The ability to leverage the internet for classroom learning has had a marked effect on education, but in most cases the technology is growing faster than results can be collected or aggregated. The popularity of online schooling, be it for a high school language course or an entire college degree, is very clearly on the rise. There is a great demand for the online platform’s flexibility, as well as its significant cost savings. The flip-side of that coin is actual learning, however. If students are not as productive in the virtual classroom as they are in person, some of the program fundamentals will need to be reconsidered.
Education in the U.S. is governed at the state level. While this allows states to tailor curricula and school district specifications to their own populations, it also makes aggregating outcomes something of a challenging endeavor. The variance in online program structures and goals as so far prevented a comprehensive, factual study of whether online education in grades K -12 is producing the same outcomes as the traditional classroom does. Each state rates student performance differently, and no two online programs are identical.
Still, it is clear that interest and investment in online education is growing rapidly. By July 2005, 21 states had statewide online learning programs, and cyber level or district-level online programs operated in every state. Those numbers are continuing to grow.
Estimates are that, by the end of the 2010-2011 school year, more than 1.5 million students had taken at least one online course or course supplement. Providers of these online courses include public school districts singly or in combination with other districts; newly established state virtual schools; private providers; and post-secondary institutions. Students are using the programs to interact with teachers and other students online, as well as to participate in interactive exercises. Alabama, Florida and Michigan are among the states that have made online learning part of the standard high school graduation requirements.
The reasons for the rush to online learning are as varied as the students, but two of the most important factors are cost and flexibility. The Southern Regional Educational Board estimates that 70-80% of the cost of traditional instruction goes directly to supporting personnel. Students are also limited to learning within set school hours, or when their teachers are free. With taxpayers demanding better outcomes for less money, the pressure is on for educators to find creative ways to teach everyone and save money while doing so.
Reports provided in Wisconsin and Florida, two states that have led the country in online experiments, found that interactive, internet-based learning environments produced better results than traditional classroom–and did so at a lower per-pupil cost than the state average. Researchers urge a cautious interpretation of these results because of a lack of statistical controls, but nevertheless the overall message is encouraging.
Despite the differences in programming and assessment, some facts about online education remain consistent from place to place:The “try-this-out” nature of online education is crucial. Given student differences in background and learning ability, experimenting with educational delivery is usually a must. This means that the online educational platform is dynamic, and is able to quickly adapt to perceived problems or weaknesses.
Online learning gives educators one more method of teaching, and broadens the ways through which knowledge is imparted. Teachers frequently learn from each other when it comes to class structuring and online curriculum-building. In many ways, this “spreads the wealth” to poor and rural parts of the country, where developmental resources are lacking. A school need not have a big budget for innovation if it can piggyback off of lessons learned at more privileged schools.
It is fair to infer that cash-strapped states are seeing some advantage to online education, as every state in the country uses some type of virtual model in at least some of its school districts. Not every state operates a fully virtual high school, but all offer at least some online components that can complement more traditional schooling.
In the absence of research reports that apply to the whole country, educators and political leaders should look to particularly successful models to see what they are doing right. In New York City, for instance, the School of One–a sanctioned online summer school–has been operating for several years. The school’s longevity has allowed for a number of modifications and updates, both to technology and pedagogy. The School of One model offers a blended approach to learning which takes into account student differences and studies how students learn best. School officials survey students to understand each one.
Researchers’ work is paying off. “Particularly in New York City, where students arrive at our schools from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, with different skill sets and skill levels, we must offer students instruction that meets their individual needs,” school chancellor Joel Klein told the New York City Department of Education. The digital space has in many ways made the school’s success popular. “The world has changed dramatically over the past century, and using technology to expand learning opportunities for students is both necessary and promising,” School of One founder Joel Rose said.
Anecdotal reports indicate that educators in all 50 states are trying to find innovative ways to educate a diverse population. These experiments deserve public support.