Online Learning

Ah, online learning!  If you’re like me, you’ve followed the progression of online learning, smiling as it slowly but surely improves in delivery and content over time and gains acceptance amongst key stakeholders.  According to iNACOL’s recent report Funding and Policy Frameworks for Online Learning, over 30 states have implemented state-led online programs and more than half of the school districts in the U.S. offer online courses and services.  Plus, online learning is growing rapidly, at 30% annually.  According to data from Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up initiative, Learning in the 21st Century: 2009 Trends Update, more than 40 percent of sixth through 12th graders surveyed have researched or demonstrated interest in taking a course online, but only 10 percent have actually taken an online course through their school.  Barriers to schools offering online learning include lack of teacher preparation and funding.

iNACOL’s report provides an excellent summary of online learning, highlighting its benefits and challenges and identifying key considerations for policy reform.  Here are some key points discussed:

  • Benefits of online learning include:
    • equitable access to high quality courses, resources, teachers, students – regardless of distance, time, or socio-economic status;
    • flexible – learning can take place any time or place, at varying speed
    • individualized curriculum and support when students need it most
  • Challenges of online learning:
    • Lack of policy reform to accommodate the different learning environment and measures afforded by online learning – i.e. funding is often linked to attendance and seat-time which is not a key measure in online learning.
    • Clearly defining online learning programs – i.e. the “Hybrid” Dilemma – at what point does a course switch from being categorized as “blended” to “online”?  And, what does that mean for policy and funding?
  • Policy Considerations
    • Clearly define online schools and programs – consider the differences between full-time and supplemental and single-district and multi-district programs.
    • Upgrade policy to tie funding to student achievement – The reputable Florida Virtual School is an example of outcome-based funding, as the school does not receive funding until students successfully complete each course component.
    • Provide standards and monitoring expectations for online programs – which include reporting requirements

Those of you that appreciate research may be interested in a recent report released by the U.S. DOE which analyzed 46 studies comparing online learning to face-to-face education.  The report concluded that “blended learning”, programs that include elements of both face-to-face and online learning, is more effective than either approach by itself. The study also found that, by itself, online learning was more effective at raising student achievement than face-to-face instruction exclusively.  Arne Duncan reflected, “This new report reinforces that effective teachers need to incorporate digital content into everyday classes and consider open-source learning management systems, which have proven cost effective in school districts and colleges nationwide.” 

A note of caution, however, the analysis found very few studies conducted specifically within the K-12 arena (which highlights the real need for empirical research!), therefore “caution is required in generalizing to the K-12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education).”  Nonetheless, still very interesting research with relevant take-aways for educational technology advocates!