E-Defining Education

Cyber Schools, Online Teaching and Testing, and Other E-learning Initiatives Are Changing How Schools Operate

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To appreciate how e-learning is changing the landscape of education, you need only look at the numbers.

Already, 12 states have established online high school programs and five others are developing them, 25 states allow for the creation of so-called cyber charter schools, and 32 states have e-learning initiatives under way, according to a new Education Week survey of state technology coordinators. Meanwhile, the survey shows, 10 states are piloting or planning to administer online testing. Oregon and South Dakota are already using Web-based assessments.

All those programs and policy changes are opening the doors of online education to tens of thousands more students. In fact, "Virtual Schools: Trends and Issues," a report commissioned by WestEd--a research, development, and educational services organization—estimates that 40,000 to 50,000 K-12 students will have enrolled in an online course by the end of the 2001-02 school year. As it is, most of those youngsters are high school students. But the report points out that momentum is building to make online courses available to elementary and middle school pupils, too."

"The virtual school movement," the WestEd report says, is "the 'next wave' in technology-based K-12 education."

Indeed, the e-Iearning bandwagon figures to become a crowded vehicle before long. After all, this new way of delivering education has the support of numerous state and local policymakers, education researchers, and business leaders.

Still, some educators, policymakers, and researchers are skeptical of what they see as exaggerated claims for online learning. And they worry about what is lost when students do not meet face to face with their classmates and teachers.

Alan Warhaftig, a Los Angeles high school English teacher who has earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, says he sees an "overall weakness to that notion that online schools can replace the school environment."

Others have similar concerns.

For instance, "Guide to Online High School Courses," a draft report from a group of companies and education organizations, including the National Education Association and the National School Boards Association, expresses particular unease with the possibility that online education will filter down to the lower grades.

"Our current understandings of the characteristics and needs of learners in earlier grades ... would suggest we exercise great caution in the use of the online environment to deliver instruction to students prior to middle school," the draft report says.

Beyond such concerns, the report includes a daunting list of other issues that must be resolved: Are online courses aligned with state academic standards? Who is responsible for students' technological needs when they are taking an online course? Are online teachers trained effectively to teach via the Internet? Should parent approval be required before a child enrolls in an online course? Will students receive the same amount of credit for an online course as they would for a face-to-face class? And how will states ensure the quality of online courses, especially when students are taking them from teachers in other states or countries?

The questions go on and on. But because the phenomenon is largely a new one, education policymakers are still struggling to find appropriate answers.

To help educators better understand the benefits and drawbacks of e-Iearning, Technology Counts 2002-the fifth edition of Education Week's annual 50-state report on educational technology-examines the trend from many different perspectives, beginning with a story that explores one regular high school's increasing use of online classes. The school, Hudson High in Hudson, Mass., receives its online courses through the Virtual High School, a collaboration of high schools run by a Massachusetts company with 200 member schools in 28 states and eight countries. Hudson was the first high school to take part in the program.

As another part of this year's focus on e-learning, the Education Week research team was able to gain an insider's view of online learning, particularly through the eyes of students. With the permission of the Florida Virtual School, or FLVs—the largest and most established state-financed online high school in the nation-the research team analyzed the latest and previously unpublished course-evaluation data collected by the online school this school year. The data-and students' accompanying comments come from 2,387 evaluation surveys filled out by students between September and February of this school year.

Traditional colleges and full-fledged online universities have been educating students via the Web far longer than K-12 schools have—hence, they have much to share with K-12 educators about their successes and failures along the way. So Technology Counts 2002 also sought advice from higher education officials who have experienced the trials of building and maintaining online-learning programs. One higher education official, for instance, advises precollegiate educators to “look at what you can accomplish with the least amount of technology.”

Undoubtedly, e-learning arrangements have unlimited potential to transform the professional lives—and in some ways, the personal lives—of teachers. A teacher working for a virtual school is not required to be in a specific classroom, at a specific time. And that changes the possibilities not only for where they teach, but also how they teach. To better understand online teaching from the front lines, this year’s report details the experiences of four teachers, all of whom teach online full time, but had taught in regular schools before becoming cyber educators. The upshot: This type of teaching isn’t for everyone.

As it is, many online teachers are still struggling to find high-quality online content, according to a story in this year’s report about online curriculum. Experts say the problem is that most online curricula are simply traditional material copied to the Web. As a consequence, such curricula typically don’t take advantage of the interactive or visual features the Web offers.

Online professional development for teachers is a different story. Some technology experts have raised concerns about teacher training conducted online, pointing to inadequate access to technology and a lack of face-to-face interaction. But the inherent flexibility the online medium provides to busy educators has made it increasingly popular. This report takes a look at some of the efforts to train teachers through online programs.

This year, Technology Counts also turns the spotlight on a state that is pushing the uses of educational technology as far as it can. A rural state known to outsiders mostly as the site of Mount Rushmore, South Dakota is one of the most wired states in the nation. And people far beyond the South Dakota state line are starting to notice. For the past two years, the Folsom, Calif.-based Center for Digital Government, a research and technology advisory institute, ranked the state first in a nationwide evaluation of how states use technology to benefit their citizens.

For the United States overall, the picture is a little different. On the positive side, states have made great strides—despite fiscal belt-tightening—in helping students get access to computers in schools. The national student-to-computer ratio is now about 4-to-1. Still, spending on staff development and training decreased as a percentage of school technology budgets from 2000 to 2001. This report examines some of those trends.

Snapshots of the steps each state has taken to establish e-learning initiatives—or simply to use educational technology more effectively—are also included in the report, as are data tables with state-by- state statistics on technology use in schools.

We hope you’ll find information here that will help you see through the hype swirling around e-learning, and better understand the pluses and downsides of this new way of providing education.

Vol. 21, Issue 35, Pages 8-9

Published in Print: May 9, 2002, as E-Defining Education
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