Special Report

E-Learning Hits Barriers to Expansion

By Constance Gustke — April 23, 2010 5 min read
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Many countries are ratcheting up their K-12 e-learning programs. China has digitized its entire system of K-12 courses and so has Mexico. Turkey’s online courses now educate 15 million students, compared with 1 million in the United States. And similar pushes are under way in Australia, Europe, India, New Zealand, and South America.

For many U.S. educators and e-learning advocates, a national—or even global—online-learning framework makes good sense. But going national or global will require some catching up and lifting of policy restrictions now in place.

“Online education is a global phenomenon. [But] we’re behind the curve,” said Michael Horn, the executive director of education at the Innosight Institute, a Mountain View, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that advocates innovative practices in education and government. He is a co-author of the 2008 book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

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The trick is navigating a U.S. school system diced into some 15,000 districts and 50 states, characterized by distinctive academic requirements and varying policy barriers. The resulting silo effect slows down the expansion of online learning across state borders, globally, and even outside local districts, according to experts.

And some states are still lagging way behind others. Vermont, for instance, is just getting its e-courses going, said Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL. Some big states, like New York, don’t have a state virtual school.

“The Northeast is furthest behind,” Ms. Patrick said. “And Delaware just quit its funding for pilot programs.”

The Southeast and the Midwest, on the other hand, have strong virtual programs in several places.

Demand for online courses from outside providers such as states or private companies is high in small rural school districts in states like Minnesota, because the local districts don’t have the resources to offer a wide variety of courses or to build their own online curricula. But their ability to access good online courses will depend on the reach of outside providers of virtual courses.

“In an online world, there’s no need to be restricted by geographic borders,” said John Watson, the founder of Evergreen Education Group in Evergreen, Colo. “[But] funding is a huge catch. So, online learning will remain limited to statewide levels.”

“You can’t generalize on how virtual education works best,” added Mr. Horn. He believes that “we have to figure out a way not to make it state by state. We have a lot of restrictions in place.”

Private Phenomenon?

For example, the Florida Virtual School, or FLVS, provides courses for Florida students in 67 districts, and separately to students from 45 other states and 34 countries. Student course enrollments in FLVS increased from 36,679 in 2004-05 to 154,125 in 2008-09.

Experts say that its strengths include funding that follows student enrollment, rather than relying on state appropriations, and a policy that no student is turned away from taking any online course.

“Florida Virtual School is very student-centered,” said Jamie Sachs, the associate director of education technology for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board.

FLVS is taking the lessons it has learned and is applying them beyond state borders. It sells online courses to other states and countries via a team of content producers, earning licensing fees from courses. The fees are paid per course, not per student, and they are adapted to each state’s or country’s education standards. However, the school is not a global school. Students in Florida do not take classes with students from other states or countries.

Meanwhile, the state-sponsored Virtual Virginia online school serves students from every school district. The school has a staff of 25 full-time online teachers. Cathy Cheely, the Virtual Virginia program manager, said it discourages the use of part-time teachers who also work in brick-and-mortar schools, but has had to take that approach sometimes to handle online-enrollment spikes.

To use virtual learning more expansively, Ms. Sachs believes in lots of options for students. She encourages traditional schools to look at online courses as blended models, in which online learning is mixed with traditional approaches.

“Online instruction helps teachers use their time more wisely,” she said. “A teacher could make a video and have students watch it at home, rather than listening to a lecture in class.”

That tactic of using a video works for students who aren’t a good fit for virtual schools. They might need more face-to-face interaction.

As it is, private online-course providers are the only truly global ones for now. “Maybe it will become a private phenomenon,” Mr. Horn said. “Public systems close their doors at their own peril.”

Ms. Patrick agreed. “I don’t see [public] virtual schools going nationwide, because they’re locally controlled by districts and states,” she said.

Yet studying with people way beyond their local communities offers many benefits for students, experts contend, because it’s the future of a globalized world.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as E-Learning Hits Barriers to Expansion


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