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The Brave New Breakthrough of Online Learning

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More than 150 years ago, the idea took flight that lessons could be taught and people could learn by correspondence through the mail. Many years later, some smart college professors and software engineers realized that computers were a far superior tool for distance learning than papers stuffed in an envelope. When email and online, real-time chat for consumers came along in the 1970s, the brave new path to the virtual classroom was plain to see.

Today, 45 of 50 states plus the District of Columbia have a state virtual school or online learning initiative, full-time online schools, or both. Fifty-seven percent of public secondary schools now provide access to online learning for students. And the impact on the learning process -- while still a focus of research for K-12 students -- is increasingly being seen as positive.

A U.S. Department of Education analysis of more than 40 studies, including five focused on K-12 pupils, found that "students who took all or part of their classes online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction." Another study, by the National Survey of Student Engagement, reported that the online-learning experience yielded deeper use of "higher-order thinking, integrative learning, and reflective learning."

A Solution to the Budget Crisis

There is more to online learning, however, than just upticks in student achievement. It is also paying dividends in two key areas that challenge school administrators everywhere:

  • It's proving to be a viable, low-cost strategy that could substantially help overcome the huge, recession-driven deficits in education budgets across the country.
  • With more than a third of all K-12 educators leaving the profession due to layoffs or retirement over the next few years, online learning is emerging as the best direct solution for providing many urban and rural children with the instruction they need in already teacher-thin subjects such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and world languages.

Ben Merrill, principal of southwestern Idaho's small, rural Notus Junior/Senior High School and superintendent for the Notus School District, says, "Out here, when I have an opening for a teacher in advanced science or math, I may get two to three applicants, all right out of college -- no one with a master's degree. So I hire a highly qualified online teacher, and my kids get the same opportunity for a quality education as kids in Eagle, an affluent suburb outside of Boise."

How Online Learning Can Work

Here's how it works: After teachers are certified by any one of the many online schools out there, they are assigned classes of students with whom they engage directly online, teaching lessons and coordinating assignments using interactive software applications, chat, and email. What the student sees is something like this: They view lessons on the screen that the teacher often conducts in real time by showing slides or videos, and the teacher talks directly to the students through the computer. Pupils respond by voice or text chat. A lot of the lesson materials -- articles, graphs, videos, practice questions, and so on -- are available online to the students at any time, and students are encouraged to email their teacher directly or call on the phone for a one-on-one discussion if they need a hand.

The Students Who Benefit the Most

The students' situations vary widely. Most, but not all, are middle school age or older. Some live in remote areas. Some have disabilities that make it hard to succeed in a traditional classroom, where it can be difficult to provide a highly personalized learning environment. Other students and their families simply prefer the flexibility of the online format.

Increasingly, these kids are participating in a hybrid model that mixes face-to-face classroom learning with online classes taught by teachers who specialize in subjects not offered at many traditional schools -- all within the same school day. Subjects range from physics to personal finance to digital photography as well as AP courses and languages such as Mandarin, Spanish, and Arabic. In Georgia, where there are about 400 high schools and just 89 high school physics teachers, it's making a big difference.

The Battle Ahead

But there are challenges aplenty. Despite the trends, many state legislators who control the purse strings are not sold on the idea that online learning is the equal of the brick-and-mortar experience. Some superintendents and school boards also remain skeptical. Budgets can prohibit funding for people and services not located in the towns, districts, and states in question. On the college-admissions front, some admissions officers still do not view credits gained online as being exacting enough for consideration in the college-application process.

Though online learning is attracting many accomplished teachers from traditional schools, it is not a slam dunk for everyone. Educating online requires rigorous personal-organization skills and commitment to the one-to-one personalization that makes the strategy successful. Guiding students through collaborative projects or providing certain kinds of social and emotional support can be tricky and requires considerable focus on innovative solutions. And meaningful collaboration between teachers is still an unmet goal for most online educators. Not surprisingly, since many online educators work part-time for each school, their employment tends to come without benefits.

Success Stories

But make no mistake, the arc of change is pointing emphatically toward online learning. In this Schools That Work package, you will see how it is dramatically improving prospects for kids who were destined to join the drop-out ranks. You will also meet Idaho teacher Holly Mortimer, who spends her day instructing on the computer, nurturing unique learning relationships with her students while being able to stay at home and spend time with her family.

You'll learn how one of Mortimer's employers, the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, ensures quality by providing supervision and feedback to its teachers, who are scattered across the state. You'll find handy resources from the nearby graduate-level Education Technology program at Boise State University's College of Education, which is turning out talented online educators from around the country.

And you will discover how K-12 students and teachers from Nevada to Massachusetts to Florida are using virtual technology to create enhancements to their learning experiences and new success in their lives.

Here comes the future. Take a look.

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