Should K-12 Classrooms Get on the Online Learning Bandwagon?
Already a fixture at the college level, online education is rapidly rising in the K-12 classrooms as well. At this point, it’s no longer a question of whether K-12 classrooms should embrace online learning, rather than it is about knowing how to make the most out of this trend. Here are some things to consider as online learning becomes commonplace in K-12 schools across America.
Online learning: You know it’s important when it’s gone global
The potential for K-12 online learning in the U.S. is still being realized. It seems that every year the number of K-12 students taking courses online grows exponentially, fueled by a trickle-down effect from college offerings and the rise of Massive Open Online Courses. Consider these statistics:
- Over 1.8 million K-12 students took distance-learning courses during the 2015 – 2016 school year.
- 275,000 K-12 students were enrolled full-time in online schools during the 2015 – 2016 school year.
- Five states (Florida, Michigan, Idaho, Virginia, and Alabama) require high school students to take at least one online course to graduate.
- 450 percent – that is the rise in students enrolled full-time in online public schools since 2006.
- 31 states had fully online school options in 2015, up from only 18 in 2007.
It seems that the tip of the iceberg has not even been chipped when it comes to K-12 online learning in the U.S. But how do we measure up to other countries? The short answer is that the U.S. is the leader in online learning due in part to our widespread access to broadband internet and how common it is in households and schools. Other nations are racing to catch up, though. Take a look at some of the efforts being made to improve online learning across the globe:
England. Last year, plans were announced to offer Massive Open Online Courses at 23 British universities, opening up free educational options for millions. Future Learn is intended to provide educational opportunities to citizens that may not have access to a brick and mortar college or university or lack the funds for the courses. It is unclear whether these classes will be available for credit at the participating institutions, but certificates of completion will be made available. The technology used to develop this program will certainly influence future K-12 initiatives and also school many parents on the benefits of learning remotely.
China. If you want to know what industries are on the rise in China, just follow the money trail. In 2012, only six reported investments in K-12 online learning were reported. Through July 2016, that number was already up to 22. American companies like Coursera already have a presence in Chinese online learning but more home-grown companies, like Huijang and 91Waijiao, are entering the market. Expect to see an explosion of elementary and secondary learning in China over the next five years.
Canada. In 2011, enrollment in distance education courses for children in Canada was only around 4.2 percent for the total student population. That number is rising, though, despite highly-publicized criticism from teacher’s unions. An initiative in Nova Scotia seeks to nearly triple the number of students enrolled in online learning programs and Ontario is trying to centralize its online learning efforts to provide something similar to interdistrict learning in the U.S. Nine of the ten Canadian provinces have K-12 distance education programs run by the government.
K-12 online learning is certainly on the rise across the globe, and as it increases in popularity, the U.S. may face competition when it comes to digital access for child learners. In a perfect world, the strides being made in other countries will all benefit each other either directly or indirectly through competition. None of the technology matters, of course, unless student achievement improves and that is true in all nations. I’m interested to see how the global race for more K-12 online learning options impacts the well-established trend in the U.S. and how our students are affected.
Why children need to learn how to learn online
The truth is that online learning is more than a fad. The facts are staggering: According to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, there are nearly 1.9 million K-12 enrollments in online courses every school year, up from under 50,000 in 2000. The current number does not even include students enrolled in primarily online schools. Thirty-one states have full-time online schools that serve on a statewide basis.
The top reason that districts give for offering online options is for credit recovery, with 81 percent of urban schools citing this reason. Are online courses equal to ones in the classroom, though? It depends on who you ask. Recent news reports out of California show that high school graduation rates are at an all-time high of 78 percent, with even higher numbers in areas like San Francisco and San Jose. While some educators use these numbers to point to student success, critics say the rise in graduation numbers does not necessarily mean that students are college ready. The rise of online courses as a means to “make up” failed or incomplete classes are part of the reason more kids graduate – but do they know what they should?
It is, of course, impossible to answer that vague of a question but the debate rages on just the same. Just how rigorous is an online high school course? This is likely a cloudy area for those of us who grew up before the Internet forever changed the face of distance education. On a basic level, if a student reads the material, and can give correct answers on a test, that means he or she has “learned” the content. When an educator takes into account other influential factors like learning style, intelligence and work ethic, that basic definition becomes murky. The consensus in the education community seems to be that even though online courses have merit, they are less rigorous than classroom settings.
Then there is the issue of online learning as an overarching ideology. Embracing the inevitability that online learning is a very real part of the average college education, the state of Florida began requiring in 2011 that high school students in the 24-credit graduation option to take at least one online course. The public, Internet-based Florida Virtual School leads the way in this innovation and is considered a national leader in the e-Learning model. So in this example, Florida is not simply offering online courses as a backup; the state mandates that students on a college prep path get early exposure to the type of learning they are likely to see in college.
This point accents the two very different ways to look at online courses in K-12 education. On the one hand, there is educational merit, though that education is debatable as to the actual extent of its effectiveness.
On the other hand, exposing students to online learning long before they reach college is practical. This point paints online learning as a life skill of sorts – something for kids to understand before entering the real world as adults, much like balancing a bank account or learning how to create a resume. Without a solid understanding of online learning before graduation, students are less prepared for what they will face academically following high school.
The K-12 online course dissenters are just wasting their breath, in my opinion. The momentum of online learning is gaining speed. Educators can best spend their time looking for ways to enhance the content of what is offered in virtual courses and making the most of what classroom time is available.
How are states responding to the need for online learning in K-12 schools?
Many states are moving towards mandating virtual education because students will likely be required to take a virtual course or two should they decide to attend college.
For instance, take Florida. KPK12.com notes that as of 2014, “Florida is the first state in the country to legislate that all K-12 students will have full- and part-time virtual options, and that funding will follow each student down to the course level.”
Florida’s virtual school had over 400,000 enrollments in 2014, a number that is likely to at least maintain.
Another state in the south that’s primed to join the virtual party is Alabama. Lawmakers recently passed a bill “that requires each of its districts to provide virtual courses for high school students by the 2010-2017 school year.”
What can educators do to keep up with the trend?
As educators with so many demands placed on us already, it can seem daunting to be expected to keep up with the latest trends in online learning. What’s great is that the online learning tools can make our jobs easier and more fulfilling if we learn to use them effectively.
Interestingly, our society is preparing the next generation of teachers. Remember that during the 2010-2011 school year, 1.8 million students in grades K-12 were enrolled in some distance learning program. That is up from just 50,000 in the 2000-2001 school year, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. This is a trend that teachers-to-be simply cannot ignore. Virtual learning is not reserved for only those that can afford it; 40 U.S. states have state-run online programs and 30 of those states provide statewide, full-time K-12 schools. The University of Central Florida is one of the only schools to offer a virtual-school emphasis for education majors that lets students apprentice with Florida Virtual School instructors.
Those of us who have already (long) finished our university education still recognize how important it is to stay attuned to what’s working when it comes to online education. I hope that as educators, we continue to seek out the online learning solutions that will help us best educate our students.