Clinton Parker, a senior at Julian High School, worked quietly at his computer in August as the clicks of mice from more than a dozen students punctured the air of an otherwise silent computer lab.
A teacher zipped through the classroom, assisting students as they worked their way through online classes that they had either failed during the school year or needed to pass to catch up.
By the time summer school had ended, Mr. Parker was among the more than 4,000 students in the Chicago city schools who had earned credits taking online courses. What would have taken another year of school—much of which Mr. Parker readily admits he would have skipped—took just a few months, and he received his diploma.
The “credit recovery” program at Julian High illustrates why supporters say online learning has the potential to revolutionize education. It can be inexpensive, convenient, and flexible—valuable attributes for a cash-strapped district like the Chicago public schools. For those reasons, it’s now one of the fastest-growing areas of education. But research hasn’t kept up with the rapid expansion, making it tough to know whether the programs really work.
The 409,000-student Chicago district now offers a battery of online programs, ranging from math and reading enrichment, in which elementary students spend a few hours a week online using a specific curriculum, to a virtual charter school with students learning almost entirely from home.
The latest initiative, announced last month, is a pilot program to add 90 minutes to the day at 15 elementary schools using online courses in place of certified teachers.
The recent growth of online learning within the Chicago schools has been rapid, mostly without fanfare. Two years ago, online courses were offered in just a handful of high schools. This year, they’re slated to be in all of them. Other schools are scaling up to the initiative by installing cutting-edge media centers, piloting entirely online courses, or contracting individually with vendors for online instructional materials.
The growth is reflected nationally as well. Just about every state has some sort of online-learning initiative; experts figure the universe is expanding by 30 percent each year.
Critics Raise Concerns
One reason for its popularity is that online learning enables students to learn individually and at their own pace, difficult feats for a teacher with 30 students with varying levels of proficiency. The most advanced software can assess a student’s progress and ability in real time, then adapt the difficulty of the questions.
While not all programs are created equal, those used by the Chicago schools align themselves with the state learning standards.
“A computer never replaces a teacher,” said Ron Huberman, the district’s chief executive officer. “[But] it allows the most talented and gifted students to move extra fast and the students struggling to take the time they need to before moving on to the next task.”
Still, even the most enthusiastic supporters of virtual schooling acknowledge that practice is far ahead of both policy and research. There’s a risk such efforts could be as ineffective as those at the worst schools, experts say.
Additionally, critics worry that online learning robs students of the classroom experience and the social aspects of school.
The Chicago Teachers Union has come out strongly against the effort, saying any program that simply reinforces a “drill and kill” testing mentality will fail to engage students. And poor implementation could stymie even the most promising approaches.
Despite its breakneck growth, online learning is still tiny. Just over 1 percent of students in the Chicago district took online courses this summer, but it’s the largest group yet. Nationally, about 2 percent of all students do some form of online learning, experts figure.
Those pushing for the expansion of online opportunities argue that people shouldn’t hold online learning to a higher standard than conventional classroom learning.
“I’ve heard people say that every online teacher and course isn’t high-quality,” said John Watson, the founder of the Evergreen, Colo.-based Evergreen Education Group, a consulting company that publishes an annual report on the growth of K-12 online learning. “Well, I’m pretty sure every physical class isn’t high-quality, either.”
One exhaustive report found online learning and the combination of online and classroom, called blended learning, were in fact better than face-to-face instruction. The results came from analyzing the findings of 46 different scientific studies comparing the two.
But only a few of the studies published between 1996 and 2008 were in K-12 settings. The rest ranged from college to military training.
“In a time of both strapped budgets and a limited supply of qualified teachers in certain subject areas, this is a very attractive option for school districts,” said Barbara Means of the research group SRI International, who was the lead author of the study. “It really adds a degree of freedom that school districts haven’t had.”
Because online instruction is still relatively new, districts have a responsibility to scrutinize their programs, Ms. Means stressed. With such a wide array of vendors hawking instructional software, the only way to know which ones work is to study them, she said.
The Chicago system has attempted just that in Area 13. In that region of the school district, Chief Area Officer Shawn Smith rolled out an ambitious pilot at his 27 elementary schools.
Every student from 3rd to 5th grade was given about three hours of online math each week using software that leads children through a series of problems, adapting to their skill level as each answer is given.
State-assessment scores from last year show staggering—some say implausible—gains in math. But even greater gains were achieved among 7th graders at one school that didn’t use the online curriculum, making it difficult to connect the increases in scores strictly to the online curriculum.
Still, Mr. Smith says it’s having an impact, and district administrators agree. This year, they’re rolling out the software to every class in his area.
In a dimly lit computer lab, their heads barely protruding above the plastic chairs, Overton Elementary School students watched their monitors as a computer penguin zoomed across it. Part of the software, the penguin introduces them to each set of gamelike problems.
One child worked on whole numbers, filling imaginary bags with grapes. Another used his hands to measure distance.
“When I first started, I thought it was going to be hard. But I got the hang of it now,” said Phylicia Rich, a 5th grader. “I think this made [testing] easier for me.”
Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as Chicago Schools Place Virtual Ed. Initiatives High on Priority List