What do teachers say?
- Are there any blended learning programs in your district? Sit in on one of the courses and document the balance between technology and teaching. What do students think of the mixture of approaches, and how do they say it compares with other classes they have taken?
- Does the state or district you cover offer a full-time virtual learning program or cyber charters? If so, how many students are enrolled, and how has the online learning option affected the policy and practices of the physical schools?
- Are any of the teachers in the schools using “open source” educational resources such as the videos available on Khan Academy to supplement their classroom lessons? What do teachers in the district you cover think of the quality of these new potential tools?
- Have any of the schools you cover tried “flipped learning”? If so, how did this option affect teaching and student learning?
The Innosight Institute is a think tank co-founded by Harvard Business School guru Clayton Christensen. Their education research aims to apply Christensen’s “theories of disruptive innovation to develop and promote solutions to the problems of education” with a particular emphasis on blended learning and online education.
The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) in Oct. 2011 issued its standards for “Quality Online Courses.” iNACOL manages the Online Learning Clearinghouse (supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and WestEd). iNACOL also published a series of papers on Promising Practices in Online Learning (2008/2009).
The National Education Policy Center has issued a series of papers on online learning, questioning, in particular, the effectiveness of online charter schools. The center is headquartered at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education.
The National School Boards Association has been particularly vocal on issues of the quality of the academic programs some cyber charters offer, citing in a report from May 2012 a “troubling” lack of “good information about results and accountability.”
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has issued a series of papers citing the potential of online and blended schools for raising achievement, with a particular emphasis on charter schools.
The National Leadership Summit for Online Learning, organized by iNACOL, was held in February 2012. This video archive lets you view most of the discussions held there, including “It’s All About Teaching and Learning” and “The Disruptive Innovation.”
How Blended Learning Can Help Turnaround Struggling Schools is a panel discussion the Alliance for Excellent Education held in May 2011. Four educators from Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina and Tennessee discuss how districts have used online learning to enhance student learning.
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.