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Online Course-Taking Shows Dramatic Growth

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The number of K-12 students using online courses has increased dramatically in the last few years, concludes a new report from the Needham, Mass-based Sloan Consortium, an advocacy group that promotes online education.

Researchers estimate that more than a million public school students now take classes online, a 47 percent increase from the consortium’s original K-12 survey done in the 2005-06 school year.

The 2007-08 survey of 867 public school district superintendents from each state and region in the country found that three-quarters of public school districts polled are offering online-only courses or courses that mix online and traditional education, and 75 percent of those districts had one or more students enrolled in a fully online course. The report notes that rural districts, in particular, see significant benefits to having their students taking some online courses.

“There’s been a big bump in the last couple of years,” says Anthony G. Picciano, co-author of the study and a professor and executive officer of the doctorate program in urban education at the City University of New York. “With almost any new technology, there’s a group of people that start using it, and then all of a sudden a lot of people catch on.”

The survey of K-12 administrators found that online learning is being used in a wide variety of ways, from offering Advanced Placement and other high-level classes to high-achieving students to providing credit-recovery programs for students who failed or did not complete a class.

The report notes that school districts are implementing these courses differently. Some are using online-only classes and others are creating a hybrid model that might include some face-to-face interaction with a teacher as well as digital curriculum and online interaction.

“The big trend is more blended or hybrid learning environments in the classroom,” says Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, formerly known as the North American Council for Online Learning. “There are cases where schools have a highly qualified math or science teacher, but relying on a single textbook to teach all the concepts of the course may not be the best way to customize instruction in this digital age.”

Shopping for Course Providers

The study also found that more than 82 percent of schools surveyed are shopping around for online providers, going to both non-profit and for-profit providers of online courses as well as higher education institutions, and creating their own virtual courses.

“The use of multiple vendors makes sense and allows the school districts to be most flexible in meeting the specific needs of their students,” the report says.

“We are seeing online learning grow in relevance and acceptance throughout education,” says Frank Mayadas, the program director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds the Sloan Consortium, and president of the consortium.

That growth is on a trajectory to continue, the report found. Two out of three school districts surveyed reported that they expect their online course enrollments to grow.

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