Survey Finds Interest in Blend of Traditional and Online Courses

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Online education is likely to continue to grow in popularity in the years ahead, and schools are expected to take an especially strong interest in “blended” courses that combine computerized lessons with traditional classroom instruction, a nationwide survey suggests.

Sixty-three percent of the public school administrators who responded to the survey, set for release March 5 by the Sloan Consortium, say their schools are offering some kind of online learning. An additional 20 percent said they plan to begin such classes during the next three years, according to the report, “K-12 Online Learning: A Survey of U.S. School District Administrators.”

Financed by the New York City-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the consortium, with headquarters in Needham, Mass., seeks to promote high-quality online learning. Administrators in 366 public school districts nationwide, representing an estimated student population of 2 million, responded, either in handwritten form or via the Internet.

Many administrators who took part in the survey said they found the combination of in-class and online instruction appealing because that approach allows for greater oversight and stronger interaction between teachers and students.

“I think we’re going to see more of a growth spurt in the blended courses,” said Anthony G. Picciano, one of two researchers who oversaw the survey. “That model, to me, could be very powerful for a lot of districts [that] have concerns about going online.”

The administrators surveyed predicted that the number of students taking courses taught entirely online would grow by 19 percent, on average, over the next two years, while the number taking blended classes would rise by 23 percent over that period.

Online K-12 education nationwide has grown steadily in recent years. At least 24 states have established their own online education programs, and several have created “virtual schools,” offering classes in both required subjects and electives. ("To Tailor Schedules, Students Log In to Online Classes," Oct. 25, 2006.)

The new survey estimates that about 700,000 public precollegiate students during 2005-06 were enrolled in at least one online or blended course. The blended courses are defined as those in which between 30 percent and 80 percent of the content is delivered online.

Mr. Picciano, a professor of education at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, worked on the project with Jeff Seaman, the chief information officer and survey director for the Sloan Consortium.

The consortium has conducted several surveys of online courses in higher education, but consortium officials saw a need for more comprehensive information on K-12 programs, so they arranged the new survey, Mr. Picciano said. It was conducted during the 2005-06 academic year.

Courses offered entirely online typically allow students to complete lessons and work with a teacher in a different location; students and teachers communicate by phone or electronically. In many cases, blended courses are those in which teachers, working in traditional classrooms, supplement their lessons with online material, said Bruce B. Friend, the vice president of the North American Council for Online Learning, located in Vienna, Va.

Policies Vary

State-run virtual schools have different policies on whether they charge individual school districts for the students who take their online courses, or simply have the states cover those costs. The policies also vary for whether virtual schools charge schools that seek to use only a portion of online content, within a “blended” model, Mr. Friend said.

Susan Patrick, the president of the online-learning council, was not surprised that the survey identified blended online courses as appealing to district administrators. Such online courses create fewer worries about the quality of teaching, cost, and oversight, especially among administrators who are new to the online world, she said.

“The innovation that fits best into the old way of doing things is easiest to implement,” Ms. Patrick said.

School administrators listed several oft-cited reasons for their interest in online education, such as its ability to provide courses not offered at their schools, such as Advanced Placement courses, and its ability to relieve students’ scheduling conflicts. But administrators also named a number of common worries about such education—notably, concerns about course quality, costs, and the need to train teachers to use the different medium.

Ms. Patrick’s group is in the process of developing standards for judging the quality of online courses, drawing from the recommendations of several different organizations that work in the field.

Vol. 26, Issue 26, Page 11

Published in Print: March 5, 2007, as Survey Finds Interest in Blend of Traditional and Online Courses
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