Classroom Technology

Education Department Tracks Growth in Distance Learning

By Vaishali Honawar — March 08, 2005 4 min read
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Students in one-third of the nation’s public school districts took distance education courses in the 2002-03 school year, illustrating such classes’ growing popularity, says a report released last week by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2002-03" is available online from the NCES. ()

The report—which the NCES says is the federal government’s first-ever survey of distance learning in K-12 schools—found thousands of students enrolled in courses that are conducted via the Internet or through video- or audio-conferencing, with the teacher and student in separate places. Nearly one of every 10 public schools in the country had students enrolled in such courses, the survey found.

Susan Patrick, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational technology, said the survey points to a “huge growth” in the availability of online learning.

“We expect the growth to continue, consistent with the growth in higher education distance education,” she added.

Responses to surveys that the NCES, an arm of the Education Department, mailed to more than 2,300 school districts around the country indicated that in 2002-03, there were an estimated 328,000 enrollments in distance education courses among students regularly attending public schools.

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Chart: High School Trend

Schools surveyed reported that they usually choose to offer courses online because they are otherwise not available to students at school, citing such examples as Advanced Placement courses. The report also notes that the availability of distance education courses allows students to reduce scheduling conflicts they might have with other courses or school activities.

According to the report, some school officials said they plan to expand distance education offerings in the future, but expressed concerns about the high costs of purchasing equipment and course development. School district administrators were also concerned that they could lose per-pupil funding from their states if students taking online courses offered by other districts were not counted as part of the home district’s regular enrollment.

Regional Differences

While distance education has flourished in higher education—a past report from the NCES found enrollment in distance education courses at postsecondary institutions nearly doubled between the 1997-98 and 2000-01 school years—K-12 schools have been slow to catch up. But the NCES report suggests the pace of expansion of distance education may be picking up in K-12.

Among other findings, the survey shows that distance-learning courses were more popular in the Southeast and central regions of the country than they were in the Northeast and the West.

In addition, rural districts had a higher proportion of students taking online courses than urban and suburban districts—46 percent, compared with 28 percent in suburban areas and 23 percent in urban areas.

Ms. Patrick, of the Education Department’s technology office, said distance education courses have been particularly useful to schools in rural areas. Such courses, she said, help provide rural areas with “highly qualified” teachers, as is required under the No Child Left Behind Act. They also give students more opportunities to take Advanced Placement and college-level courses.

Ruth Adams, the dean of the nonprofit Virtual High School, a Maynard, Mass.-based collaborative of more than 300 schools worldwide that share courses and teachers online, said smaller districts have a limited number of teachers, and historically do not have access to those who can teach specialized subjects, such as Advanced Placement economics or some computational sciences.

Distance learning, she said, opens up such courses to students around the country and even around the world.

“A student shouldn’t be limited to the type of course they can take because of the ZIP code they live in,” said Ms. Adams, whose collaborative now offers courses to more than 6,000 students in 26 states and 13 countries. During the 1997-98 school year, it offered just 30 courses to 710 students.

Jump in Middle Grades?

Among schools with students who took distance-learning courses during the 2002-03 school year, 76 percent were high schools, the report says.

Only 7 percent were middle or junior high schools, and 2 percent were elementary schools.

The remaining 15 percent were combined K-12 or ungraded schools, making it difficult to discern their grade levels.

Ms. Adams pointed out that elementary school pupils usually cannot take distance-learning courses because of limited reading and writing skills.

But she predicted a “phenomenal” growth of the courses for middle schools.

For instance, she said, her collaborative has designed classes that will give middle school students an introduction to Advanced Placement courses, preparing them to handle the more complicated subjects they will face in high school.

“Our exploring classes,” she said, “are an introduction to subjects that students would pursue in high school in greater depth.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Education Department Tracks Growth in Distance Learning

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