Special Report

Lessons From the Ivory Tower

By Katie Ash — March 20, 2009 7 min read
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Although online education is growing as an option for students in K-12 school districts, colleges and universities have been much quicker to develop and provide online courses and incorporate them into their curricula.

A review of the experiences that higher education has had with online learning, and the insights learned as a result, provides valuable guidance for precollegiate schools.

“In one way, postsecondary [educators] made life a little easier for K-12,” says William R. Thomas, the director of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board’s Educational Technology Cooperative, by proving that online education is a viable alternative to, or supplement for, face-to-face classes.

In other words, the successes that higher education has had with online courses have dispelled some of the skepticism about the quality of education provided through the Internet, he says.

Terry M. Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University and co-author of a forthcoming book about technology in education called Liberating Learning, agrees that colleges and universities are a good source for school districts that are looking into online education.

“The higher ed system is a competitive system, and it’s far less subject to the kinds of constraints that the K-12 system is,” says Moe, a longtime school choice advocate and co-author of the 1990 pro-voucher book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools.

Although online education has increased rapidly in the higher education sphere, experts say it is important for K-12 districts to take the time to evaluate the quality of the curriculum and teachers in online education programs to determine what works and what doesn’t before implementing an online education program.


1. The first online class a student takes sets the tone for future classes, so it’s important to have adequate student support, both technical and academic.

2. At the beginning of a course, online teachers should outline specific hours when they will be available to students to avoid confusion as well as to prevent faculty members from burning out.

3. When states or school districts are discussing the possibility of using online programs, it’s important to include everyone in the discussion—from teachers and students to technical administrators and policymakers.

4. It’s imperative for states and school districts to research online programs extensively before deciding which direction to go in. Many colleges and universities now have extensive experience and best- practices data regarding the use of online learning.

Simple exposure to online learning—if it’s well executed—can make it more acceptable, advocates suggest.

“One of the big lessons we learned in higher ed is that the first online course someone takes is critical,” says Diane J. Goldsmith, the executive director of the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, a nonprofit group based in Newington, Conn., that provides resources and information about online education to that state’s colleges and universities.

It’s necessary, she says, to “help students navigate that first experience.”

Another important lesson for school districts is that it’s just as important to build the support systems for the classes—such as tutoring services and technical help, as well as other components—as it is to create high-quality courses, according to Goldsmith.

“The progression in higher ed was to build courses and suddenly look around to see that they hadn’t built the kind of support systems that students need,” she says. Without those systems in place, students may not feel as if they’re getting the support they need to be successful and are more likely to become frustrated and drop out, says Goldsmith.

Beyond student support, Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, emphasizes the importance of providing adequate support to online educators.

“[Teachers] need dedicated time to catch up and respond and reflect and grade papers,” she says. “[Each] program needs to be very clear about the expectations for the students, like when online office hours are.”

Although online courses make it possible to provide 24-hour instruction, without preset guidelines for teachers and students, Patrick points out, virtual schools run the risk of burning out their faculty members, a lesson that higher education online educators learned early on.

Another piece of advice that K-12 educators should consider when pursuing an online education program is to make sure that all those involved—from administrators and teachers, to technical-support employees, to students and parents—are included in the conversation, says Stephen Canipe, a professor of education at the Minneapolis-based 35,000-student Walden University, one of the nation’s first universities to provide an online-only degree program.

With everyone’s participation, it’s much easier to decide on expectations and outcomes for the program, Canipe says, which will help determine whether the program is meeting its goals.

K-12 educators can also learn from colleges and universities by exploring the different possibilities that online education has introduced into the higher education classroom, says Patrick from iNACOL.

“In the universities that have expanded across other states and other nations, the diversity in their classes is leading to more rigorous and rich discussions and exposure to students that they would never have been exposed to otherwise,” she says. “As we’re moving into a global economy and a global world, [K-12] students also want to be engaged in that. We can really take that lesson from higher ed—to give our students more exposure and not be isolated.”

But some are skeptical that K-12 students are ready for online classes. Juliet Stieber, who took a number of online courses through her local community college near Philadelphia, doubts that precollegiate students have the maturity and discipline needed to be successful in an online class.

“There’s so much discipline required,” she says. “I was very motivated by the fact that I was paying for all of my classes, and I wanted to go to school, and sometimes I still couldn’t concentrate.”

And while the online forum worked well for some classes, it made others more difficult, says Steiber, especially in classes, such as English, that required large amounts of feedback between the teacher and the student.

“There were so many questions that I had to constantly e-mail the teacher,” she says. “Communication was very hard.”

Online education also provides an opportunity to bridge the gap between secondary and postsecondary learning, proponents say.

“Dual credit is very rapidly rising both in simply quantitative terms, but is also becoming a part of what people expect out of high school,” says Reed Dasenbrock, the state Cabinet secretary of higher education in New Mexico.

In his state, colleges and universities have partnered with school districts to provide dual-enrollment courses—college-level classes that high schoolers can take for credit toward both their high school diplomas and college degrees—through the Innovative Digital Education and Learning program, or IDEAL-NM.

The program, which began in August 2008, “clearly exemplifies the P-20 alignment we are truly making,” adds Veronica C. Garcia, the state’s secretary of education, referring to the span of education from preschool through graduate study.

“What we wanted to do was build the rigor and relevance of courses,” she says. “We also wanted to ensure that, for example, if I have a kid that has an interest in architecture or computer programming, and there are no courses available [in his or her school], that [he or she] could take it at a community college.”

Students enrolled in IDEAL-NM can now graduate from high school with college credit hours or even associate’s degrees, says Garcia. And because the classes are online, students who don’t have a car or access to other transportation can now pursue dual-enrollment opportunities.

The partnership, still in its infancy, has exceeded the state’s expectations as measured by demand—870 students enrolled, which was more than double the number of students administrators anticipated—but there are still details of the program to be worked out, says Dasenbrock, the secretary of higher education.

For example, in college, students are expected to buy their own textbooks, which the professors choose. In K-12, the school provides the textbooks, and therefore may be more concerned with the cost, he says. For now, the school district pays for the college textbooks of students enrolled in dual-credit courses.

“That’s been a financial challenge,” Dasenbrock says, “and we’re introducing legislation this year to create a separate fund for dual-enrollment textbooks.”

Jeffrey A. Elliott, the president of the Oklahoma City-based Advanced Academics, a private provider of online courses for 6th to 12th graders, believes that the convergence between higher education and secondary education is one of the biggest advantages of engaging in online learning.

“Students who may not have even considered a college education may be able to fit it in with their schedules,” he says.

Advanced Academics recently launched a program in Minnesota called Passport2College, which allows students enrolled in the Minnesota Virtual High School to take up to two free online college courses with DeVry University, a system of career-oriented universities with campuses across the country that also offers a variety of online courses.

In dual-credit programs, the key is to have the classes overlap, so that students can use the classes for college credit, as well as to satisfy graduation requirements for high school, says Elliott. “You have to make it really flexible.”

But before online education can reach its full potential in the K-12 sector, states need to set policies to allow online learning to take place, advocates say.

“[States] really need to think [about] what online learning can do to help us graduate and produce successful students who go on to college, or to a job, or to the military,” Elliott says.


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