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Administrator Magazine: Curriculum
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Should All Schools Be Virtual?

If your district isn't offering online classes, it's time to catch up.

Go to the bottom of the page to read the intro to Clayton Christensen's Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

Laine swanson of Horseshoe Bend, Idaho, will start college in the fall with a head start, having completed five advanced courses in high school. His AP English and AP calculus credits will transfer—and he took Spanish, something that his small, rural high school didn’t offer. He has also mastered Blackboard, the same technology he’ll use at the University of Idaho. How? He took all of these courses online.

For Swanson, the flexibility of doing his online work before or after school is a big plus as he juggles working 20 hours a week at a Subway restaurant and serves as senior-class president, among other things. The coursework he takes through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, a nonprofit formed by school administrators, is just as hard as traditional

classwork, says Swanson. And he is more likely to chime in during online class discussion, because he’s less nervous about the reactions of students sitting nearby.

“We are becoming more of a technological society,” says Swanson, who has his iPod with him at all times and his cell phone to the right of the keyboard. “There was no transition for me to take a course online. I’ve seen a few people struggle. For me, it was not a big deal.”

While online learning has been around for more than a decade, it’s becoming part of the mainstream. As schools try to connect with tech-savvy kids and equip them for the jobs of the future, you may want to give online classes a look. One million K–12 students were enrolled in online classes in 2007–08. Enrollment in online learning is growing by 30 percent a year nationwide, and 44 states have significant online learning programs, according to the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (inacol).

Yet, as any administrator knows, the usual barriers exist: funding, policies, and tradition. Formulas that dole out money to districts based on seat time were made before the advent of online instruction. There is no national policy for online learning, so states are coming up with a variety of models on their own. Although economical in the long run, it takes an investment of equipment, training, and time to start online learning programs. And there is still concern among some that students learn better in a traditional classroom than over the Internet.

Many districts are turning to online learning as an answer to teacher shortages and to fill in for dropped courses. For some, it’s a matter of education equity. By providing virtual classes to rural and disadvantaged populations, online learning can help give students access to a wide range of opportunities. For others, it’s a way to stretch their education dollars in these tough economic times.

The Scope of Online Learning
For those not up to speed, online learning generally refers to full courses taught over the Web by a licensed teacher. Often it is self-directed learning—students progress at their own pace. Courses are offered in the basics, such as science and math, as well as niche subjects, such as foreign languages. Some are remedial; others are advanced. Some courses are 100 percent online; others take place in a computer lab with an instructor nearby for support. Hybrid courses are popular because they require students to have face-to-face classroom time in combination with independent work online.

Since K–12 online learning has been around since about 1996, there are lots of lessons learned that have paved the way for its expansion, says Susan Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of
inacol, based in Vienna, Virginia. “It’s not just something for a technology director, or a side program. It’s a way to fundamentally meet goals to improve the graduation rate, provide more rigorous courses, and provide more customized options,” she says.

The boom in online learning is so great that author Clayton M. Christensen, in his 2008 book Disrupting Class, predicted that computer-based, student-centric learning will account for 50 percent of all courses in US secondary schools within a decade. The drivers: technological improvements, customized software for different types of learners, looming teacher shortages, and cost pressures. Still, it’s a challenge to push big innovation into a system that at times is resistant to change.

Online classes are appealing to rural students with limited course selection, at-risk students who are pursuing credit recovery, accelerated students seeking advanced placement, students with disabilities or transportation problems, or students whose second language is English.

The traditional classroom is designed to teach to the middle, but too often kids on the fringes miss out, says Karen Greenwood Henke, founder of Nimble Press in Pasadena, California, and an advocate for online learning. “The challenge today is that No Child Left Behind is asking teachers to be responsible for the whole curve, but we haven’t changed the structure of the classroom much,” she says. “The result is that teachers are feeling tremendous pressure for all to achieve.” Online learning can help address the different learning styles and teachers’ different strengths.

John Canuel, executive director of educational technology services for Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado, says schools need to try a variety of avenues to reach students. “I don’t think online learning is the answer for all students, but I do believe we have a moral obligation to meet the needs of all students,” he says. “Online learning is coming to every student, every school, every district. The question to our leaders is, ‘What role do we want to play in leading this work?’”

Making the Transition
With the economy demanding educated workers, and students more comfortable than ever in the digital world, the timing may be right for online education in your district. “This is where these kids are engaged, where they live,” says Julie Young, the president and chief executive officer of Florida Virtual School (FLVS). “We are losing them at school, and we need to find a way to meet them—to find a reason to be in school.”
In Florida, the FLVS and the districts have worked out a way for students to take online courses and avoid the problem of taking money away from schools. With new limits on class size in the state, enrolling a student in an online course is one way to reduce the number of students, and avoid the cost of hiring an additional teacher, says Young.

Recent research shows that learning online is equally—if not more—effective than learning in the classroom, and is adding legitimacy to the movement. Students feel more engaged taking a course online, noting that online courses demand higher-level skills and more participation in discussion, according to a 2008 study by the National Survey of Student Engagement.

Online discussion groups can allow students to have in-depth conversations that aren’t limited to a 50-minute class, says inacol’s Patrick. When students sign on from various schools, it adds a diversity of opinion to the class, and provides opportunity for collaboration, she says.

Because all activity online is electronic, every interaction can be measured. There is a record of all postings, e-portfolios of students’ work, and constant tracking of student competency. This makes it easy to evaluate courses and student performance, and content can also be updated as needed.

David Bouck, the principal of Portland High School in Portland, Michigan, has been impressed with the depth of instruction and knowledge with online classes at his school, but he says that students need to adjust to the format—and the time lag in communication. “You don’t get an instantaneous answer,” he says. “If you have a question in a classroom, you raise your hand and get an answer. If you have a question online, you get an answer in a matter of hours. That’s frustrating for some students.”

Additional concerns concern over quality instruction and a lack of awareness about online learning can also hinder its expansion. “There is a misconception that it’s a computer screen teaching a student,” says Patrick. “In fact, it’s a trained teacher using the Internet, working with the student and exchanging ideas.” To address the issue of quality, inacol issued national standards for online teaching and courses.

Students with good time-management skills have an advantage online, but others can succeed with supports. Experts warn that schools can’t just put students online and forget about them until the end of the semester. Schools with poor completion rates online often don’t have adequate monitoring in place.
“There is a real danger that we take students who are not thriving in our schools and put them in lower-quality online learning to achieve passing [grades], but not improve their skills,” says Henke. Schools should look beyond classes that merely put textbooks online to ones that use the technology in effective ways.

The National Education Association (NEA) believes that quality distance education can create and extend learning opportunities, but should not be an alternative to convening students in a traditional classroom. Teachers who do provide online learning should be licensed, says Andrea Prejean, senior policy analyst with the NEA in Washington, D.C.

The NEA is concerned about poor-quality software programs or ones in which the parent becomes the teacher, and is not supportive of full-time online learning programs for children in K–8. “Younger children need to be in school and socialized with other students,” says Prejean. The association believes the best online courses have a balance of face-to-face time and instruction online.

On the Front Lines
michigan was the first state to mandate that students have an online learning experience before they graduate high school. It was approved in 2006 and is in effect for students currently in 10th grade. (Alabama is the only other state with such a requirement.)

Jamey Fitzpatrick, president of Michigan Virtual School (MVS), says there was no opposition to the proposal because policymakers in this manufacturing state know that students need to be ready for future jobs that require technology skills. “It represents where we are in the world today,” says Fitzpatrick. “It recognizes that this is the way employees receive training and, in post-secondary education, online [learning] has become pervasive, and is growing at warp speed. We need to prepare young people to operate in that space.”

MVS is one of the largest virtual schools funded with private grants and state education money. Middle and high school students statewide can enroll in its online classes, often taking one in a media center at school during the regular school day. Some have a lab environment with a teacher in the room to help and others are blended—part online and part face-to-face. Enrollment is growing by 40 percent a year, with 40,000 students served last year.

In Colorado, competition pushed the 98,000-student Jefferson County Public School District to offer online learning. Located just outside of Denver, the district was experiencing an exodus of students, in part because it didn’t offer online courses. It was an “alarming trend” and one that the district had to respond to by providing more flexible online programs, says Audie Rubin, the student online-learning developer for the district. “Students and parents view education as consumers now. That’s a huge change in the last 10 or 15 years. Just because I live down the street from a school doesn’t mean I have to go there. I see options. This is our reality.”

Before the courses were rolled out in the high schools, Jefferson County introduced the technology to teachers through professional development. “Our strategy was to place the educators themselves in an online learning environment before offering it to students,” says Canuel. “In many districts, it’s backwards. They rush to put it in the hands of the kids.”

Colorado—like many states—requires some specialized training for teachers before they teach online. Experts suggest the best online teachers are the ones who volunteer to try it, because they are perhaps known as being tech whizzes in their schools. The most important factor is being open to learning and trying the new platform.

Mapping out the future
online learning is used by about 4 percent of K–12 students and this number is expected to grow to 15 percent by 2011, according to the 2006 America Digital Schools Survey. Research has shown that 40 percent of middle school and high school students want to take a class online, says Patrick. “We are barely scratching the surface,” she says.

Now that online education has proven to be robust for teaching, Patrick says there should be no turning back to the old models. While the online model has the capability to customize instruction and collect data, the teacher is still the most important factor for quality in an online course. Online instruction is attracting experienced teachers with an average of seven years on the job.But Prejean of the NEA is skeptical of the prediction that half of all high school courses will be online in 10 years. “I think that we have to do a lot more education about what this is supposed to look like for parents and teachers,” she says. “I don’t disagree that student-centered education is important, but I don’t think putting them online is the answer.”

Nimble Press’s Henke maintains that schools will always have a role as a social center for teachers and students. “Everyone who is successful has had some special teacher in their life,” she says. “We don’t have to think of online learning as an ‘or.’ Online learning doesn’t mean shutting down schools. Think of it as an ‘and.’”

When it comes to implementing technology, it’s like the “Wild West” as schools try to figure out the right policies, structures and balance, says Jefferson County’s Canuel. “We are living in a volatile time and seeing great extremes,” he says. “It will reshape education. My greatest fear is that not enough educators will take ownership and leadership and will watch this happen to us.”

Administrators leading the way advise schools to be proactive in mapping out the future of online learning. “The longer a state waits, the more of a hurdle they will have to develop some core competencies in this area,” says Fitzpatrick of Michigan Virtual School. “Online learning is not a fad. It’s here to stay.”   

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