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The Growing Role
Of Online Learning

Enrollment in online and blended courses -- those that combine online and traditional learning -- will continue growing, a study says. Educators need training and schools need plans to ensure online learning is integrated effectively and efficiently into schools. Included: Data about enrollments and projected enrollments in online courses.

As many as 700,000 K-12 students were engaged in online courses in the 2005-2006 academic year, and the pace of enrollment only is expected to keep accelerating, according to K-12 Online Learning: A Survey of U.S. School District Administrators, conducted by the Sloan Consortium, an organization that facilitates online learning.

Note: Since this article was originally published, an updated survey has been conducted. Among the latest findings:
  • Three quarters of the responding public school districts are offering online or blended courses:
    --- 75% had one or more students enrolled in a fully online or blended course.
    --- 70% had one or more students enrolled in a fully online course.
    --- 41% had one or more students enrolled in a blended course
    These percentages represent an increase of approximately 10% since 2005-2006.
  • 66% of school districts with students enrolled in online or blended courses anticipate their online enrollments will grow.
  • The overall number of K-12 students engaged in online courses in 2007-2008 is estimated at 1,030,000. This represents a 47% increase since 2005-2006.

Rural districts in particular cited the advantage of online courses, because often they do not have the money or personnel to add classes.

One of the authors of the study, Dr. Anthony G. Picciano, a professor in the Hunter College school of education and the College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York, talked with Education World about the studys findings and implications.

Dr. Anthony G. Picciano
Dr. Anthony G. Picciano

Education World: What surprised you about the studys results?

Dr. Anthony G. Picciano There were two surprises for me. First, the most important finding was the diversity of the students being served by online courses. The long-accepted popular notion has been that online learning was being best used for students doing well in their classes, especially at the high-school level, where they could enroll in Advanced Placement and maybe even a college course.

But many respondents indicated that a wider spectrum of students including students who had excessive absences, who had failed a course, who had to study at home, and who needed remedial assistance were also taking online courses. Here is a sample of the kinds of students being served by online learning as reported by respondents in our study:

  • We only use online courses to enable students to gain credits who otherwise would be unable to graduate with their classmates due to schedule constraints.
  • We offer online courses for remedial purposes and the occasional homebound student.
  • Our blended online program is increasing most significantly with our ELL population and our contract alternative schools.
  • The students take summer courses, mainly in mathematics, from universities such as Stanford to allow them to fulfill a required course It allows them to take more advanced courses during their four years of high school.
  • Were looking into serving kids who have (a) failed a requirement, rather than re-enrolling them in an on-campus course, (b) selected electives, and (c) Advanced Placement offerings where the local enrollment is too low to warrant an on-campus teacher.
  • We have been using online courses for the past few years to meet the needs of foreign language courses.
  • We use online course work for students who miss school to the point of no longer being able to pass the regular class.

Second, the candor of the respondents and their willingness to express their thoughts about issues. The vast majority of the respondents provided additional comments at the end of the survey which is a bit unusual. These comments, which Jeff Seaman (my colleague at the Sloan Consortium) and I incorporated into our report, provided a lot of insights into what our respondents were thinking about online learning. The voices of respondents from small rural school districts were probably the loudest in this respect. Online learning provided crucial options for them and was important in meeting their needs related to limited financial resources and difficulties in hiring teachers in certain subject areas. As one of our respondents indicated:

"The most important finding was the diversity of the students being served by online courses.
We are a small district in [a] rural [area] and want to be able to offer our students all the opportunities that larger communities can offer. Online courses may fill that need.

EW: How can schools use this information?

Dr. Picciano: Almost two thirds of all districts -- 63.1 percent -- currently have students taking either online or blended courses with another 20.7 percent planning to introduce them over the next three years. I believe this information should be used by education policy makers at all levels to consider how this technology will be used and integrated into their overall educational plans especially for programs in the upper grades.

The study also provides important insights from school districts that have experience with online learning that can be useful to others. For example, many of these school districts are not relying on a single online learning provider but are selecting multiple providers who can best meet specific needs. A college or university might be an ideal provider for an advanced course, but might not be the best choice for students who need help with basic skills courses.

In addition, many school districts are beginning to move to blended courses. This puts a certain amount of the responsibility on the districts themselves to train their own teachers to develop material and teach in an online mode. This last point is an especially important consideration as more online instruction is done by teachers from within the school districts. Attention needs to be paid to training and professional development to ensure that online courses are of equal quality with comparable face-to-face courses.

EW: Particularly for younger students, interactions with a teacher and peers are critical parts of their education. How can online learning be adapted to meet those needs?

Dr. Picciano: This is surely a critical issue. With younger students especially, the purpose of school is not simply academics but to nurture them and help them develop socially and emotionally. For this reason, blended models may be far more appropriate than a fully online model.

However, youngsters today are using technology as much if not more than adults. So why not blend some of this into worthwhile learning activities while also maintaining personal contact with teachers and their fellow students?

In addition, a well-designed online course, whether fully online or blended, will integrate a good deal of interaction that takes advantage of electronic group discussion activities and collaborative learning approaches, some of which might require as much if not more interaction than traditional classroom formats. A number of studies in higher education, which is a few years ahead of K-12 in using online learning, indicate that students perceive an equal and in some cases a greater degree of interaction with teachers and their peers in online courses than in face-to-face courses.

EW: Besides the access to more courses and resources, what are the benefits of online learning for students?

Dr. Picciano: Perhaps the greatest benefit besides access to more courses and resources, which by the way is quite important, is that learning never has to stop. The asynchronous approach of many online courses is ideal for reflective teaching practices that allow students more time to analyze important issues and questions. The end of period bell never rings and the learning continues at anytime and with mobile technologies in almost any place.

Furthermore, if we can engage students with exciting, media-rich materials, we help to foster a desire for learning that might be at the heart of what schooling is all about. We know that young people today have embraced the new technologies including cell phones, digital cameras, iPods, and YouTube. So why not use these to spur their interest in learning?

EW: What do you see as the next step for online learning?

Dr. Picciano: As our study indicates, online learning has begun to take root in K-12 education, especially in the high schools. In the next few years, every indication is that both fully online and blended learning courses will be enrolled by a couple of million students. So the basic next step is for education policy makers and school leaders to prepare and make sure that this deployment of online learning is done well and not haphazardly.

In addition, we need to think more about how to integrate online learning into the broader issues of school reform. Take for example, the call for extending the school day; the development of a more demanding curriculum that better prepares students for a global, information-driven economy; building K-12 and higher education collaboration such as in a K-16 model, and providing alternative educational opportunities for high school students who feel they must go to work. Online learning can facilitate solutions to all of these issues. To be clear, I am not saying that online learning in and of itself is the solution but that it can facilitate and be part of the solutions. I am impressed with how some states such as Michigan, for example, with its new Merit Curriculum, is trying to do exactly this.

EW: Students seem to be adapting to online courses more easily than adults. What needs to be done to make adults more comfortable with this format?

Dr. Picciano: I am not sure that I agree with the basic premise of your question. I understand that younger people have embraced the new technologies; however, I do not agree fully with the popular notion that the current adults are struggling with the newer technologies.

"The basic next step is for education policy makers and school leaders to prepare and make sure that this deployment of online learning is done well and not haphazardly.
My view here is counter to the popular digital native, digital immigrant thesis. Technology is not a language; it is a variety of hardware and software tools that can be learned and used. Adults, in some cases because they have broad experiences and basic needs such as a desire to succeed at their professions, are not neglecting the new technologies. Mom and Dad are vying in the home with little Jane and John for access to the laptop and the Internet.

Some of the basis for my thinking is that higher education, which is largely an adult population with an average age closer to 27, has been active in online learning since the early 1990s. Currently almost 20 percent of the higher education population or 3 million college students yearly are taking fully online courses. Many of these students are working adults taking graduate level and other courses to advance their careers. Teachers in our K-12 schools increasingly are taking advanced degrees and professional development courses online.

Many companies are providing employees not only with computer workstations on their desks but with laptops, blackberries, and digital assistants. All this being said, and to come back to your question, a fundamental issue we need to work on is to train and develop teachers both in their pre-service as well as their in-service programs in how to design quality online learning course materials.

The essence of this is not simply on how to use the newest technology but how to use and integrate it with sound pedagogical practice. This has been a serious problem in the past but my sense is that it is beginning to abate. Contrary to some critics, I have great confidence in our teachers and educators to grab hold of this technology and use it effectively. We may have started a bit more slowly in our K-12 schools but we are beginning to move forward as some of the results in our study indicate.

Lastly, in about six years, many of the 16-and-17- year-olds who treat their cell phones as multimedia devices, who take digital pictures and make videos, who are constantly text-messaging their friends, and who are downloading podcasts and uploading to YouTube, will be joining the teacher corps. In about ten years, some of them will be assistant principals.

This e-interview with Dr. Anthony G. Picciano is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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Updated 06/28/2010